Future of Nuclear, wind and solar power in France

The report was awaited by all observers of French energy policy. Commissioned by the government from RTE, the operator of the EDF subsidiary electricity transmission network, “Energy Futures 2050” is a considerable sum, welcomed by all experts. Over some 600 pages, the report assesses six scenarios with a variable component of renewable energy and nuclear power, which in thirty years could constitute the country’s “energy mix”.

Everything is there, from the carbon footprint to the need for financing, including the electricity network linked to each energy. Almost everyone has something for it. The pro-nuclear welcome the place given by RTE to the atom (except in the 100% renewable scenario), the pro-“green” energies applaud the inventiveness of the report, which admits as possible an essentially electrified France by wind, water and sun. Nicolas Goldberg, expert consultant in energy for the firm Colombus consulting, explains that it is not so simple, in either case.

There are two main lessons in this report, which I see as a benchmark. First, according to RTE and a body of experts, an energy system based primarily on nuclear lowers overall costs. This is quite counterintuitive, since nuclear has been described by many, and especially antinuclear, as expensive energy. This is true if we only look at the technologies alone. RTE has decided to look at all the costs, and not just each technology in isolation. The entire system, whether it places great emphasis on renewable energies or nuclear power, is assessed: the necessary electricity grid, storage, flexibility, financing, etc. RTE’s verdict is that systems incorporating a nuclear share have a lower overall cost.

This is true, and this is the second surprise: the report underlines the industrial limits of the nuclear industry. This statement undermines those who claim that we can do without wind turbines. No, that is not possible, says RTE, because the nuclear industry can only build a maximum of fourteen EPRs by 2050, which would be insufficient to meet the increased demand for electricity. There will therefore be a great need for wind and solar power to complete. There is also an “unthought” in the French debate on nuclear power: historic nuclear reactors (old, Editor’s note) will one day close. It is obviously interesting to extend them, but we cannot do it indefinitely. They will have to be replaced one day, and the new EPRs will be insufficient.

Indeed. To achieve a controlled nuclear cost, EDF must have access to new sources of financing, particularly public ones. However, for the time being, we do not know the funding model necessary to launch the six, eight or even fourteen EPRs foreseen by the different scenarios. RTE does point out in its report that nuclear power could see its costs increase without access to public funding. Scenarios that include nuclear could then become more expensive than “100% renewable”. This shows that cost assessment is not the only variable to look at: politics will have to intervene. There are funding avenues, they will be explored in a forthcoming report entitled NNF (new French nuclear).

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