France’s energy landscape has been shifting constantly for decades. Dominated initially by coal and then by oil, it underwent a profound transformation in the 1970s with the large-scale development of nuclear energy, and again in the 1990s with the increasing use of natural gas. Today, it is experiencing a fresh transition with the development of renewable energies and the implementation of policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The Turning Point in 1973
Long dominated by coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... , France’s energy mixThe range of energy sources of a region. gradually began shifting to oil from the 1920s onwards. In the early 1970s, oil accounted for nearly two-thirds of the country’s primary energyAll energy sources that have not undergone any conversion process and remain in their natural state.. consumption. The first oil crisis of 1973, marked by the quadrupling of the price per barrelUnit of volume measurement for crude oil that is equivalent to approximately 159 liters (0.159 cubic meters)... and uncertainties about Middle Eastern supplies, prompted the French government to launch a civilian nuclear program to reduce France’s energy dependence.
45%: The share of the residential and tertiary sector in final energy consumption in 2015 in France.
While completely shutting down coal production (in Nord-Pas-de-Calais in 1990 then in Lorraine in 2004), the French government began rolling out a network 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... plants, which today comprises 58 reactors and accounts for three-quarters of the country’s electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... generation. Electricity generation itself increased by nearly 400% between 1970 and 2015, to keep up with substantial growth in use in the residential, tertiary and industrial sectors.
Oil consumption fell by 35% between 1973 and 2015, while use of natural gas increased threefold. In 1957, France had started producing natural gas in the Lacq basin, which covered most domestic needs. But the gradual decline in production at Lacq forced the country to start importing gas in 1983, diversifying it sources by calling on suppliers including Norway, Algeria and Russia.
Since the beginning of the century, France has embarked on a fresh energy transition, to diversify its production sources and develop renewable energies (see close-up "The Energy Transition in France").
The Energy Mix Today
According to consolidated data1, primary energy consumption in Metropolitan France broke down as follows in 2015: 42% nuclear (before heatIn the field of statistical thermodynamics today, heat refers to the transfer of the thermal agitation of the particles making up matter... losses), 30% oil, 14% natural gas, 3% imported coal and 9.4% renewable energies. The leading source of renewable energyEnergy sources that are naturally replenished so quickly that they can be considered inexhaustible on a human time scale... is wood fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... (3.8%), which is used in industry and in district and domestic heating. It is followed by hydro (1.8%), biofuelA fuel produced from plant or animal matter. There are currently two types of biofuel... (1.2%) and wind (0.7%). Solar accounts for 0.3%. See the animated Planète énergies infographic.
In terms of electricity generation, nuclear energyEnergy produced in nuclear power plants. The enormous amount of heat released during fission of uranium atom nuclei is transferred to water... remains highly dominant, although its share declined between 2014 and 2017 (from roughly 77% to 72%). Hydropower is highly dependent on weather conditions, and accounts for between 10% and 14% from one year to the next. Wind and solar power are growing and together represent roughly 6%. See the 2017 figures below.
Graphic 1: Electricity Generation by Source 2017 - Source RTE Results 2017
The fall in oil and natural gas prices since 2014 has pushed France’s energy bill down sharply, from an all-time high of more than €70 billion in 2012 to less than €40 billion in 2015.
Oil consumption fell by 35% in France between 1973 and 2015, while gas consumption tripled.
Major Consumption Sectors
Primary energy consumption rose steadily until 2005, before easing slightly over the last ten years in the wake of changes in the country’s economic activity and improvements in energy efficiencyIn economic terms, energy efficiency refers to the efforts made to reduce the energy consumption of a system... . Consumption is split chiefly between three major sectors (excluding agriculture and forestry):
- Residential and tertiary (services and offices): In 2015, this sector accounted for 45% of final consumption, broadly stable since the early 2000s. Previously, this figure had been on the rise, gaining 1.1% per year on average in the 1990s. The consumption of renewable energies in this sector has increased by 4% per year on average since 2006.
- Transportation: Accounting for 33% in 2015, the share of transportation has increased significantly since 1973, when it was just 20%. But here again, thanks largely to improvements in engines and fuels and changes to regulations, the century’s first decade saw significant progress (with the share of transportation falling by an average of 0.2% per year between 2003 and 2013) compared with the previous three decades, where it rose 2.8% per year on average. Petroleum-based fuels remain largely preponderant, although biofuels represented 6% of the mix in 2015.
- Industry: This is the sector where the drop in consumption has been the most remarkable, falling from 36% of final consumption in 1973 to 19% in 2015. The main causes are changes in the structure of industry, economic activity and improvements in energy efficiency. Mirroring broader developments, the industrial sector saw a shift from the predominant use of oil and coal to the growing use of gas and electricity over the period.
(1) Key energy figures (in French only)