ENERGY IN FRANCE: NUCLEAR AND RENEWABLE POWER
By: Sabrina Rohwer
Although worldwide the leading sources of energy are coal and oil, France stands out by deriving its electricity mainly from nuclear power plants along with developing other energy sources such as hydropower, wind, and solar. These choices stem primarily from the country’s lack of natural resources such as coal and oil, forcing it to look at alternative renewable sources and nuclear power. The following report will discuss nuclear power and renewable energy in France to build a profile of French energy throughout history and how the country derives its energy today.
Energy Profile: An Overview
When looking at the numbers, France has an unusual energy mix. According to Réseau de Transport d’Électricité, the primary electric company in France, in 2015 of the total 546 TWh of energy produced, nuclear energy accounted for 76.3%, hydroelectric 10.8%, wind power 3.9%, solar 1.4%, and biofuels 1.4%. Meanwhile, fossil fuels only accounted for 6.3% of energy produced in France. Figure 1 demonstrates these percentages.
This unique energy makeup sets France apart from other countries. As shown in Figure 2, nuclear energy accounts for a far higher percentage of the energy produced in France than in any other country, even the United States. The bar graph reveals how the percentage of electricity derived from nuclear energy in France is unusual compared to the rest of the world. Nuclear energy accounts for 24% more of the electricity generated in France than Belgium, the second ranked country. In short, France is a major energy producer with an unusual emphasis on nuclear energy and renewable power. This emphasis has allowed the country to produce high percentages of their electricity using resources available within its borders. To continue, in addition to energy production in France, it is important to examine energy consumption.
Nuclear Share of Energy Generation in 2015
Energy consumption in France looks quite different than the mix of energy produced. Although much of the energy produced in France is nuclear and renewable, these resources do not completely replace the need for imported fossil fuels. Especially for sectors such as transportation, France imports fossil fuels. Natural gas and petroleum products hold significant shares in the energy consumption mix, and nuclear accounts for a much smaller portion of the energy used than produced. A report by Deloitte shows that in 2012, energy consumption in France was only 41.8% nuclear while petroleum products accounted for 30.7% and natural gas was 14.6% of the mix. Meanwhile, although Hydropower generates the most electricity of the renewable energy sources in France, biomass is the most consumed renewable source if transportation is included. This variance in energy consumption versus production results from the fact that transportation and older combustion style boilers used for heating still require fossil fuels to burn and therefore cannot use the nuclear and renewable electricity that is abundant in France. In sum, while most of the energy France produces is nuclear and renewable sourced, the country is far from being completely independent of fossil fuels and imports due to the consumption of residential, transportation, and industrial sectors that still rely on these fuel sources. To gain a better understanding of the energy produced and consumed in France, a more specific summary of each energy type will follow.
Energy Mix: A Breakdown
As described earlier, nuclear power is the most prominent energy source in France. Currently, almost 77% of energy generated in France comes from nuclear power. This energy is produced by 58 reactors operated by Electricite de France and provided by reactor maker Areva. French reactors operate on a closed fuel cycle, meaning that nuclear waste is reprocessed to create more fuel. As a result, 17% of electricity in France comes from recycled nuclear fuel. This closed cycle has helped the French model to become the efficient, energy powerhouse it is today.
While France uses nuclear power for a large portion of its own energy, the country is also the leading net exporter of electricity due to the amount of electricity produced by nuclear power plants and the low cost of producing this energy. The county gains over 3 billion euros per year from exporting energy. In addition, since France has been active in developing nuclear technology, a major export for the country is nuclear reactors and related services.
Along with nuclear energy, France does still import oil and natural gas for transportation, residential and industrial sectors. Since France has very poor fossil fuel resources and has
Source: Réseau de Transport d’Électricité
In addition to nuclear power and oil, renewable energy accounts for about 17% of energy produced in France. This includes wind, hydroelectric, solar and biomass as shown in Figure 3. Along with the rest of the European Union, France has a goal of reaching 23% by 2020. Over the years, renewable energy growth in France has been slower than in other European countries such as Germany. Nevertheless, areas such as solar and wind have seen major growth more recently in order to reach the European Union’s goal.banned fracking, the country must rely on imports. According to the International Energy Agency in 2008, transportation accounted for 50% of French oil consumption and Industry and Agricultural sectors were the second biggest users. The county imports oil from the ports and the South European Pipeline system. Refining oil in France is mainly done by Total, one of the world’s largest publicly owned oil and gas companies. France also imports natural gas which is used mainly by the residential and industrial sectors for heating, appliances, and machinery. Imported natural gas comes from a variety of countries, including Norway, Russia and Nigeria. These imports compensate for areas nuclear energy cannot be used, namely boilers and engines that require combustible fuels.
