Feature Report: Energy in France

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The Energy Transition in France

In 2015, France launched a fresh energy transition aimed at promoting green growth, further reducing greenhouse gas emissions and bolstering the country’s energy independence. Its main objectives are to shrink the use of nuclear energy, develop renewable energies and improve energy efficiency.

Photo of a night-time demonstration organized by Greenpeace in front of the Fessenheim nuclear power plant in Alsace.
The first step in France’s drive to reduce its nuclear capacity is the closure of the Fessenheim power plant in Alsace, scheduled for 2019. The photo shows a night-time demonstration by Greenpeace activists. ©SEBASTIEN BOZON / AFP

Reducing the Share of Nuclear Energy

One of the features of the new energy transition is the aim of reducing the share of nuclear powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... from 75% to 50% of the power generation mix, reversing a policy dating back more than 40 years. The potential danger of nuclear energyEnergy produced in nuclear power plants. The enormous amount of heat released during fission of uranium atom nuclei is transferred to water... has not been cited explicitly, as it was in Germany after the Fukushima disaster. The August 2015 law1 that provides a framework for the transition simply mentions the need to "diversify production sources in a balanced way", and to reduce "major industrial hazards"2.

32%: The target for the share of renewable energy in final energy consumption by 2030.

The law sets a deadline of 2025 for bringing the share of nuclear power down to 50% of the power generation mix. But the French government has now pushed this back beyond 2030, with the exact year to be determined later. Environmentalist Nicolas Hulot, who is the minister in charge of energy, has himself acknowledged that bringing the share of nuclear power down to 50% by 2025 would have compromised the aim of reducing greenhouse gas (ghg) Gas with physical properties that cause the Earth's atmosphere to warm up. There are a number of naturally occurring greenhouse gases... emissions by 40% by 2030 (see close-up "Greenhouse Gas Emissions in France"). 

According to the scenarios set out by RTE3, the operator that oversees the electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... transmission network and is in charge of overall electricity supply, the 2025 target would require the closure of 24 reactors (out of the 58 in the French network). Even developed to as great an extent as possible, wind and solar power would not be sufficient to offset the shortfall, and the number of gas-fired plants would have to be doubled. The electricity sector’s CO2emissions would also double as a result. This is the dilemma currently upsetting the transition of the energy system in France. 

The hesitation on the date illustrates the complexity of energy forecasts. RTE has developed no fewer than 50,000 projections depending on a range of factors, including change in “green” consumption and generation, as well as growth in gross domestic product (GDP), the price per metric ton of CO2See Carbon Dioxid, the development of electric cars, the rate of self-consumption of distributed solar power producers, and, naturally, the number of plants closed.Currently, only the Fessenheim plant in Alsace has been earmarked for closure, with production set to stop by the end of 2018 to coincide with the opening of the new Flamanville EPR reactor on the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy.

Still Insufficient Growth in Renewable Energies

France occupies a contrasted position in renewable energies in Europe. It ranks in the top three in terms of the share of renewable energies in individual countries’ primary energyAll energy sources that have not undergone any conversion process and remain in their natural state.. mix: Germany is in the lead (19% in 2015), ahead of Italy (more than 11% thanks to solar and geothermalDescribes the technology used to tap subsurface heat to produce energy... energy) and France (around 10%)4. France owes its position to the use of wood fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant..., backed up by strong forestry potential, and to hydropower, thanks to its numerous mountain dams. But it is well behind the leaders in the two renewable energies that have emerged more recently: it ranks fourth in the EU28 in wind power and fifth in solar power, well behind Germany, which is the leader in both areas. 

A review of recent trends shows that France is not on track to achieve its objectives. It is targeting 23% of renewables in final energy consumption by 2020, but current projections only show it reaching 19%.

According to the Syndicat des Énergies Renouvelables (SER)5, France’s renewable energyEnergy sources that are naturally replenished so quickly that they can be considered inexhaustible on a human time scale... industry body, special efforts will have to be made on wind power, both onshoreRefers to land-based oil exploration and production operations, as in "onshore seismic data acquisition" or "onshore drilling". and offshoreRefers to sea-based oil exploration and production operations, as in "offshore license" or "offshore drilling".. France does not yet have any offshore wind turbines, whereas six other European countries have already installed a combined total of more than 4,000! The United Kingdom and Germany are in the lead, with more than 1,700 and 1,100 wind turbines, respectively, ahead of Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden. Several tenders have been launched in France, but the new wind farms will not come on stream until 2020 due to red tape. However, France is at the same time active in developing technology and has a floating wind turbine prototype off the coast of Le Croisic. SER says that another focus area should be the thermal recovery of urban renewable waste, in particular in heatIn the field of statistical thermodynamics today, heat refers to the transfer of the thermal agitation of the particles making up matter... networks and collective heating systems, as well as in the tertiary and industrial sectors.

The reduction of the share of nuclear power in France’s power generation mix will take at least five years longer than expected. 

Priority Consumption Sectors

France has set a target of reducing final energy consumption by 20% by 2020, and 50% by 2050. Efforts will obviously have to be focused on the sectors with the highest consumption, namely housing (45%) and transportation (33%)6.

In housing, the main challenge will be to renovate some 7.4 million highly inefficient private homes, one-third of which are occupied by low-income households. A review of financial aid mechanisms is therefore a key pillar of the government’s plans, including the “Energy Solidarity Pact,” which funds important insulation work for the token cost of one euro, calling on contributions from energy suppliers.

In transportation, in the absence of possible projections on growth in electric mobility, the main source of leverage is the long-term effort on Europe’s CO2emissions standards, which are becoming increasingly stringent year after year, and which thereby promote the development of more fuel-efficient vehicles; this notably involves making lighter vehicles with smaller engines, as well as hybrid vehicles.

 

The Objectives of the French Energy Transition 

- Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% between 1990 and 2030 and by 75% between 1990 and 2050.

- Reduce final energy consumption by 50% by 2050 compared with 2012, with an intermediate target reduction of 20% by 2030.

- Reduce primary consumption of fossil fuels by 30% by 2030 compared with 2012.

- Increase the share of renewable energies to 23% of gross final energy consumption by 2020 and 32% by 2030. These objectives are more ambitious than those of Germany (18% in 2020; 30% in 2030). The high use of electricity in household heating makes conversion to renewables easier in France than in Germany, where heating is still largely dependent on hydrocarbons. Similarly, France’s objectives in terms of electric mobility are more ambitious than Germany’s.

- Reduce the share of nuclear power in electricity production to 50% (timeframe not yet specified).

- Reduce the volume of waste going to landfill by 50% by 2050.

- Achieve a price of €56 per metric ton of carbon by 2020 and €100 by 2023.

- Increase the amount of renewable heat and cold delivered by heating and cooling networks by 500% by 2030.

 

 

Sources:

(1) The law (in French only) 

(2) The issue of the very long-term management of nuclear waste is, however, clearly identified in another law dated 2006, known as the Bataille Act. 

(3) RTE projections (in French only)

(4) Renewable Energy Statistics, eurostat, January 2018 

(5) The Stakes for France, Renewable Energy Union (in French only) 

(6) The “national low-carbon strategy” (in French only)