Climate Urgency: The race to 2050

Par Benjamin Bringard, Hatsuné Yoshikawa, Tidiane Ba, Elhadji Diop, Nathan Avis, Yamina Abdallah, Emile Maurer, étudiants ESTA Belfort, 05/2022

Mots clés : #Green Energy #Climate #Carbon Neutrality #2050 #Electricity #Sustainable development #Nuclear

Horizon 2050, how to reach our environmental goal ?

Nowadays, our planet is going through constant changes which might bring lasting damages. In order to avoid various disasters, we need to change our current lifestyle and our abusive consumption habits. All the science makes clear that urgent action is vital for us and the planet. One of the major changes that the world needs to make concerns the way we produce our energy. To do so, the French company RTE, or Electrical Transportation Network in English, has published a study detailing various measures that can be taken in order to meet the ecological objectives that the French electricity network needs to meet by 2050. In this article, we will discuss these measures and how they will impact both the population and the ecology.

Goal 2050: A new network

Our current energy creation, on a global scale, still relies heavily on CO2 generating resources, mainly fossil fuels such as coal or oil. However, it has become clear from recent scientific studies that it is necessary to get rid of almost all of them if we want to avoid an ecological catastrophe by 2050. As such, it has become necessary for all countries to rework their methods and their electrical networks.

The French electricity network is one of the most advanced with respect to the current ecological objectives. This is mainly due to the large presence of nuclear power currently in place, which provides about 20% of the country’s annual electricity consumption, while another 20% comes from non-carbon sources. This means, however, that nearly 60% of the energy consumed today in France is produced using fossil resources. This is far too much for what we need to achieve by 2050, with the goal of almost completely replacing these fossil fuels. 

Figure 1: Energy consumption by source in France nowadays.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Energy_mix_in_France.svg

However, this is not the only thing that needs to change with respect to French electricity consumption. Indeed, energy consumption must also be reduced, by an estimated 30 to 40%. Although many scenarios can be conceived to reach the ecological objectives of our new network, each with its challenges and constraints, it remains clear that the French network will mainly go in one of two main directions, whose issues we will explain as well as possible.

The RTE study proposes 6 scenarios to address these issues. They all represent our energy objectives achieved by different means, prioritizing different types of energy, whether offshore wind or not, solar or nuclear. Without going into the details of the exact amounts of energy estimated for each method, these scenarios can be studied in two major directions, renewable energy without nuclear or with nuclear.

Renewable energy development

The almost exclusive use of renewable energies such as wind, solar and hydraulic energy to produce electricity for our future network is the first major direction proposed by RTE. This idea may seem ideal, given that the production of these energies does not pose any major danger, either environmental or human. However, this solution implies many issues that need to be carefully considered, such as the increasing strategic importance of the metals needed to build these tools, or the flexibility needed for such a network.

Indeed, solar and wind energy production methods have the disadvantage of being dependent on environmental conditions. A wind turbine cannot produce electricity if the wind is not blowing, and a solar panel will have no effect at night or in heavy rain. As the share of electricity in our grid produced by these methods grows, so will the need for alternative means of generation, such as power plants that are capable of producing the electricity that might abruptly run out at any time.

However, this is not the only major constraint associated with this idea. Such a network, dependent on many production units spread across the country, would imply a highly developed maintenance infrastructure, in order to ensure that solar panels are clean, wind turbines do not have problems and other circumstances. This contributes greatly to the estimated cost of this scenario by several billion each year, making it very costly, although still feasible. The installation of elements such as offshore wind turbines also implies constraints to maritime activities such as fishing, causing possible conflicts of interest.

Other possible problems are not as significant as one might think. The area covered by these installations, for example, is much more negligible than most might say. Indeed, even if we were to achieve the goal of full renewable energy by 2050, the installations would only cover a maximum of 0.3% of the surface of France, or about 30,000 hectares. This might seem like a lot, but the current highways alone cover nearly one million hectares. There is a strong contrast in France between the visual impact of the current power grid and greener energies. Where the few power plants and dams currently in use in France are discreet, wind turbines and solar panels are much closer and visible, creating a strong impression, even though their actual presence is negligible. In the same way, the problem of the limited use of these lands can be mitigated by cohabitation. For example, it is possible to farm around wind turbines.

