Environment & Sustainability

France nuclear phase-out… backtracks on the horizon?

During the past few weeks, following the publication of RTE’s 2017 “Bilan prévisionnel”, rumours about a possible rethinking of the partial nuclear phase-out planned within 2025 spread out. RTE made a pragmatic analysis of long term possible scenarios for France’s electricity sector, with the maybe not surprising result that less nuclear generation entails higher expected CO2 emissions.

RTE’s 2017 “Bilan prévisionnel” clearly shows the lights and shadows of the partial nuclear phase-out decision taken by the French Government in 2015. The French TSO depicts five long term scenarios with substantially different electricity mixes and CO2 emissions.  The general lesson seems to be that everything can be done… but everything has specific consequences and specific prices, so defining the long term priorities of the system is essential to make the right choices.

France energy transition Act

With the Act of 17 August 2015 on energy transition for green growth France committed to implement some challenging targets:

  • Cut greenhouse gas emissions to contribute to the target of a 40% decrease in EU emissions by 2030 (compared with 1990 levels);
  • Cut consumption of fossil fuels by 30% by 2030;
  • Reduce the share of nuclear energy to 50% of electricity production by 2025 – partial nuclear phase-out
  • Increase the share of renewables to 32% of final energy consumption by 2030 and to 40% of electricity production.
  • Halve final energy consumption by 2050 (compared with 2012).

Thise targets will lead to relevant changes in the country electricity mix, which, as known, is today dominated by nuclear power.

2016 electricity mix

Table 1 and summarize the key features and the generation mix of France electricity sector in 2016. Today there are 58 operational nuclear reactors in France (34 of 900 MW, 20 of 1300 MW and 4 of 1450 MW), with an average age of more than 30 years. In 2016 the nuclear generation share on national generation mix was 72%, while renewables were at 19% and traditional thermal generation at 9%.

Critical winters

The high dependence of France from nuclear power generation in the electricity mix exposes the power sector to supply risks connected with episodes of long and simultaneous unavailability of several nuclear reactors during winter, especially in case of cold waves. During the 2016-2017 winter the shut-down of a number of reactors for security checks after the discovery of an anomaly in the composition of the steel in certain zones of the vessel closure head and the vessel bottom head of the Flamanville EPR reactor leaded to exceptionally high electricity market prices in France, which also affected the prices in interconnected countries in market coupling.

According to RTE, unplanned stops or non-standard climatic conditions could threaten the French power supply also during the 2017-2018 winter, so that the TSO has place this period “under surveillance”, and this situation could continue at least until 2020.

RTE analysis: a pragmatic approach

The objectives of the French energy transition are ambitious and will entail a substantial transformation of the French power sector, touching all its main components.

  • Electricity demand evolution (role of electrification process)
  • Electricity generation fleet, which in the past few years has seen the boom of renewable energies and the closure of oil and coal fuelled power stations. The future developments and their temporal sequencing must be based on a robust analysis of adequacy and security of supply issues
  • Emission reduction trajectories, coherently with the Paris Agreement. RTE stressed the importance to analyse the consequences of the diversification and prospected developments of the of the power generation mix on the emission performance of France, and, more widely, of Europe, in order to have a comprehensive and coherent approach
  • Economic issues related to the financing aspects of the energy transition, with the challenge to efficiently and effectively support renewable energies and achieve the set targets, and guarantee the profitability of the investments made to support the transition
  • The European single market and the solidarity principle, bearing in mind that it is no longer possible to consider the electricity mix as an “exclusively” national topic; the energy transition in France have to take into account decisions and discussions taking place in the other European countries
  • Technological innovation evolution and offer have to be carefully considered in order to avoid lock-in effects in today’s technologies, while remaining cautious on the technological maturity of some solutions.

RTE scenarios

Based on the above mentioned components and issues RTE developed several scenarios, since there is no one result or path but several possible options. The main data of the different RTE scenarios are shown in Table 2 and Table 3.

The first scenario – Ohm – has a 2025 horizon and shows the difficulties to combine the 50% nuclear phase-out goal with the CO2 emission reduction goal. In order to meet the 50% nuclear phase-out at 2025 a complete coal phase-out is not possible, and 11 GW of new natural gas fuelled power plants are needed.

The other four scenarios are  built with a longer term perspective, 2035, and are meant to support the decisions that need to be taken today to build the electric system of tomorrow. The main result is again related to the CO2 emissions and nuclear phase-out: a high grade of nuclear phase-out is always associated to higher Co2 emissions.

  • Ampere : reduction of the nuclear generation according to the development of the renewable sources – coal phase-out, no additional thermal plant needed, target of 50% of nuclear phase-out achieved by 2030
  • Hertz: reduction of the share of nuclear to stabilize CO2 emissions – coal phase-out, +10 GW of natural gas fuelled thermal power stations, target of 50% of nuclear power achieved by 2030
  • Volt: development of renewable energies and evolution of the nuclear fleet according to the economic opportunities – coal phase-out, no additional thermal plant needed, decrease in nuclear power without reaching the 50% nuclear phase-out goal
  • Watt: renewable energies strong development and decommissioning of the nuclear reactors when reaching 40 years of activity

Is a review of the energy transition on the way?

The question spontaneously arises when reading the RTE document, since the French TSO is clearly pointing that the targets set with the energy transition Act are not simultaneously achievable for the electricity sector in the time-span required. An intervention of the French Governments seems to be needed at least to prioritize the different goals and to eventually update the goals in order to keep in consideration the RTE’s scenario results.