Furthermore, wind, solar and hydropower are not the only notable renewable energy sources in France. Biomass is a significant source of renewable energy for both electricity and transportation in France. In fact, if looking at statistics for energy consumption, biomass is the most consumed renewable resource available in France. The main uses of biomass in France are supplying boilers and being refined into biofuels. France uses biodiesel and bioethanol in its transportation sector along with imported oil. Furthermore, biomass accounts for 52% of renewable energy consumption as documented by a Campus France renewable energy report. This makes France the second largest users of biofuels in Europe, second only to Germany.
Overall, the French energy mix is an extraordinary feature of the country. The emphasis on nuclear and renewable energy sources creates an efficient and environmentally friendly way of supplying electricity to homes and fueling transportation. The reliance on nuclear and renewable energy sources means that France is able to achieve 87% of energy production without producing any CO2, another unique statistic about energy in France. Additionally, this allows France to turn on its lights without relying on imported oil or limited natural resources, especially since the closed fuel cycle in place enables France to reuse nuclear waste, so even less new Uranium is needed. Still, France relies on imported petroleum products and natural gas. While the mix of energy produced in France might indicate that most energy used comes from nuclear, fossil fuels still represent an almost equal share of the energy actually consumed in France due to the need to fuel transportation and power combustion boilers. As nuclear energy is the most significant source of electricity in France, an in depth discussion of nuclear energy will follow, including its history, the French system, and the future of nuclear energy in France.
Before the discovery of nuclear power as an energy source came the discovery of the atom bomb . To gain a better understanding of how nuclear energy gained such prominence in France, it is important to study its development as a weapon. In 1938, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman split a uranium atom after attacking the nucleus with neutrons. When World War II began a year later, the United States rushed to beat the Germans in efforts to create a chain reaction from this split, creating a bomb. During the war, The Manhattan Project succeeded in creating nuclear bombs, and in 1945, these bombs devastated the towns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
Afterwards, many countries including Russia, China, and the UK hurried to build their own atom bombs and simultaneously caused widespread fear of nuclear war. Consequently, in 1953, President Eisenhower called for nuclear technology to be developed for peaceful purposes. Then, the development of nuclear power truly began with the Soviets establishing their first water-cooled nuclear power plant in 1954. Meanwhile, the United States and the United Kingdom worked on developments in gas-cooled reactors, fearing the instability of water-cooled models. During this time, France was taking a unique and independent approach to nuclear power. The French developed their very own gas-graphite reactor which varied slightly in the materials used in the United Kingdom’s reactors. By the 1970s, France built 34,900 megawatt reactors of entirely its own design and installed the first in Fessenheim in 1977.
The French Model
Source: Encyclopedia of Chemical Engineering Equipment
Before delving into the details of nuclear power in France, it is important to understand the basics of nuclear reactors. As explained by the European Nuclear Society, all reactors “are devices designed to maintain a chain reaction producing a steady flow of neutrons generated by the fission of heavy nuclei,” most commonly uranium-235. In reactors used to generate electricity, fission turns kinetic energy into heat which warms a liquid such as gas, water, and liquid metal. The hot liquid or gas generated is used to create steam that is “then fed into a turbine driving alternator” to create electricity.
All reactors in France are pressurized water reactors or PWRs. Figure 4 shows the typical layout of a PWR reactor for reference. According to the World Nuclear Association, this kind of reactor uses water as a coolant to capture the heat created by nuclear fission and also uses regular water, called “light water” as a moderator which boils and creates steam to power the turbine and alternator. Although the first nine reactors built in France were actually gas cooled graphite reactors, Electricite de France eventually chose PWRs instead because of their higher enrichment capacity and potential to be built entirely in France.
France uses several methods to get the water necessary to run its nuclear reactors. For instance, four plants, totaling 14 reactors, are located on the coast and can draw water directly from the ocean and dump the heated waste water back into the sea. The remainder of the reactors are located inland. Of these, 11 plants and 38 reactors utilize water cooling towers which facilitate evaporative cooling. The remaining reactors rely on lakes and streams for water; although, this has become problematic due to stricter regulations on the water temperature that can be drawn into the reactor. As a result, generation is limited from these reactors during hot summers. Figure 5 shows a map of the different nuclear power plants in France.