A simple example of the heavy quantity of transformations needed is the number of charging sites needed in the coming years, compared to what we have today.

Figure 2: Percentage of charging sites 2030 needs in place through 2020.
Source: https://www.automotiveworld.com/news-releases/icct-charging-infrastructure-to-support-the-electric-mobility-transition-%E2%80%AFin-france%E2%80%AF/

These transformations in the electrical grid will also pose challenges with respect to grid vulnerability. Between climate change, the intensity of which will depend on our efficiency, and changes in our production, we will have to take different situations into account. Where today’s grid is vulnerable to large temperature changes, tomorrow’s grid will be vulnerable to windless periods. All these elements might seem catastrophic, but they are really just different issues that need to be taken into account and anticipated. It is not possible to design a perfect scenario, but it is possible to design adequate scenarios. The RTE study also reflects on the place of nuclear power in our future network, and how it could reduce the intensity of the problems mentioned above, although it poses its own problems.

Nuclear energy

A scenario where the energy transition is 100% to renewable energies would indeed achieve the environmental objectives set for 2050. However, this scenario is particularly expensive and poses many logistical challenges that are difficult to anticipate effectively. However, our current grid already has a significant amount of nuclear power, which is the result of an energy independence plan from the 1980s. This strong base could reduce the impact of solar and wind power depending on where it is placed. 

Figure 3: Number of nuclear reactors in operation and capacity by age worldwide.
Source: https://www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/iaea-releases-2019-data-on-nuclear-power-plants-operating-experience

An important issue in this idea is that it is not often mentioned. Indeed, the current reactors are now about 40 years old. However, it is difficult and expensive to extend the life of a nuclear reactor beyond 50 years. It is generally believed that 60 years is a limit that should not be exceeded. This creates an important problem: The majority of the French nuclear fleet will have to be replaced by 2050. This means that simply maintaining it at its current state is a problem to be considered, with its costs and decisions to be made.

These decisions must be made as soon as possible, because the creation of a nuclear reactor takes several years. Thus, if France decides to create a new power plant today, it will not be operational before at least 2035. Because of this renewal, and the times involved, it is impossible to depend solely on nuclear power to achieve our ecological goals: it can only act as a support for a renewable energy network. The question that needs to be asked is how much nuclear power we want to keep in our 2050 grid. Nuclear power, while it has its own risks and consequences, such as radioactive waste or the risk of explosions, has the merit of requiring very little flexibility, covering one of the biggest problems of the previous idea. Even with the costs associated with the creation of new reactors and the maintenance of the previous ones, the estimated cost remains lower than that of a purely renewable grid. However, the danger of nuclear power plants cannot be underestimated.

Although technological advances may reduce these elements, it is impossible to neglect the risks based on possible advances. In economic terms, the integration of a significant amount of nuclear energy into this future grid would remain consistent in almost all situations, even in the case of almost no progress on cost reduction, which would normally occur naturally in the course of technology progression. It would also make the pace of implementation of renewable energy methods much more sustainable. Indeed, without nuclear power, the pace of implementation would have to exceed even that of the most dynamic countries in order to reach our carbon targets. It would therefore seem more realistic to maintain a certain amount of nuclear power, although the previous plan remains possible.

Urgency of the situation

No matter which solution France chooses to use, environmental measures must be implemented as soon as possible. All the studies and solutions chosen show us that action must be taken immediately. Putting France in a direction that would lead it towards decarbonization is therefore the first step to take. France but also the whole world must start to modify little by little all the sectors of activity to make them « green » and decarbonized. Another challenge we have to face is energy efficiency and its use. France is going to have to get used to consuming less electricity and especially to using it better. Whether it is in large measures like the solutions we mentioned in the article or in smaller measures. Whether it’s on a city scale with actions such as turning off street lights or making better use of all the city’s water systems. Or on the scale of the citizen who will reduce his own energy consumption. All these actions may seem insignificant but it is now that the changes must be made whether it is for a man or for a company like RTE. 

