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France's Macronenergy

France's new president has plans to transform his country's energy market. They are on a breathtaking scale

Among all the topics that were debated during the 2017 general elections in France, energy was certainly one of the most discreet. That was frustrating, especially as the candidates offered a variety of options: on the right, François Fillon and Marine Le Pen favoured extending the lifespan of nuclear reactors built in the 1980s. Le Pen also proposed a moratorium on wind energy and Fillon pledged to end all electricity production from fossil fuels. On the left, both main candidates, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Benoît Hamon, offered to phase out nuclear power and move towards 100% renewable energy by 2050. It was a display of imagination from a political class that was once overwhelmingly pro-nuclear. Emmanuel Macron won by taking the middle ground. But it does not mean that his platform will be easy to implement.

One of the key propositions in Macron's platform was to lower the share of nuclear in electricity production from approximately 75% today to 50% in 2025. This objective was already in the 2015 Energy Transition law, though nothing was done by the previous government to implement it. In fact, Macron's predecessor even failed to uphold his pledge, made during the 2012 presidential campaign, to close the oldest nuclear plant in France. So, decreasing nuclear production by a third appears challenging, to say the least.

Provided total electricity production remains stable, the 50%-nuclear mark means that nuclear electricity production has to drop by approximately 130 terawatt hours (TWh) over the next seven years. If France wants to avoid a surge in its greenhouse-gas emissions, this decline will have to be replaced by 120 TWh of renewable production. Before the election, Macron pledged to double France's solar and wind capacity by 2022. But this would only account for approximately 32 TWh of new renewable production.

During and after the campaign, many people expressed scepticism about the feasibility of the 50% goal, even in Macron's team. Worth noting, though, is that the decrease of nuclear power is not only an ideological option, it is also the consequence of ageing power plants. French nuclear reactors were designed to run for 40 years and 34 of the 56 now in service will reach this limit before 2025. Even if, as it appears likely, their lifespan is prolonged to 50 or 60 years, it means a costlier and less reliable electrical supply. At the end of 2016, up to one third of French reactors were offline due to technical difficulties and France was forced to buy electricity from its neighbours for the first time in years. This kind of problem will only become more frequent.

Carbon push

The new government has to find a solution to this predicament. It was therefore not completely a surprise when Nicolas Hulot, a former environmental activist who is France's new minister of ecological transition, said on 10 July that France may close up to 17 of its 56 nuclear reactors before 2025. A couple of weeks later, he appeared to backtrack, stating that "all options were on the table" including a "more realistic calendar". But whether in seven, 10 or even 15 years, decreasing the share of nuclear to 50% will require a staggering effort: by comparison, since the beginning of the Energiewende in 2000, Germany has reduced its nuclear production by only 85 TWh.

In its "plan climat" presented on 6 July, the new government set another ambitious target: reaching carbon neutrality in 2050. This goal is in line with the Paris Agreement, which states that the world should become carbon neutral during the second half of the century, but it is a significant step forward compared to the previous "facteur 4" objective, which only aimed at cutting GHG emissions by a quarter by 2050 compared to 1990. Carbon neutrality means that emissions have to be drastically cut and that the remainder have to be compensated for by natural or artificial carbon sinks. This will only be possible with a set of technologies, such as biomass plus carbon capture and storage or direct air capture. These are still in early development.

In the meantime, a wide arsenal of measures to decrease fossil-fuel consumption was unveiled. The "Contribution Climat-Energie", a tax on energy consumption proportional to its carbon content, will climb from €30 ($35.45) per tonne of CO2 currently, to €86/t in 2022. The government will invest €4bn over 10 years to help renovate 7m apartments and houses with poor insulation. The last five coal-fired power plants will have to close by 2022. A law will be voted before the end of the year to ban all new oil and gas exploration. Factoring current permits, this means that fossil fuel extraction will disappear in France around 2040. Sales of "cars that emit GHGs" will also be prohibited in 2040.

Macron's mandate starts with a bold vision: decreasing reliance on nuclear energy while also reducing GHG emissions and fossil-fuel consumption. If he delivers, France will embark on an energy transition more ambitious both in scale and timeframe than Germany's. In the context of US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and of great uncertainty on the future of European energy policies, these efforts are likely to draw a lot of attention.

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