Aside from efficient reactor design and placement, the French use a highly efficient closed fuel system. Once used, the uranium and plutonium that fuel reactors are packed up and sent to a special facility in La Hague. Here, the byproduct is reprocessed to remove other waste and turned into brand new fuel. The closed fuel system eliminates most of the nuclear waste from French facilities and only adds around 6% more to the cost of the nuclear program. This is a very efficient system and reduces the amount of nuclear waste the country must dispose of. For instance, a family of four will only produce one 35 milliliter canister’s worth of waste over 20 years. In addition to reprocessing their own fuel, the French also reprocess fuel for other countries for profit. Being able to recycle fuel has enabled France to avoid much of the controversy that arises over where to dispose of nuclear waste, and along with turning a profit from recycling for other countries, fuel cycling is a key factor in why France’s nuclear program has flourished.
Progress and Success in France
Nuclear power brought access to plentiful energy found within the borders of France, a first for the country. After Europe faced extreme wood shortages in the 18th Century, France began to explore coal as an energy source. In the 19th Century, after the discovery of more coal mines in France and the popularity of steam navigation, coal production in France soared. However, coal reserves began to drop lower and lower in France and the country became more reliant on imported oil which they refined and burned for fuel.
At the same time, France was developing nuclear technology. Research into the fundamentals of nuclear power began as far back as 1896 when Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity. Becquerel’s studies were continued by Marie and Pierre Curie, French scientists who investigated radioactive materials such as Uranium. Despite these early advances in nuclear science, it was not until after World War II that France gradually began to expand its interest in nuclear power. Furthermore, France did not begin its main expansion of nuclear energy until 1973, after the oil embargo in the Middle East quadrupled the price of oil and caused what the French like to call “oil shock”. The unstable prices and embargos of oil sparked by military conflict in the Middle East were especially detrimental to the French since they relied on imported oil for the majority of their energy. Therefore, when France no longer wanted to rely on other countries, the country launched its nuclear power program. Over the next 15 years, France installed 56 nuclear reactors and not only met their own energy needs but began to export energy to other countries.
The nuclear program in France was able to develop with greater prosperity than in any other country to date, largely due to the positive response the program saw throughout the country. The nuclear program in France quickly became popular and even uncontroversial, unlike the response the building of nuclear generators has received in countries like the United States. First and foremost, this popularity results from the realization that nuclear energy can relieve France from its past reliance on other countries to produce electricity.
A second factor in the nuclear program’s popularity stems from French culture. Not only do the French like taking on big projects, but engineers and scientists are valued by the French and hold a very high status in French society. These elites are widely trusted and respected, and they easily gained support for their efforts to establish a nuclear program. In fact, nuclear power has become a showpiece of French technology. Much like fast trains and jet planes, nuclear technology sits among the other great engineering feats highly prized by the French.
While nuclear power has been far more popular and less controversial in France than in countries like the United States, disposing of nuclear waste caused some controversy. Moreover, the only significant issues with the popularity of the nuclear program have risen from the disposal of nuclear waste, beginning in the 1980s. Though the amount of waste from French nuclear reactors is very small, riots broke out when scientists planned to bury this nuclear waste in an underground facility located in rural France. These rural citizens saw burying the nuclear waste as “an idea of profanation of the soil, desecration of the Earth.” Although temporary above ground solutions have been reached, the disagreements regarding disposal of nuclear waste have still not been solved.
Recent Decline in Nuclear Energy
Although the French nuclear program has been successful for over a decade, recent issues have caused the French to question their approach. Plans to install advanced technology in new plants are billions of euros over budget and still several years behind schedule. The delays have come from a variety of setbacks, from financial troubles to faulty parts used in building reactors. For instance, on April 7th in 2015, Areva discovered imperfections in the steel used to build the top and bottom of a reactor vessel that could possibly make the reactor unstable and subject to failure. Not only did this delay construction of the Farmanville plant, but it raised questions about the stability and practicality of the once popular nuclear program in France.
As a result, President Hollande and the French government plan to reorganize Electricite de France and Areva as well as implement cost cutting overhauls which are expected to cut thousands of jobs. The reorganization of the companies will occur from transferring Areva’s nuclear reactor design sections to Electricite de France, a much larger and financially successful company whose sales reached 73 billion euros in 2014. Areva would then be left mainly to refine and mine Uranium and dispose of toxic waste.
