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The French Disconnection

By Dave Elliott

A socialist government was elected in France in 2012 on a promise to cut nuclear reliance from around 74% as now to 50% by 2025, but it has taken its time coming up with details. Some saw the lengthy public debate on energy that the new government initiated in 2013 as a stalling device, others welcomed it as a rare example (in technocratic France) of a ‘bottom up’ approach. But a decision has at long last emerged.

Most of France’s reactors are old (the majority were built in a 15 years period in the 1970s/80s) and so a phase out will occur gradually anyway, if they are not replaced, although some might have life extensions- a cheaper option than new build, which given France’s weak economy, and the scale of opposition to nuclear, seems unlikely. There is certainly strategic sense in moving away from such heavy reliance on one source, but if carbon emissions are to be reduced by 75% by 2050 (an initial government aim) diversification would have to involve massive and rapid acceleration of renewables and of energy saving.

So the new plans that have recently emerged are welcome. They call for renewables to be expanded to supply 40% of electricity by 2030 and 32% of total energy. In addition, energy saving will be aided by 30% tax relief for consumers investing in energy efficiency measures. With support also being offered  for electric vehicles,  it’s hoped that emissions can be reduced  by 40% by 2030, and fossil fuel use can  be cut by 30% by 2030, leading on to  an overall energy use cut of 50% by 2050. The nuclear share will be capped at its present level and then cut, with a limit of 50% of total electricity set for 2025, as initially promised. That’s a quite challenging package.

The context was helpfully reviewed in a report earlier this year from the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, ‘The French Disconnection: Reducing the nuclear share in France’s energy mix’, by David Buchan. He quotes the view from OPECST, the French Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Choices, that a loss of 20-25GW of nuclear capacity, as implied by the reduction to 50% of the mix by 2025, was too much too fast, and that 2050 was a more realistic goal, followed by a reduction to 30-40% by 2100.  However this leisurely approach would require new nuclear build- 2GW for each 3GW retired, which Buchan does not see as likely, especially given the recent price escallations of Areva/ EDF’s new nuclear EPR projects at Flamanville and in Finland. It would require very large state subsidies- as for the EDFs proposed EPR at Hinkley in the UK. And the EU may not approve that. Even keeping the existing fleet going to 2025 (with the necessary post-Fukushima safety upgrades) would cost €55bn. Shutting plants is also expensive (€20bn has been set aside for decommissioning the current fleet, but this may not be enough) and so, since also they would continue earning with low marginal cost, there is an incentive to postpone closure as long as possible- the original plan didn’t have closures starting until 2035! By which time there might even be somewhere to store the wastes!

So it would be tempting President Hollande to fudge his so far only clear commitment, to close the first of the oldest plants, Fressenheim, by 2016. In the event, in the new draft policy announced in June, he not only set a 50% by 2025 limit for nuclear, but also capped nuclear capacity at the current level (63.2GW), this twin policy in effect leaving the future of Fessenheim and other old plants, including any life extensions, in EDF’s hands. For example, they will have to close some capacity to make room for the new much delayed Flamanville EPR when that eventually comes on line, maybe in 2016 or 2017. Fressenheim was actually shut down earlier this year for a while, after two technical faults were discovered. So it might be a candidate for early closure. Depending on the level of overall demand, others will have to follow as the 2025 deadline for getting down to 50% approaches. However, some critics were unhappy with leaving it all up to EDF- e.g. will they have an incentive to cut energy demand?  Are they best placed to decide which nuclear plants to shut and when?

While the debate on nuclear continues, the real debate should surely be about how quickly renewables can be ramped up: they would transform the situation. Hollande had already talked of imposing a tax on nuclear and coal to help pay for this. But much more effort will be needed. At present renewables only supply around 16% of French electricity, but it is aiming to get to 27% by 2020, and now 40% by 2030. It has around 7GW of on land wind capacity in place and is aiming for 6GW of offshore wind by 2020, and it has been suggested that ultimately around 200TWh could possibly be available from floating offshore devices. However PV solar is only expanding relatively slowly and marine renewables have barely got started.  Plenty to get stuck into, while starting the nuclear phase out. That does seem politically acceptable: polls have suggested that up to 70% of French people oppose nuclear, while support for wind is high:

However France will still be continuing with nuclear for the foreseeable future and that means facing increasing operational conflicts between the still large nuclear element in the mix and the rapidly expanding renewable element. Buchan is quite sanguine about this, claiming that EPRs can load follow, so they could balance variable renewables. He bases this view on a 2012 NEA report:  However, while some load following is possible and is already carried out , there are limits to how safely, rapidly and often plants  can do this and on what scale- and it undermines the economics of nuclear even more.  As renewables expand it could become a key issue. For this and many other reasons, the greens argue that a full phase out should be the longer-term aim. A scenario produced in 2006 suggested that nuclear could be phased out entirely by around 2040, although it would mean relying more on gas: Since then renewables have developed significantly, and if the political will was there, a fully green energy mix by around 2050, although challenging, does not seem an unrealistic aim.   That certainly was one of the options discussed in the lengthy public energy debate in France.

In the event, a compromise has been sought. Hollande has certainly pushed the envelop on renewables, but retained at least some of the nuclear ‘comfort blanket’. French Energy Minister Ségolène Royal said ‘its part must fall’, but ‘we will not exit nuclear energy – that is not the decision we are making. It is thanks to nuclear energy that we can make this energy transition in an unperturbed way.’ We will have to wait and see if that, and what Royal said was an attempt ‘to find a fair balance between the aims set by the state and the interests of EDF’, works out in practice.

Buchan’s Report:

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