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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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