Energy transition: the good and bad role models

Energy transition: the good and bad role models

31 January 2019
energymix EnergyTransition Nuclear
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When we hear about energy transition in the media, it’s often difficult to distinguish between what’s true and what’s false and to understand which changes can have a real impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. China and the United States are often considered as bad role models, whereas Germany and France are viewed as being more of a good example. And yet the situation is far from being so clear-cut, not least because achieving energy transition is not just a question of putting in place national policies on so-called renewable energy. The article below provides a recap.

Changing global energy policy with the ultimate aim of only using carbon-free sources is a major challenge, especially as energy needs will continue to increase significantly in the next thirty years in view of the world’s growing population. It is because of this context that the notion of energy transition originally came into being, with the Paris climate change agreement giving the world an acceptable and accepted roadmap for achieving that transition.

And yet, the policies and investments being implemented today by the world’s nations seem neither to be sufficient nor to form part of a real global dynamic. Individual nations remain overly focused on their own interests, which makes it very difficult to shape a global energy transition trajectory that is smart and coherent from both a climate and economic perspective.

From Asia to Europe: a few good ideas but a lot of inconsistencies

Let’s start with China. In order to drive its economic growth and improve its people’s living standards, the world’s largest economy has until now mainly used coal for its energy needs, and it’s still building new coal-fired power plants. So, at first glance, China doesn’t seem to be a good role model for energy transition.

However, at the same time, China is leading the way for investments in renewable energy. It has over 135 GW of solar capacity (out of a global total of 470 GW) and some 180 GW of wind power capacity (out of a global total of 550 GW). It also has an ambitious new-build programme for nuclear reactors, with the world’s first new-generation EPR entering into operation at Taishan in December 2018.

But these significant efforts mask the fact that CO2 emissions are still going up in China. At the Paris Climate Change Conference, rather than agreeing to reduce its emissions, China agreed to limit their growth. To support its economic growth and make the air in its major cities more breathable, it’s now using zero-carbon production methods for some of its new electricity needs, but it’s also continuing to develop the use of coal. And so the objective of going green would appear to come second place for China – i.e. after meeting its economic and social objectives.

Another major emerging power, India, has to not only fulfil the growing expectations of its middle classes regarding living standards, but also to satisfy the energy needs that come with its soaring population growth. Despite an established solar power plan and an ambitious nuclear programme, India’s energy mix will remain dominated by coal for a long while yet.

So we’ve seen that China and India need to combine their ecological goals with growth objectives and that their choices are still guided by their national ambitions, but what’s the situation in Europe?

When it announced it was phasing out its nuclear power plants, Germany was perceived (and still is by some people) as the energy transition standard-setter. But Germany is still massively reliant on coal-fired power plants and is even continuing to build new ones. Wind power – both on- and off-shore – and solar power only account for 22% of the country’s electricity production, and the use of these energy sources has already pushed up household electricity prices, which are now 30 euro cents/KWh, versus 16 cents/KWh in France.

As for France, the law passed in 2015 more or less mirrored the German approach. But three years down the line, we can see that the objectives set in that law are unattainable: energy consumption has not decreased and it will be impossible to cut nuclear energy’s share of electricity production in France to 50% by 2025 (if this ever really was a target). Likewise, it will not be possible to develop renewable energy at the pace provided for in the law.

Add to that the inconsistencies – or even a certain cynicism – of many European countries which are using China as their manufacturing backyard, meaning that in their national reporting they can leave out emissions deriving from the manufacture of goods that their populations consume. Rather than manufacturing efficiently in Europe and emitting slightly more CO2 to make these goods, Europe prefers to import them from China and therefore emit three or four times more greenhouse gases from China than if the goods had been manufactured locally.

So what is the path to achieving energy transition?

Individual national interests are always much stronger than international good intentions. This is an unavoidable geopolitical reality. So what can we do to be a responsible player in the energy transition process?

The answer is we need to consume more responsibly. That first means using electricity as our main form of energy. All of the experts agree that only electricity-based energy solutions can be “decarbonised”.

Consuming responsibly also means viewing energy as a scarce resource that we shouldn’t use in abundance. We need to create a deeply-embedded energy-saving culture so that people recognise the real value of energy. Even if a KWh of electricity is not particularly expensive in itself, there are many simple ways of immediately saving energy and therefore reducing CO2 emissions in countries that still use coal, oil or gas to generate their electricity. Switching lights off when we leave a room, for example, or turning the heating down when we’re not at home, or using LED bulbs.

In parallel, we need to generate our electricity better, which ultimately means no longer using fossil fuels. To achieve this objective we need to ask ourselves how much electricity we’re going to need in 2035, and in 2050…And how can we produce such carbon-free electricity at an affordable price for as many people as possible?

That brings us to solar, wind, hydraulic and nuclear power. In view of the intermittence of solar and wind power, and pending the major technical and economic innovations still required for storing the electricity generated (innovations that aren’t around the corner), nuclear power will continue to form an integral part of a responsible energy transition process.

Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in almost all of its envisaged scenarios for limiting global warming to 1.5°C by 2100, talks about keeping, and even significantly increasing, the installed base of nuclear reactors across the world.

There is still much potential for progress when it comes to nuclear energy – both from an economic and technical perspective. But in order to be able to continue its development, the industry has to further improve its governance by becoming much more international – just as the global aeronautical sector has managed to do in the realm of safety.

Solar power likewise offers extensive room for progress on the technical, efficiency and yield fronts, especially for self-consumption systems. Wind power technology, on the other hand, is mature and is not expected to result in any further ground-breaking changes concerning technical or financial performance.

In conclusion, therefore, it can be said that tomorrow’s zero-carbon energy world will be founded on two types of power – nuclear and solar.

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Jean-Louis Ricaud

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