Looking under the hood of France's energy transition
In recent weeks France’s new law on “energy transition” has received a lot of favorable press. This report by a fan of the law had a photo of a mini-skirted blonde on a bicycle, which was indicative of the (lip)gloss that accompanied the press campaign. Some environmental groups, and even many anti-nuclear groups, hailed the apparent French revolution in energy policy. However, for the critics who examined it carefully, there were serious deficiencies in this law, enough to make it appear to be either a lost opportunity or a cynical greenwashing by a government that has no serious intention of launching a true energy transition. They noted the irony of the law being announced while the World Nuclear Energy Expo was being held in Paris. The fact that the nuclear lobby isn't complaining ought to tell us something. The flaws in the law were laid bare in a frank interview published in in Le Monde with the French parliamentarian Jean-Paul Chanteguet. He was actively involved in the creation of the law on energy transition, adopted on October 14, 2014. He explains why, in his view, it was a compromise he had to go along with, but one which is not up to the task of dealing with the problems at hand.
My translation follows…
Le Monde 2014/10/14
Interview with Jean-Paul Chanteguet, member of le Parti Socialiste representing Indre, president since 2012 of the Commission for Sustainable Development in the National Assembly
You voted for the law, but you claim to be very critical of it. Why?
I voted in solidarity with the party, but I’m not a dupe. I supported it because of a loyalty to the parliamentary majority, and because I recognize the importance of the two new objectives: the halving of energy consumption by 2050 and the reduction of nuclear-generated electricity to 50% of the national total by 2025.
But I also have an obligation to the truth. As the 2015 global warming summit in Paris approaches, I’m not satisfied with a law that fails to make France a country which excels in environmental protection and fails to make it a leader in reducing global warming. This law is, in the end, a lost opportunity.
What is in the text of the law that you find fault with?
First of all, the implicit choice of a decarbonization strategy that relies on increasing electricity production. As experts have shown, it won’t allow us to meet the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to one fourth of present levels. The government didn’t want to explain what its vision was for a strategy for achieving targets. It is more surprising and concerning that within the national debate on the energy transition, four possible trajectories were identified, so it would have been possible to create the law around a clear vision, one which was affirmed and responsible. In reality, it is a hidden, undeclared scenario which has been imposed on us: decarbonization of France by relying solely on electricity.
Thus, according to you it is a pro-electricity law?
The law could have been written by EDF [the utility Electricité de France]. It’s not about transition. It’s rather an adaptation of our energy model, organized essentially around electricity, with a very centralized system of production and distribution. About 40% of the articles in the law are devoted to electricity, nuclear capacity is maintained at its actual level of 63.2 gigawatts, and the development of electric vehicles is a priority.
Yet limiting carbon emissions should presuppose a transition in terms of energy efficiency, reduced consumption and promotion of renewables, but not an increased reliance on electricity, especially if it is generated from nuclear.
The share of electricity produced from nuclear will decrease to 50%. Isn’t that a real turning point?
Nothing has been said about shutting down nuclear power plants, whether it’s Fessenheim or others which are, in any case, due for closing simply because of their age and doubts about their safety. We shouldn’t pretend that our plants are immortal, or that they will last until the EPRs [next generation reactors] are ready to replace them! Nonetheless, in the law, the production of nuclear electricity is more or less sanctified, as its level is fixed as a lower limit that can go no lower.
There is a fundamental contradiction. If we want to both reduce total consumption of electricity and the share of electricity produced by nuclear, we have to consider not limiting its share but decreasing its share over time [even below the stated limit of 50%].
This law isn’t the first legislation governing nuclear energy matters. Francois Hollande had wished nonetheless, at the time of the environmental conference of September 2013, that from now on the State would take the lead in setting energy strategy. But now, it is EDF that will decide its strategic plans and it is the administration that will implement them. This impossibility, in France, to question the almighty nuclear sector sets the conditions for everything else. It prevents the State from deciding the strategy, and the State is the only entity that could lead a true energy transition by way of a mobilizing narrative that envisions a different future.
So it is, in your eyes, a resignation, a political failure?
We see a fading of our hope for a return to political leadership in setting energy policy. The low-carbon strategy is to be implemented over many years by decree, without ever being debated or voted on in parliament. Tomorrow, like today, the management of energy policy will be the domain of the big enterprises of the sector and their connections in the administration.
You are speaking here specifically about EDF and its influence…
EDF should be the spearhead of the energy transition. For this it would be necessary to re-establish this enterprise as a supplier of electricity in the public service. It has to be taken off the stock market so that it can be disconnected from the short-term demands of the financial markets. Then it could be focused solely on collective interests, and its new structure, less centralized and less focused on nuclear, would allow all regions to play an authentic role in the energy transition.
In spite of everything, the law encourages regional initiatives, so elected representatives and local actors…
Only a veritable decentralization can bring forth a transition. It’s at the regional level that all the necessary reforms must take place: renovation of infrastructure and durable mobility, deployment of local energy production, smart meters and intelligent networks, new consumption practices of energy produced by citizens, or energy storage. These will permit us to optimize the way we meet our energy needs while putting a priority on renewables. We have to rethink the energy model to achieve a decentralized and interconnected energy grid. Such change, unfortunately, is not inscribed into the new law which gives regions neither the authority or the necessary means.
Speaking of means, what about the 10 billion euros over three years promised by the minister, Ségolène Royal ? Is this sufficient ?
This is the worst deficiency of the project. There can’t be a true transition without adequate funding. Yet none of the proposals is new: not the tax credit for thermal renovation of buildings, not the interest-free eco-loans, not the subsidy for conversion of polluting vehicles, not the subsidized loans for local collectives. Only the funds for the energy transition, 1.5 billion euros, would be new, but it is not yet financed. And if it came at the price of removing state assets from an enterprise like EDF, this would be a headlong assault, a real provocation [to vested interests]. What’s more, the new law clearly lacks the means to deal with energy precariousness [energy security] and the thermal efficiency of buildings.
For the next year, the credits in the national budget are, in total, only 1.5 billion euros. Even if this amount is supplemented, it won’t be enough to cover the cost of the energy transition, about 20 to 30 billion euros per year. The sums involved are considerable, but if we don’t envision a change of scale, we are doomed to have no transition. We will have to invent new ways to finance the transition that are lasting and responsible.
And what would these be, considering the budgetary constraints?
It’s not a matter of increasing deficits, rather it’s a matter of organizing the way the State levies taxes, evolving fiscal policy, and appraising correctly the ecological cost of the exploitation of natural resources. There is nothing “punitive” in this paradigm shift, unless we think taxes are punishment rather than a contribution given with consent so that we can have communal well-being in this country.
We would have to first give life to what is missing in the new law: the price signal of carbon. This is essential to induce a change in the behavior of enterprises and households toward more conservation and efficiency. Toward this end, in 2014 our country created the climate-energy contribution (or a carbon tax). It aims to reduce emissions to one fourth of their present levels, and should make one ton of CO2 worth 100 euros by 2030. With these funds, and taxes on gasoline and diesel, we could fully fund the energy transition.
Why not also imagine financial support, backed by state guarantees, like we had for the rescue of the financial sector in 2008? What we did for the banks could also be done for the energy transition.
Translation of an interview published in Le Monde, October 14, 2014:
(In France, it is impossible to question the almighty nuclear sector)