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Alain Boublil Blog


Energy transition : the myth and the realities

Energy is at the center of the economic activities of a country. An excessive cost harms production and a shortage causes the stoppage of equipments along with the unemployment of the affected employees. It has an essential role in inhabitant daily life through its cost which weights on purchasing power and through its availability which protects against cold weather and allows public services which have a vital character to function. It is why energy independence and supply safety constitute in most of the countries an objective and have lead France, which has no fossil fuels resources, to launch a massive nuclear program in the Seventies and to achieve it in the Eighties and the Nineties. Today, these priorities have changed and have left the main place to the fight against noxious particles for the health of surrounding populations and against greenhouse gas which constitute an essential cause of the climate warming affecting the whole planet. France has become aware of these issues through the “Grenelle de l’Environnement”, with several bills about energy transition and its commitment in favor of the Paris Agreement but the action carried until now come up against technical and political realities.

The most important measure has been the adoption of a plan reducing nuclear production. It was supposed to fall under 50% of the whole power production in 2025, horizon which has been delayed until 2030. That maturity is quite as unrealistic as the previous one. It is not the least paradox since this technology does not emit greenhouse gas and allows the country to have a low emission level by inhabitant and to allow them to benefit from a power price much lower than in neighboring countries. It is also a worldwide recognized industrial know-how which has permitted France to receive the Iter project concerning the conception of the next generation of nuclear reactors. That has generated the creation of several thousands of highly qualified jobs.

Power supply safety is a reality it is impossible to get away from it and can be assessed in January, a month with 31 days, including only one day-off and both low sun and temperature. Ten years after the first announcements regarding energy transition, we don’t see any significant change in the national power mix and the consumption level at this crucial time of the year. In January 2009, production reached 58TWh, nuclear contributing for 43TWh, thermal power plants for 8.4TWh, hydraulics for 6TWh and solar and wind farms for 0.6TWh. In January 2019, the respective productions were 40.2TWH, 7.4TWh, 5TWh and 3.2TWh. Factors influencing the power mix are the availability rate of nuclear plants, the water level in hydraulic dams and of course, temperature. Thermal power plants, along with exports, are used to adjust demand and supply. In 2018, the electricity trade balance has brought to France a near three billion euro surplus. At last, after ten years of efforts and important public subventions, the role of wind and solar energies remained marginal, increasing only by 2.6TWh. It is unrealistic to think that they could offset the considered nuclear production reduction at that crucial moment of the year.  

The other lesson is that ten years after having set the objective of the reduction of energy consumption as a priority, and if we set aside temperature and related to economic short term fluctuations hazards, this one has not much fallen. Regarding power, even if investments in renewable are going on at a high rhythm, demand will be able to be satisfied, if nuclear power production is limited to 50%, only through an increase of thermal power, to the detriment of CO2 emissions. The message about the positive impact of energy saving in homes on employment and purchasing power has not delivered the expected results. The State has not been able to put in place an efficient incentives system because it has been confronted with the diversity of situations. According you are an owner or a tenant, you live in a building or in an individual house, you are or are not under a joint-ownership regime, the responsibility of the proposed works and their financing is quite different. A tenant is not going to invest when the owner is going to benefit of it as the owner is not going to decide works whose benefit will immediately go the tenant. Regarding old owners, they have no interest in investing in long term projects. At the end, the limitation of the incentives offered to people with high revenues has turned down these who are high energy consumers and who could have been interested in making these isolation works.

The contradiction between the choices in favor of environment and these in favor of social redistribution has been quite as important in transportation policies. Incentives to change your car to acquire one which is less polluting or which uses less fuel have been restricted in function of revenues. To the opposite, the brutality of the decisions regarding fuels taxation has caused social movements so strong that the State has been forced to give in when the suppression of the past incentives contributed to the reduction of urban pollution. Not much time before, the State had decided to liberalize bus transportation rules in competition with trains which emit, especially for long distances, much less greenhouse gas and harmful particles. That choice has weighted on the margins of profitable lines, to the detriment of SNCF which is tempted to offset that effect through the closing of the lines which have a low profitability or which carry deficits. That will generate new social tensions and a rebound of cars utilization with the nuisances they generates. At the end, the published or implicit measures in favor of motorbikes, as free parking or tolerance their drivers benefit regarding the violations of highways code have generated a high increase of travels. That has definitely contributed to the reduction of emissions but that has been to the detriment of safety. Motorbikes proportionally generate twenty times more deaths and heavy casualties than cars.

Energy transition cannot rid itself of the realty principle and announcements of long term measures do not constitute a substitute to a consistent policy. Based on evolutions measured for the last ten years, the shown reductions of nuclear power production are unrealistic, except if the thermal power plants production is restarted. The new mobility, as it is named, are more a competition against public transportation than a solution to the problem of travels in towns. It is not any more possible to ignore that consumers prefer SUV to electric vehicles. The total absence of measure regarding goods transportation by trucks is incomprehensible. As a total, it is the credibility of that policy which is put into question, without having left all the uncertainties regarding employment caused by the proposed mutations.

The action in favor of environment cannot be summed up in a message without any link with technological realities, with consumer behaviors and with their financial constraints. If it is so, the State will lose on all issues. Objectives in favor of environment will not be reached and people discontent will increase. The crisis France is going through, gives us a forestate of that.


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