French energy policy under scrutiny

Large-scale deployment of wind and solar capacity, combined with progressive closures of nuclear plants, is the best way to reduce the cost of electricity, according to a new report by French Environment and Energy Management Agency Ademe.

Gilets jaunes… France has seen a wave of protests against Macron’s policies in recent weeks (pic: Thomas Bresson)

The report compares seven scenarios for the evolution of France’s electricity mix 2020-2060 from a purely economic standpoint.

It concludes that the optimum is for renewables to supply around 85% of demand in 2050 — up from roughly 20% today — and at least 95% in 2060.

The report will feed into the debate now taking place on the government’s recently announced draft energy plan, or PPE, which lays out the strategy for meeting France’s energy targets — including sourcing 40% of electricity from renewables in 2030.

Importantly, Ademe takes a long-term perspective, looking forward to 2060.

In the context of the PPE, "it is more important than ever to provide the state and all stakeholders with technical elements that will at least partially inform the choices to be made," said Arnaud Leroy, president of Ademe’s administrative council.

The progressive increase in the share of renewables to 95% in 2060 — based on adding around 2GW of wind a year — would allow the total cost of electricity, excluding taxes, to fall to roughly €90/MWh, from just under €100/MWh today.

At the same time, building more next-generation nuclear power plants,would not be justified economically, Ademe found.

Role of nuclear

However, existing nuclear plants could play a role in enabling the energy transition, Ademe noted. It found that maintaining enough nuclear generation to meet the target of 50% of electricity between 2030 and 2035, as proposed in the draft energy plan, "allows an efficient transition from an economic and climate point of view".

The optimum strategy would be to decommission 30% of reactors at 40 years of age, and 30% at 50 years. Most nuclear plants in France date from the 1980s.

Keeping nuclear reactors online beyond 50 years coupled with increased renewables would lead to overcapacity and low market prices. It would "unbalance the profitability of all the means of production," Ademe said.

On the other hand, in most of the trajectories studied, wind power would no longer need public support from around 2035.

Under the PPE, onshore wind capacity will reach around 35GW in 2028, compared with 15GW today, and offshore wind will reach around 5GW by 2028.

While Ademe’s analysis did not take into account social, industrial and environmental aspects, most of the economically optimised scenarios will have a "very positive" impact on jobs and the local economy, Leroy noted.

Such issues will play an important role in the political choices to be made now regarding the PPE, especially given the current unrest over the cost of living and general economic policies.

The final version is expected in the spring following three months of public debate over the proposals.

Mixed reception for energy roadmap

While the PPE’s onshore target was deemed "satisfactory" by the industry following president Emmanuel Macron’s announcement, the plans for offshore wind fell far short of expectations.

"The targets could have been more ambitious, but the government confirms that onshore wind energy, through its competitiveness, its reliability, its capacity to create jobs and its energy and environmental coherence, is a pillar of the energy transition in France," said Olivier Perot, president of French wind energy association FEE.

As for offshore, Macron said the government would launch four tenders by 2022, including the 500MW already tendered at Dunkirk.

He did not specify whether the other three tenders would be for fixed-foundation or floating wind, nor how the targets would be split.

The industry had called for a regular programme of tenders amounting to roughly double the government goals.

"The milestones set for offshore wind will not ensure a sustainable energy transition, nor the growth of the industrial sector and its associated jobs," FEE said.

Eolfi, one of the six floating wind specialists that had called for a clear capacity pipeline of at least 3GW by 2023 said it "deplored" the PPE targets.

"France will not succeed in its energy transition and the structuring of an industrial sector of the future with timid half measures," the company said.

At the same time, Macron confirmed that France’s last four coal-fired power plants would close by 2022 and announced that the target of 50% nuclear energy in the electricity mix would be pushed back to 2035, not 2025 as currently enshrined in law.

To achieve this, 14 of France’s 58 reactors would be decommissioned by 2035, Macron said. However, he did not rule out building new reactors in future.

Elsewhere, legal challenges to onshore wind projects in France should move faster through the courts thanks to two measures enacted on 1 December, giving hope to 2GW of pipeline capacity.

Cases will now be filed straight to the administrative appeal court, skipping the lower-level administrative tribunal, as has already been introduced for offshore projects.

Once the defence has submitted its reply to the challenge, if the applicant wants to submit new arguments, they must do so within two months.