Even with these changes, President Hollande set a goal to lower France’s nuclear power use from 75% to 50% by 2025. This shift comes partly from the country’s goal to boost renewable energy use. However, a contributing factor to this downgrade in nuclear power is that France’s older reactors, such as the Fessenheim 1, now require expensive investments in safety upgrades or must cease operation. The Fessenheim 1 example is telling of a much larger decline in France’s nuclear program. Though initially reactors were built at a groundbreaking speed, with 76 percent of French nuclear reactors being built in less than seven years, the country did not continue to upgrade these reactors and did not continue to expand the program at same rate as years passed. As a result, the once impressive nuclear program has fallen behind technologically and now requires too many costly repairs and new reactors to complete at once.
Between costly repairs to reactors, delays building new plants, the unresolved conflict over disposing nuclear waste, and a push in the European Union to make advances in renewable energy, nuclear power is declining in France despite the prestige and success it saw since the first nuclear plants were built in the 1970s. Other countries such as Germany and Finland have already given up on nuclear programs. Since France is the only country to implement a successful nuclear program, the decisions made about continuing nuclear power will influence investment in nuclear energy worldwide.
Renewable energy has a history in France dating back as far as nuclear power. Just before World War II, France began a hydropower construction program which resulted in avid construction of hydropower installations in 1946. In the 1970s, the Solar Energy Agency opened the Themis Solar Plant in southern France. Until 1997, renewable energy continued to grow accounting for about 15% of overall energy generation in France; however, renewables have seen slightly slower progress through the 2000s. For instance, in 2001, thermal energy accounted for 11% of energy produced and hydropower, wind and photovoltaic accounted for only 4% combined. The use of renewable resources has gained momentum again more recently due to France’s goal of reaching 23% renewable energy by 2020.
Currently, hydropower is the renewable energy source producing the most electricity. As a long established renewable energy source, it accounts for a steady share of 15% of the energy generated in France. This percentage places France in third place for hydroelectric energy production in Europe, falling behind Norway and Sweden. Run-of-the-River plants are the most common and compose 52% of hydropower plants, although the French pride themselves on the diversity of their hydropower system. Furthermore, plants that make use of lochs or weirs account for 21%, and those built on lakes and reservoirs account for 27% total, some of these sharing the same resource as nuclear plants. Finally, there is one tidal power plant which is only the second built in the world. While these plants have been successful thus far, new progress is expected to be slight due to the lack of favorable build sites that have not already been developed. As a result, France has shifted its expansion of renewable energy to wind and solar.
Wind and Solar Power
Although wind and solar energy percentages are low when calculating the gross amount of energy produced in France, since the early 2000s, wind and solar energy have made significant advances. From 2014 to 2015 alone, the amount of wind energy produced is up 23.3% and solar is up 25.1%. Since 2001, wind energy has gone from 1.4 TWh produced to 21.1 TWh produced in 2015. On the other hand, hydropower has seen a small decrease from 2014 to 2015, but it still makes up 61% of renewable energy produced and around 11% of overall energy generated in France. Especially since France has goals to expand renewable energy use along with the rest of the European Union, renewable energy has seen great growth in recent years and consequently is a promising area of investment for construction and engineering companies such as AREVA.
Biomass and Biofuels
Another renewable energy source used in France is biomass products. Biomass is biodegradable leftovers from waste, paper products and agriculture that can be burned as fuel. As mentioned in the introduction, biomass accounts for 52% of energy consumption in France, making it a prominent source of renewable energy especially as it is used for supplying boilers to heat residential, commercial and industrial properties. France has yet to fully convert to heating methods that use electricity. Biomass provides a renewable, cleaner burning energy source for boilers in the meantime.
So far this report has primarily discussed the energy sources France uses to produce electricity. However, fuel for transportation is also an important topic as France has a much different approach than the United States. Unlike electricity which can be sourced primarily from the large amounts of nuclear energy France produces, transportation is the main sector that still requires fossil fuel imports. In order to rely less on imports, France has been expanding their use of biofuels over the years. France produces 2,026 million liters of biodiesel yearly, just under the amount that Germany produces, making it the second biggest biodiesel producer in the European Union. Biodiesel made from recycled plant and animal oils is a cleaner burning alternative to fossil fuel based diesel. These biofuels can serve as a replacement for imported fossil fuels and can be made independently within French borders.
