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The French could be 94% renewable by 2050

France's négawatt sketches energy transition

The independent French think tank has published an impressive collection of interactive graphics that show not only where France is today, but where it could be by 2050.

A few decades ago, US environmentalist Amory Lovins coined the term "negawatt" to indicate a unit of energy no longer needed – to stress that efficiency and conservation are the biggest "sources" of energy. The French think tank négawatt has taken up the term in its own campaign for a French energy transition.

Last month, the organization published a series of interactive graphics showing not only a lot of data about the status quo in France, but also where the country could be by 2050. Even if you don't speak French, you will probably be able to navigate the charts easily aside from a few false friends (for instance, sobriété means conservation, not sobriety).

For instance, the organization believes that France could reduce its energy consumption by roughly two thirds from the current 3,000 terawatt-hours down to 1,000 in mid-century. The country's biggest source of energy, oil, would drop in the process from 600 terawatt-hours down closer to 60.

The chart on nuclear (which is unfortunately a bit scrunched up) envisions a complete nuclear phaseout by the early 2030s, which is not even necessarily an ambitious target. On the contrary, most European countries have aging nuclear fleets and face a complete nuclear phaseout roughly within the next two decades if they do not start building new nuclear plants soon.

 - One of the charts from the new interactive series for a French scenario. (Click to enlarge)
One of the charts from the new interactive series for a French scenario. (Click to enlarge)

The chart on renewables has an interesting lineup in order of output by 2050. Solid biomass comes in first at around 260 TWh, followed by wind at around 210 TWh, with biogas coming in third at around 160 TWh. The great share of biomass is perhaps not that surprising considering that it can provide not only electricity, but also motor fuel and heat. Nonetheless, Germany and Denmark seem a bit concerned about the potential of biomass and are also focusing more on storing excess electricity as heat to allow wind (in the case of both countries) and solar (in the case of Germany) to make up a greater piece of the pie. The chart on biomass explains that solid biomass is based on "the same forest surface area" as today, which would simply be exploited more efficient.

The share of "solar thermal" (39 TWh) in the French scenario is also surprising. Because power from CSP is somewhat dispatchable, the proper comparison is with photovoltaics (90 TWh by 2050) + storage, but even then I remain skeptical that CSP will be competitive. Furthermore, CSP is only feasible in the southern part of the country, and even then conditions are not ideal.

[UPDATE: the authors say that "solar thermal" means solar thermal collectors, not CSP, so see my follow-up.]

The scenario does not foresee a 100 percent switch to renewables, with around 61 TWh of oil and gas remaining in 2050. Nonetheless, the remaining 94 percent of energy supply would be renewable, and overall consumption would be reduced by two thirds. Aside from some of the minor differences between the French scenario and what I am used to seeing in German, the main takeaway is the same: we will not be able to switch to a large share of renewables unless we reduce consumption considerably. (Craig Morris)

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