Michel DerdevetSecretary General and Member of the Board of Enedis
"We need to broaden the discussion to the challenges of distribution, which covers all local low and medium voltage networks."
Power Grids as Vectors of Solidarity
Political debates on energy in France as well as in Europe are often restricted to unproductive cultural clashes around generation methods, pitting supporters of renewable energies and 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... against each other. People tend to forget about the power grids that connect regions and people beyond their borders, tie in renewable energies and constitute a platform on which, tomorrow, the energy transition and the digital revolution will converge. Michel Derdevet, a renowned expert in European power grids, argues the case in this article.
The classic image of a power grid is that of huge, extra-high voltage (EHV) power transmission infrastructure, with giant pylons straddling fields and mountains. We need to broaden the discussion to the challenges of distribution, which covers all local low and medium voltage networks. Up until recently, distribution networks served people vertically, feeding out of the EHV network. Now, they have also become extensive collection networks, hosting the majority of wind and solar power produced by hundreds of thousands of scattered facilities.
At the same time, these distribution networks make it possible to more effectively take account of demand to assist consumers in their efforts to improve efficiency and reduce energy use, while providing them with an increasing quantity of easy-to-understand smart data. With the arrival of smart meters, such as Linky in France, power grids will have to manage a considerable amount of data. This data must first be put back into the hands of consumers and all local and regional decision-makers, who are eager to play a part in the energy transition.
In this way, power grids are more than simply technical or economic feats, they form part of a vision of society that dates back well into the past. In the early 19th century, the Saint‑Simonian movement encouraged industrialists, engineers, scientists and individuals to come together and build a more fraternal, economically efficient society than that found under the worn concept of autarky, where each region lives off its own resources.
Power grids therefore become vectors of solidarity, helping people to avoid withdrawing into themselves and share resources beyond their own community, with all the diversity and synergies that has to offer. This quest inspired the idea for the European Energy Union.
Equality Among All Consumers
Directly after WWII, France organized power distribution into a public service, a novel and unique approach in Europe which has since far beyond proved its worth.
The low and medium voltage networks belong to local or regional authorities which, generally speaking, delegate network operation to the national utility – EDF until 2007, then ERDF, which has since been renamed Enedis – to ensure regional cohesion and equal treatment for all consumers.
This organization has helped to incorporate the concept of solidarity into power generation and optimize costs, with distribution tariffs currently among the lowest in Europe (23% lower than in Germany). To date, it has ensured equal and consistent treatment across the country, in both urban and rural areas, thereby avoiding an electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... "divide" between the haves and have-nots.
At a time of increasing regional polarization, as confirmed by geographers, and the emergence of major urban hubs, ties with peripheral communities are clearly cemented by networks, whose financial and operational set-up must continue to be based on solidarity.
In Europe, these networks also have the potential to play a vital role in industry, particularly in terms of pooling investment and increasing cooperation in research. To stay competitive, especially with China and the U.S., we urgently need to prioritize and unify R&D across Europe to focus on a few major areas, such as energy storage, clean mobility, smart grids and direct current. A genuine industry policy on energy infrastructure is possible, so let's champion the idea with determination and ambition!
Michel Derdevet is Secretary General and Member of the Board of Enedis, and senior lecturer at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (IEP) and at the College of Europe in Bruges. From 1997 to 1998, he served as Chief of Staff for Christian Pierret, Minister for Industry, then member of the executive committee for French transmission system operator RTE between 2000 and 2012. He is the author of a number of works and has recently published Énergie, pour des réseaux électriques solidaires (with Alain Beltran and Fabien Roques, May 2017, Editions Descartes & Cie). He also drafted the report "Energy, a Networked Europe" at the request of the French president in February 2015.