People-Centered Research for Social and Environmental Sustainability

Augustin’s research blog #2: Objectives and obstacles for renewable energy development in France

Objectives and obstacles for renewable energy development in France

              In order to develop renewable energy and reduce CO2 emissions, the EU set guidelines for member states in the Renewable Energy Directive 2009/28/EC. In 2020, the objective was to reach 20% of the total final energy consumption (TFEC) from renewable energy sources in all member nations. This objective was attained because some countries largely crossed the objective despite the fact some others were not able to reach it. France is among the countries that didn’t succeed in reaching this objective before 2020, even though its personal objective was initially to reach 23%. The current situation is around 17%.

              France put into place the SNBC (Low-Carbon National Strategy) plan to organise its energy transition. Ranging from short term deadlines to the long term deadline of carbon neutrality in 2050, it focused on reducing CO2 emissions by:

  • Reducing the total energy consumption via energy efficiency measures to reach 900 TWh.
  • Using more biomass for heating and industries to reach 450 TWh in 2050.
  • Increasing the share of electricity in final energy consumption to 50%.

              Apart from biomass which holds a crucial place in energy transition for heating and industries, other renewable energy sources are only an option in energy transition. The main reason is that other renewables would be used to produce electricity but the carbon intensity of electricity is already very low thanks to nuclear. As such, renewable energy projects are not always considered as priority. Moreover, because renewable energy sources like solar and wind are intermittent, reducing the amount of nuclear energy to promote renewable energy was often criticized: using fossil fuels combined with renewable energy to stabilize the grid instead of nuclear would increase CO2 emissions. Finally, nuclear energy offered competitive electricity prices compared to wind or solar. However, even if nuclear is practical and low carbon, some issues pushed the government to consider renewable energy anyway:

  • The question of nuclear wastes and how to dispose of them became a controversy.
  • The absence of uranium resources in the country made France depend on nuclear imports from Kazakhstan and Niger to cover its electricity needs.
  • The age of nuclear reactors who slowly approach their endlife (2040-2050 maximum).

The last issue raised the following questions: Would the replacement and update of current nuclear power plants be more beneficial than investing in renewables? What would be the cost of energy transition compared to the replacement of all the power plants?

Considering the falling costs of renewable energies and the wind and solar potential in France, the government decided to lower the nuclear share in electricity to 50% by 2025 and invest in renewable energy. This objective is now set to 2035 because the electricity grid would not be ready to withstand this much amount of renewable energy by 2025 without the use of more fossil fuels. To do so, the government has planned to close 14 of the nuclear power plants, starting with the Fessenheim power plant, and to build solar farms on the site (94.2 MWp for Fessenheim). Another 50 MWp of solar energy is planned on a former refinery in Valenciennes. Despite trying to align with EU objectives, the government’s decision to replace nuclear with renewables was also harshly criticized. Because France imports most of its solar panels and wind turbines from China, scientists highlighted that building in China and transporting to France emitted a lot of CO2. Associations devoted to ensure proper energy transition, like Carbon4 led by Jean Marc Jancovici, highlighted the fact the grid was not ready yet to withstand renewables without the help of fossil fuels. The case of Denmark using a lot of wind energy but relying a lot on coal power plants in Norway to ensure grid stability was often quoted. And just like people were reluctant to have nuclear wastes buried close to their town, they were also reluctant to have wind turbines installed nearby. Many wind projects were delayed in their development because of dissatisfaction from local inhabitants.

At the end of the year 2020, France has seriously started its transition but seems to struggle to keep up with the objectives given by the EU and the PPE. Because of the COVID crisis, new projects were delayed in their development. Because China had to slow down the production of solar panels during this crisis, France considered increasing the local production of panels but it takes time to implement the new policies. Nevertheless, a lot of progress is expected to come in the next years:

  • The establishment of a simplified single permit combining all authorisations could speed up the development process of projects. The issue of distance constraints in regards of military facilities and aerial transport should be considered as it blocks the development of many large-scale wind projects.
  • The grid connection process is currently reviewed by RTE to be simplified. Interconnections with EU countries (700 MW Celtic project with Ireland for 2026) and grid enhancements works will make the grid more flexible. It will allow more projects to connect to the grid, especially offshore wind projects. Improvements in weather prediction via R&D could also help to maintain stability in the grid.
  • Yearly offshore wind auctions will add 250 MW every year from this year.
  • Repowering onshore wind farms reaching their endlife could add 1 GW per year.
  • PPAs are expected to be more important in the coming years to develop large scale projects, 4 contracts were signed in 2020.
Figure. Potential interconnections in Europe for 2030 Image source: IRENA

Even if sources like hydropower are almost already used to their maximum potential, there is plenty of potential left to develop solar, onshore and offshore wind, biomass and geothermal energy in France. This renewable energy mix will help by offering more options when maintaining the electricity flow in the grid. However, to reach the EU objective of 27% of renewables in TFEC and the objective of 40% renewables in electricity by 2030, further interconnections, grid enhancements and storage capacity will be needed.