Références

RTE (2021) Energy Pathways to 2050. Retrieved from: https://assets.rte-france.com/prod/public/2022-01/Energy%20pathways%202050_Key%20results.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3dzJWcx2P8F5jRRvUwloGxOf_gWPC6PyuvTvp2IPobArxfkaR4n7RL84M

Pamela Largue (2020) It’s all about flexibility. Retrieved from: https://www.smart-energy.com/renewable-energy/renewable-energy-integration-its-all-about-flexibility/

Anmar Frangoul (2021) France’s love affair with nuclear power will continue, but change is afoot. Retrieved from: https://www.cnbc.com/2021/03/10/frances-love-affair-with-nuclear-power-will-continue-but-change-is-afoot-.html

Energy.gov, Advantages and Challenges of Wind Energy, Retrieved from: https://www.energy.gov/eere/wind/advantages-and-challenges-wind-energy

Lora Shinn (2018) Renewable Energy: The Clean Facts. Retrieved from: https://www.nrdc.org/stories/renewable-energy-clean-facts

Rejoindre la conversation

13 commentaires

  1. First of all I found your video very original and a change from the more « classic » presentation videos. Your article is very explicit, but I have a question: in the second paragraph you say that 60% of the energy consumed today in France is produced with fossil resources. In a really utopian world we would have to stop using fossil fuels but in a realistic world do you know what percentage of fossil fuels we would have to produce to reach the 2050 targets?

    Aimé par 1 personne

    1. Hey ! Thanks for the positive feedback. As for your question, i’m not exactly sure of what you mean, so i’ll try to answer as best as I can. Indeed, nowadays we still use a majority of energy produced from fossil resources.

      As for 2050 targets, the reachable goal is truly to stop using fossil fuels in our consumption, which is definitely hard. For this, many measures have to be taken, from a great increase in our renewable ressources, to a clear reduction in our consumption overall.

      J’aime

  2. First of all I wanted to congratulate you for your article which is very interesting. I had a question concerning the renewal of the French nuclear facilities. Recently, the French Nuclear Safety Authority expressed its fears about the possible corrosion present on 12 of the 56 reactors. According to you, what impact can this have on the construction of the new generation of EPR 2 ?

    J’aime

    1. Thanks you ! As for your question, I doubt that such fears would have much of an impact on the new generation of reactors. While this is something to fear, each generator goes through a lot of time and work before actually being used. As such, eventual defaults would probably corrected, and the evolution of the technology itself might erase the problem. As for impacts like the number of generator, we have to take into account that the majority of the present generators won’t be working in 2050, or will be at the end of their lifespan. As such, even if we were to stop some of them earlier than planned, it wouldn’t change much to the scenarios proposed here.

      Hope this helps !

      J’aime

  3. Hello the team !
    Firstly, thanks a lot for your work, what a great video you have made !
    But I am thinking about something …
    Do the scenarios integrate a relocation of production? (Automotive for example )
    Because this point is perhaps an important action coming from the National Low-Carbon Strategy in place.
    Thank you in advance for your answer and keep your motivation !

    Aimé par 1 personne

    1. Hello !

      The scenarios are mainly focused on the kind of energy we need to produce, and the potential problems surrounding them. As such, the energy production is focused on France, and doesn’t touch on other industries or subjects, really.

      I hope this help, have a nice day !

      Aimé par 1 personne

  4. Hello,
    I really like this article! It is easy to understand the climate emergency and the need for absolutely necessary change.
    It is easy to realize that everyone has a role to play in this change: the government, the company manager, the consumer etc…
    I hope that in the future we will use the planet’s resources more wisely.