Consequently, France primarily uses a mix of biofuels along with imported ethanol or diesel and has a higher use of biofuel than other countries in the European Union. Over the past few years, France has made efforts to increase the percentage of biodiesel and bioethanol powering transportation. In fact, a large amount of French crop space is dedicated to growing corn and soy for fuel. However, France has suspended furthering its use of biofuels due to food price fluctuations. The country had planned to increase the mix of biofuel to 10% but has kept the mix ratio capped at 7%. Even while the expansion of biofuel use is capped, biomass has multifaceted uses in France and is a promising renewable resource for the country. In combination with nuclear energy and other renewable sources, biomass provides the opportunity for France to eliminate their need for imported fossil fuels even more. The main issue will be finding the resources to create biofuels without draining food supplies in the country. If a solution is reached, the energy mix in France could become even more unique.
Innovations and Expansion of Renewable Energy
While nuclear power is in decline in France, the country is making efforts to pursue renewable energy sources and further cut carbon emissions. In 2014, the government passed a $13.4 billion law promoting renewable energy sources through tax credits and low interest loans. Also included in the law are zero interest loans for reinsulating homes in an effort to reduce the amount of energy France uses. Offering credits for improving insulation is an important step in reducing overall electricity used by residences. Residences are currently the biggest consumer of electricity in France, using 35% of net consumption in 2015. French energy consumption is very sensitive to weather changes with cooler than normal winters causing spikes in residential energy consumption to power electric heaters in homes. For instance, cooler temperatures in 2015 raised residential energy consumption compared to 2014, putting more stress on the French energy system as it tries to power more homes with renewable energy sources. Although insulating homes is not nuclear energy, this change goes along with a mindset of being environmentally conscious and using less energy, which compliments France’s recent emphasis on renewable energy.
An innovative renewable energy solution used in France is floating offshore wind farms. Along coastlines of the English Canal and Atlantic Ocean, the French are installing an offshore wind energy system with potential to produce 90 TWh of renewable energy. The system comprises of wind turbines specially designed by Areva which send energy to a generator to be converted into electricity. Floating offshore wind farms were initially developed by Norway and Portugal. However, in 2015, France began its plans to become the first country to implement this technology on an industrial scale. Again, this demonstrates how France is channeling its investments into developing renewable sources as its nuclear power plants grow older and have encountered developmental setbacks.
Since 2008, France has been expanding solar energy, mainly through the company Soltairedirect. In 2015, the company had 49 solar parks either under construction or fully operational. In addition to these more traditional solar parks, France is working on another unique way to collect solar energy: a solar power road that will provide electricity to 8% of the population. The road, made of photovoltaic cells glued to the current pavement, will be 621 miles long. The street, nicknamed the “wattway” will take around five years to complete since the existing pavement does not have to be removed to install the photovoltaic cells. The roadway can provide electricity to homes, streetlamps, stoplights, and electric cars. Tests for the road will begin Spring 2016 and will hopefully prove true another innovative way to generate renewable energy in France. Through rapidly growing solar parks and innovations such as solar panel roads, solar is increasing its small contribution to the French energy mix.
In conclusion, France has found unique energy solutions in an effort to avoid oil dependency. For decades, the country developed nuclear and renewable energy solutions to provide electricity and is still making innovations in energy today. Their nuclear program, which gained momentum after oil embargos in the 1970s, has succeeded in providing almost 77% of the country’s electricity as well as providing a source of revenue for France through nuclear related exports. As a country with virtually no fossil fuel resources of its own, France warmly welcomed the independence gained through nuclear energy, and the power source has never seen the same controversy in France as it has in countries like the United States. No other western country has implemented a nuclear power program as successfully as France.
However, in recent years, continuation of the nuclear program has become costly. Interest has instead been shifted towards progress in renewable energy resources such as hydropower, wind, and solar. Currently, a small portion of French energy produced comes from renewables, with wind and solar in particular seeing significant increases in production in 2015. France is developing unique renewable energy solutions of their own, such as a road paved with solar panels currently undergoing development. If France does continue to shift away from nuclear power, other countries such as Germany and the United States may continue to do so as well since France has been the only country as of yet to develop a completely safe and viable nuclear energy system. On the other hand, the French have made significant innovations in nuclear power thus far and may very well be capable of improving the program to continue its esteem and prowess. After all, improvements to both nuclear and renewable energy technology will only help France continue to be independent of imported oil for electricity. With the development of biofuels and electric cars, the country could be able to be almost entirely independent of oil in all energy sectors, an achievement the French would surely love to boast about.
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Sabrina is a Photocommunications major at St. Edwards University graduating Spring 2017. During her time as an undergraduate, she has combined her passion for nature photography and writing by researching topics centered around the environment and energy to parallel her fine art projects. She was born and raised in Austin, Texas and hopes to become involved with local nonprofits and publications after graduating.