Country report: France

Materials World magazine
1 Mar 2017

Simon Frost looks at the country with the world’s highest share of nuclear generation, as France transforms its energy mix to meet ambitious carbon targets. 

Host of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21), at which the landmark Paris Agreement was finalised, France is a prominent, pace-setting nation in the global charge to reduce carbon emissions. 

In 2015, only 47% of its energy came from fossil fuels, but 46% of the energy mix was fulfilled by nuclear energy, which accounted for a staggering 78% of its electricity generation in 2016 – the highest share worldwide by some margin. Ukraine, in second, generates 56% of its electricity with nuclear power. At 63GW, France’s total nuclear capacity is second only to the USA, whose 80GW accounts for just 19.5% of domestic generation. 

But this is set to change – France’s Energy Transition for Green Growth Act, enacted shortly before COP21 in August 2015, includes an ambitious target to reduce the nuclear share of its electricity generation to 50% by 2025, as its ageing fleet is decommissioned, while increasing the same statistic for renewables from 16.5% in 2015 to 40% by 2030. For the Act’s targets to be met, the next decade will require an upheaval of its energy grid.

‘France has to implement nothing less than a transformation of its energy system and power market,’ said Paul Simons, Deputy Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) at the launch of the Energy Policies of IEA Countries: France 2016 Review. 

In that report, the IEA suggests five ways France can facilitate this transition – tracking progress along robust scenarios, continuing with clear, long-term carbon pricing guidelines, taking timely decisions on the safe and long-term operation of nuclear reactors, reducing barriers to renewable deployment and, finally, strengthening market opening, competition and consumer choice. 

Renewing the mix

Renewable energy in France is dominated by its well-established hydroelectric sector, which accounts for 62% of renewable generation and is second only to nuclear in the country’s entire share. 433 hydroelectric plants operate throughout France, the largest of which by far is the pumped-storage plant at the Grand’Maison Dam in the southeastern department of Isère, boasting a capacity of 1,800MW.  

Like the Grand’Maison, more than half of France’s hydropower supply is flexible – lake/reservoir/pumped-storage, rather than the intermittent run-of-river type – making it an important reserve for balancing the electricity network in times of high demand or in cold weather, with extra power that can be mobilised in minutes.. 

However, while hydrothermal power plays a significant role in the energy mix, its capacity of 25.3GW is targeted to grow only marginally compared with other constituents of its renewable mix, with less than 1GW to be added in the best case by 2023. 

Onshore wind is key to France’s renewable development, and has steadily grown from 148MW installed in 2002 to just over 12GW in 2016. It now has the seventh-highest installed wind capacity worldwide and is on course to meet the targets of 15GW by 2018 and 21.8–26GW in 2023 set out in the Green Growth Act. 

While all of the country’s current wind power facilities are onshore, in December 2016 the Ministry of Environment, Energy and the Sea began the procedure to select potential developers and define an area for offshore wind farms off Dunkirk, part of France’s third round of tenders for offshore wind sites, which is supported by the region’s elected officials. France aims to install 500MW of offshore wind by 2018 and at least 3,000MW by 2023. 

Sun in the south

Solar PV is where France hopes to make the other most significant increase, and like wind, it has steadily bolstered its capacity to become the seventh-highest producer in the world – from 104MW in 2008 to 6,549MW in 2015, with targets of 10,200MW in 2018 and 18,200MW–20,200MW in 2023. 

A 2.5km2 installation near Bordeaux developed by Noeon and connected to the grid in December 2015, the Cestas solar farm is the most significant array in the country and, indeed, the continent of Europe, with a peak capacity of 300MW and providing power to 300,000 homes. 

In February 2017, SunPower, USA, announced that it would supply its E-Series monocrystalline photovoltaic cells for seven power plants in France – a total of 64.4MW added capacity, while First Solar, USA, announced it would supply 106.5MW-worth of thin film modules for 14 new plants. 

Of course, France’s energy policy is subject to change when President François Hollande, a vocal champion of renewable energy, is replaced in May. Emmanuel Macron, the candidate for social liberal party En Marche! invited climate scientists in the USA to move to France in February, in response to President Trump’s vocal scepticism of climate change and appointment of climate science deniers to high offices. 

At the time of writing, Macron is the pollsters’ frontrunner in the race. Whether or not we choose to believe the polls is a matter for another magazine…