France ignores key renewables report

May 3, 2015

The French government has joined the Australian government in ignoring its own reports that say a transition to 100% renewable energy is feasible and involves little extra cost.

Mediapart obtained a report from the French government’s environment and energy agency body ADEME that showed shifting to 100% renewable energy by 2050 is materially and technologically feasible. The report found it would cost relatively little more than the existing electricity supply, which is 75% nuclear.

Yet the government is holding a conference on the issue with the theme “40% of renewable electricity by 2050: is France ready?” A presentation on the case for 100% renewables was mysteriously removed from the agenda at the last minute.

The study obtained by Mediapart finds that President Francois Hollande’s target of reducing nuclear from 75% to 50% by 2050 would only be slightly cheaper for consumers than the 100% renewable scenario. This sinks claims by pro-nuclear advocates that their favourite tech is the cheapest.

Some people just don’t want to hear the good news. Does this sound familiar?

The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) oversees the National Electricity Market system (comprising the eastern states and South Australia). It published a 2013 report that looked at several scenarios for Australia to transition to 100% renewable energy in 2030 and 2050, using different roll-out schedules and different technology mixes.

One of its scenarios showed 100% renewables as soon as 2030 would have a similar cost to the public as maintaining our current energy mix (with the carbon price).

Subsequently, the Australian government is looking at dismantling our far more modest existing target for 41000 gigawatt-hours of renewables by 2020 (about 25% of our energy in total), despite the fact that other government reports indicate less renewables will in fact cost consumers more over time.

The notion of 100% renewable energy has been ignored by all but the Greens — who made it a key policy in the March NSW elections — and small parties outside parliament, like Socialist Alliance and the Save the Planet Party.

The AEMO report, commissioned as part of an agreement between the Greens and the then-Gillard Labor government, was ignored, but not suppressed, as the French report appears to have been.

The French report, despite being labelled “final report” in the leaked version, has had its release postponed until the northern autumn, with ADEME claiming the study was incomplete. Mediapart say the copy of the report they have made available seems complete as is.

Conveniently for the incumbent French energy utilities, the planned release date is after the French climate and energy agency (DGEC) puts forward its key propositions for what will no doubt be only a partial transition to renewables.

So who is afraid of 100% renewable energy? In that list, we can include the coal, gas and nuclear industries along with the Australian and French governments.

Given that France is hosting international climate negotiations later this year, it makes this news all the more relevant. As far as current talks go, 2050 is a meaningless date — and too late to act to prevent dangerous climate impacts. Yet a report showing it is possible to reach 100% renewable energy is a potent weapon in pushing for action.

The optimal mix of renewables identified in the report was 63% of electricity produced by wind turbines, 17% by solar energy, 13% from hydraulic sources and 7% from renewable thermal sources (such as waste incinerators and geothermal). The large reliance on wind energy is made possible by recent developments in wind turbine technology that enable them to operate in lower wind speeds.

The balance of solar and wind is designed to iron out most variability in each energy source. For times when these are insufficient, energy storage technology is included. Pumped hydro systems, batteries, and using surplus electricity to manufacture gas fuel for storage are the key technologies.

Alternative mixes were surveyed, in case building high levels of onshore wind turbines met community resistance. The report suggested greater use of solar photovoltaic, development of marine wave power technology, and greater use of backup energy storage systems to compensate for less onshore wind farms.

The costs of several scenarios were examined: 100%, 95%, 80%, and 40% renewable energy by 2050. The French government’s existing plan is for about 40% renewable energy, meaning about 50% will be drawn from nuclear. The study found this would result in an electricity cost of about €117 per megawatt-hour. By contrast, 100% renewable energy would only cost €119 per megawatt-hour.

Interestingly, going nearly-100% renewables did not result in significant savings. About 95% renewable energy would lower the costs of building energy storage, allowing shortfalls to be met by nuclear or fossil fuels instead. But the cost modelled was only €116 per megawatt-hour, with 80% renewables falling to €113 per megawatt-hour.

Mediapart said the report does not claim to be the last word in renewable energy planning. Rather, it is a rigorous study that took 14 months and has been reviewed by experts from the energy utility RTE, the International Energy Agency, oil multinational Total, the French meteorological agency and others.

Suppressing such a study while the nation’s utilities are planning the pace of their transition to renewables would appear to be a scandal of the first order.

Making the report unavailable as governments and people worldwide consider their approach to the Paris international climate negotiations later this year is no less irresponsible.

[This article first appeared at]

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