    J’aime

  5. First of all, I would like to thank you because this article gives us some hope, it shows us that there are possible solutions despite all the problems. However, I have some questions:
    Firstly, do you really think that total renewable energy is possible? Knowing that it depends on weather conditions, we would have to find a way to store energy or totally adapt our way of life to energy production.
    Secondly, concerning nuclear power, if all the power plants have to be replaced what do we do with the « waste » from these plants? We dismantle them and then what?
    Thirdly, if the life span of a power plant is only 60 years maximum, this is not really a long term solution, will new power plants have longer life spans? Is any research being done in this direction?
    Fourthly, I would like to talk about waste, many people say that it is not huge and yet we do not know what to do with it at the moment, it is supposed to be buried but for the moment the tunnel is not ready and so for 4 years we will not know where to store our waste (see the programme Sur Le Front), how can we manage it with more and more waste?
    Fifthly, wouldn’t a European programme be more effective?
    Finally, I would like to congratulate you because your article is really very interesting and the video very original.

    J’aime

  6. Hello, I find your video well prepared and very original compared to other videos which are simpler as well as your article which is very interesting and complete.
    You talk about the energy transition towards 100% renewable energy with nuclear energy as the main source of energy. Do you think that this solution can really be adapted by the state?
    Thank you in advance for you answer, see you soon.

    J’aime

  7. The article is well constructed and encourages us to think about the best source of energy to consider by giving us a lot of information. If we want to avoid an ecological catastrophe we must therefore turn to other methods such as renewable energy or nuclear power.

    Do you think we have the capacity and resources to manufacture for example many wind farms/nuclear power plants…. etc?
    In effect, we are getting rid of some non-renewable resources and turning to others… Wouldn’t we have the same problem repeating itself in several years?

    If we had all the resources, and the budget, can you tell us what would be the possible ways of decarbonisation that European countries could do first? Which sectors of activity do you think should be prioritised for this change?

    Thank you for this very relevant article!

    Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

    J’aime

  8. Hi team!

    Thanks to all of you for explaining the key points of the article from the study of RTE and its various measures that can be taken in order to meet the ecological objectives that the French electricity network needs to meet by 2050.

    By reading this article, I realized two things:

    -First, even though you are suggesting reducing our electricity consumption, ideally by 30 to 40 percent in France to avoid an ecological catastrophe by 2050. I believe that this isn’t something that we can change anymore: reducing. If we don’t take into account the misused of electricity in certain cases, there is still going to have a high demand because of technological advancement, the development of electric cars, and the digitalization of the world. I think that the use of electricity is becoming vital and we have to work around it. That’s why I appreciate how in the end you highlight the fact of « using it better ».

    -And second, nuclear is a real investment to make. Nuclear power is one of the lowest greenhouse gas emitting energies in the world. Its very low CO2 content makes it an essential energy source for the low-carbon transition that we are actually in. The problem again as you highlight is the cost, however, I believe that like the covid situation, there seems to be a need for urgency in humanity’s life for investment to be made.

    Regardless, let’s hope that our leaders will take the good path, articles like this should be simplified and accessible to a lot of people!

    J’aime

  9. Your article is very interesting and shows a certain hope towards these objectives even if it will be of course hard to reach them.

    I am currently interested in nuclear fusion. Many say that it represents the future of the energy transition. In the south of France, 35 countries have collaborated to design a nuclear fusion reactor, they want to demonstrate that fusion can be used as a source of decarbonized energy on a large scale to produce electricity. The goal is to design a prototype of a new generation nuclear reactor. The problem is that researchers do not expect proof of energy and economic profitability before 2035.

    Do you think that nuclear fusion could be a good alternative to fission from 2035? Would it even be interesting to concentrate our research and our means on fusion to reduce these delays of profitability?

    Thank you for your investment !

    J’aime

  10. I really liked your article and especially the fact that you emphasised the urgency of the situation. Moreover, even if it seems impossible to achieve, you show us that everyone must make efforts at their own level and that we must act immediately. This gives hope.

    However, I think it will be difficult to get rid of fossil fuels until the new network is in place. And what worries me is that it’s going to take a long time to set up the network.

    I would like to know your opinion on the share of nuclear energy needed among all the electric energy. In your opinion, how many nuclear reactors would be needed?

    Finally, given the urgency of the situation, do you think the new government will be committed enough to this issue?

    Thank you for your article and the motivation you give.

    J’aime

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