Rising gas and oil prices have plunged Europe into its worst energy crisis in decades. France has been hit hard, but perhaps not for the reasons you would expect. Nuclear and hydroelectric power, the country’s main sources of electricity, are both running out of steam. Has the French energy mix hit a breaking point? We take a closer look in this edition of Down to Earth.
Coal makes a comeback
On March 30, 2022, at 10:30am, a page was turned for the Emile Huchet coal-fired power plant in eastern France. The station closed its doors and stopped generating electricity. But now, more than 300,000 tonnes are once again piling up. Workers have been called back in, as the plant prepares to resume production.
The energy crisis weighing on Europe and France this winter means the 600 megawatts produced by the Saint-Avold plant have become indispensable. “It’s a necessary evil,” says Thomas About, a manager at the plant. “We still need this coal in France today.”
Like everywhere else in Europe, gas supplies are limited. But France’s energy autonomy is also being undermined by two factors in particular. Out of a fleet of 56 nuclear reactors, nearly half have been shut down – a source of energy that normally accounts for 70 percent of the country’s electricity. Meanwhile, hydroelectric dams, France’s second source of energy, have been operating at 62 percent of their capacity, following a summer of intense heat and drought.
A pioneering power plant to address the hydroelectricity crisis
One hydroelectric power plant in the French Alps has devised an innovative solution to this problem: floating solar panels on the surface of the water to limit evaporation.
More than 50,000 panels have been installed so far on Lake Lazer. The pioneering aspect of this plant is the fact that it uses a single surface for the production of two types of energy: hydraulic on the one hand and solar on the other, as Jonathan Delattre explains. The project manager for EDF Renouvelables says that this unique set-up allows them to limit water evaporation, while also increasing the power produced by the panels, as they are cooled by the water.
The future of nuclear energy
Innovation is also happening in the field of nuclear energy. Nuclear fusion in particular has been the subject of research for years. Unlike nuclear fission, which is obtained by breaking up nuclei, nuclear fusion energy is generated by binding atomic nuclei together.
“One of the great advantages of this energy source is that it’s completely safe and carbon-free, it doesn’t generate greenhouse gasses,” explains Alain Bécoulet, head of engineering for the ITER project. As attractive as the prospect of safe and clean nuclear energy might be, it is still far in the future. “Fusion may start to become a part of the economy in the 2050s or 2060s,” says Bécoulet, insisting that we need other tools to combat global warming.
Paris sets an example in energy sobriety
In the immediate term, calls are growing louder for drastic steps to reduce energy consumption. Paris has started to unveil its energy sobriety plan, aimed at saving 10 percent of the city’s energy. Temperatures in municipal buildings will be lowered, as well as in swimming pools, and the ornamental lighting of municipal monuments and the city hall will be switched off earlier in the evening. Dan Lert, deputy mayor in charge of the environment for the City of Paris, says that municipal services represent only about 2 percent of the total energy consumption of the Parisian territory. But that doesn’t mean the city shouldn’t set an example: “We invite the other non-state actors, business players in particular, to align themselves with the objectives of the City of Paris.”
Source: France 24