For the nuclear industry and the pro-nuclear lobby, France is held out as the text book model of how an energy system should work: More than 70 per cent of electricity needs supplied by nuclear, relatively cheap electricity for customers, investment in the next generation technology.
But France has a problem. The massive investment in nuclear in the 1970s and 1980s was financed by the government, and energy generators unburdened by the cost of capital were able to deliver that cheap energy. And as these reactors trundle towards the end of their life, replacing them becomes a dilemma: The government is not in a position to repeat that investment, and it is not clear how private investors could afford the cost of capital, as the UK is discovering in its nuclear plans.
Is there an alternative? One French think tank, called negaWatt, suggests there is: allow nuclear to be phased out altogether (closing plants as they reach the end of their life), and replace it with energy efficiency, renewables and storage.
Today’s Graph of the Day maps out those scenarios. It’s in French, so it probably needs a quick translation. On the left is the trend line, or business as usual. It represents a market underpinned by nuclear, coal (charbon), gas, oil (petrole), and some renewables (renouvables).
On the right is the negaWatt scenario, phasing out the 63GW of nuclear by 2034, and other fossil fuels by 2050. The difference is made up by sobriete (essentially energy conservation by changing the way we use energy), energy efficiency (efficacite) through technologies in demand and supply (offre) such as efficient lighting, demand management and smart grids, as well as energy storage, and renewables.
The negaWatt scenario is the product of more than 10 years work by several dozen French energy experts. It says that given the climate and energy crises ahead, the biggest risk is for politicians to stick their heads in the sand, and just continue as before.
“What is important to understand is that a new energy system is possible, one that breaks the established links with the dominant technologies of today – oil, gas, coal and nuclear.” The first thing to do is to reduce the “incredible waste” in the energy system, and then embrace renewable energy sources which are “abundant, inexhaustible and create little pollution.”
In the scenario, solar accounts for 81GW by 2050, wind (mix of offshore and onshore) accounts for 77GW, and hydro grows only slights to 28GW. Biomass, marine energy, and geothermal play minor roles. Storage is significant — the negaWatt team propose a new technology known as “methination”, which put simply means using these other energy sources to create synthetic methane which can be stored in the existing gas network.
One member, Benoit Lebot, says negawatt’s ideas are gaining currency in France, particularly with a Socialist government favourable to reducing the country’s dependence on nuclear. There is, though, fierce resistance from the influential nuclear lobby. “Nuclear accounts for just 16 per cent of France’s final energy demand (including transport), but 90 per cent of the energy debate. I think we are making ourselves heard.”
But just what is ”Sobriété”. Lebot says they never found a real translation in English, but suggests “behavior” change” is the closest. “It refers to all the non-technical adjustment that we need to make in order to reduce our energy needs. You may have the most energy efficient car, but if you drive it twice as often more, you won’t get much energy savings. I know some very energy efficient house that happens to be so big that the carbon footprint of the people living in is not a decrease.”
The negaWatt documents are incredibly detailed, but might not make much sense unless you can read French. One final graph gives the anticipated reduction in emissions from the negawatt scenario: They halve by 2030 and virtually disappear by 2050.