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AB 2000 studies

Alain Boublil Blog


The fairy Electricity

The reopening of the City of Paris museum of Modern Art, after its successful restoration, allows to rediscovering the painter Raoul Dufy masterwork. A hundred of panels gathered like a puzzle and hanged up in a vast oval room is recounting Science history since Antiquity. It presents the successive discovers which will allow the introduction of electricity in the modern society. The work is used for the Universal Exhibition Pavilion which is to be held in Paris. We are in 1937. After the coming into power of the popular Front, the political situation in France is under tension. At our borders, the civil war is arising in Spain and the Nazism is at its height in Germany. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Roosevelt has been reelected but he doesn’t abandon the isolationist policy of his predecessor. Yet, in France, some still want to believe in the future and in the contribution human genius can bring to it. Archimède, Thalès, Edison, Faraday, Pierre and Marie Curie portraits among many others are there to testify to that. This lesson of optimism is stunningly current and our political leaders, so convinced by the importance of environment, would be well inspired to go there for a meditation.

There is no modern society without power. Two billion humans in Africa and in Asia are expecting to be connected to a network. In developed countries, innovations have lead or will generate a growing demand. Mobile phones will need more frequent charging. Data centers, which are indispensable to information storage and development of crypto-currencies need to be cooled and will be big consumers. Connected houses will be equipped with devices able to put in operation at any time home appliances or security systems which will be permanently in stand-by mode. At the end, the replacement, which will be slower than it is today expected, of transportation modes by electric vehicles will also be a factor of increased demand and will need a costly adaptation of the power networks to feed recharging terminals.

For ten years the power consumption increased, as an average, by 2.5% per year but the trend is accelerating for three years with a growth above 3%. In the emerging countries like China and India, the rhythm is by large superior and will remain but it is not going to be compensated by developed countries efforts due to the needs generated by innovations and by policies intending to substitute to fossil fuels energies less emitting greenhouse with power at the first place. In some cases, these efforts could even be counter-productive if power generation is mainly delivered through fossil fuels like in China, in Germany, in Poland or in Australia.

The main stake, in the fight against greenhouse gas emissions which are at the origin of climate warming, is in the evolution of the power mix since this source of energy is impossible to get away from it. But supplying security must be guaranteed. The most frequently mentioned answer is the recourse to renewable. The number of major sites able to host hydraulic dams being limited many hopes have been put in wind and solar sources. But the debate is distorted by the diffusion of fake information which feed harmful illusions for the resolution of the raised problems and may lead to results conflicting with objectives.

We are first enthusiastic behind growth figures of production capacities, leaving us to believe that these sources can provide an answer to the climate challenge. But if the capacities growth is impressive, it is because the starting level is very low and it doesn’t constitute an appropriate indicator. Atop of that, comparison between different power production modes from available capacities is not significant. To produce the same amount of power during a year, it is needed wind capacities twice to three times bigger and solar ones six to eight times bigger than with nuclear or thermal ones, according to the climate of the regions when the plants are operating.

The second mistake is about production costs comparison. Regarding wind and even more solar, as for any industrial production, unit costs are falling along with produced volumes. But these capacities are intermittent and States must guarantee consumers supply security and so, keep available their nuclear or thermal equipments, which has a cost which must be taken into account in the comparisons. Until the day when it is possible to store the produced power in enough proportions to guaranty that security, renewable will not be a different thing than additional sources and non intermittent capacities will have to be kept in operation when renewable are not available.

France periodically is achieving a prospective exercise, the energy planning for several years. In its last version, it is forecast that energy consumption will have fallen in 2028 by 16.5% compared to 2012, i.e. by 14% compared to today. It is completely unrealistic. It is also forecast to reduce nuclear production share and to increase investments in wind and solar energies. But it is quite also unrealistic. We already know that the cumulated consequences of the stoppage of Fessenheim power plant, which will be only partly compensated by the putting into operation of the Flamanville EPR, and of the coal power plants would put the power network “under tension” in 2022 and 2023 which is a diplomatic manner to say that there is a risk of shortage.

The projects to close nuclear power plants and the delays to build new EPR can lead to a situation where France which disposed an abundant power with a very competitive cost whose a non negligible share was exported, risks to be confronted with a context of shortage to which renewable are unable to cope with because demand peaks are coming at the end of the day and during autumn and winter when there is no more sun and not necessarily enough wind. The only solution will be then to keep in activity coal power plants. The German example is instructive. The decision to abandon nuclear power was taken following environment considerations. Huge investments were engaged in favor of renewable. But to guaranty the supply security, it was then decide to keep in activity coal power plants until 2038. Germany will continue to have a level of greenhouse gas emissions twice above the French one.

Wind and solar energies are useful and must be developed. But to rely on them to be the first source of power supply is unrealistic, except if the security supply is abandoned, which is also impossible, when we consider the place power has taken in our society. A balance must be found between intermittent energies and power plants able to guarantee the continuousness of the production. To show off an objective of reduction of nuclear production, in such a context, lead, as in Germany, to keep into activity fossil fuels power plants. It is then difficult to pretend that the energy policy is in accordance with France commitments in favor of climate.      



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