Electrical independence; I like EDF?

In Les Echos 18 01 2019

Looking at it twice, the situation of electrical independence in the United Kingdom, Germany and France is in real contrast.

Compared to its 2006 peak, the 2018 trend in UK electricity production shows a decrease of about 16%. In this bearish environment, last year

  • Gas-fired power plants produced about 39% of the country’s electricity production,
  • Nuclear 20%,
  • Coal 5%,
  • Fuel oil 0.5%,
  • Wind power 20%,
  • Solar 1.5%,
  • Biomass, including wood combustion imported from the United States 11%,
  • Hydro 2%,
  • other 1% ;

However, imports of French electricity were up and equivalent to 6% of UK’s production. This is of course 6% of French nuclear electricity which is consumed in the United Kingdom as soon as local means of production are intermittent or simply undersized.  This observation indicates an opaque future for Albion’s electrical independence, or even a kind of announced disaster. In question is the anticipation of events and decisions:

  • Attrition of gas reserves.
  • Desertion of national nuclear skills.
  • Import of wind turbines. No national manufacturer, therefore no acquisition of local industrial knowledge.
  • Conversion of coal-fired power plants to oil-fired power plants, but also that of Drax Energy using wood imported from the United States with a highly controversial carbon footprint, not to mention the depletion of plant species.
  • Liberalisation and multiplication of electricity distributors leading to bankruptcies; 8 in 2018, and already another one at the beginning of 2019.
  • Consumers without a reliable electricity supplier.
  • Growth in electricity imports from France, Belgium, Netherlands, Ireland…

Total, despite excellent and growing wind power generation, the future British electricity strategy is in a state of disarray, further aggravated by the Brexit break-up. This one pushes back Japanese, and perhaps Chinese, investors in charge of building the nuclear power plants of the future, forcing English electricity to three dependencies. One linked to Chinese, Danish or German wind turbines; another linked to imports of American LNG-shale-gas or Russian gas; the third linked to imports of nuclear electricity from the continent. Winston would probably have had a nightmare of such a strategy of electrical independence that would almost resemble, humor aside, the motto of the free commune of Montmartre: “For what is against… Against what is for”.

Germany, for its part, saw less dispersed power generation in 2018.

  • The shares of coal and lignite were 38%,
  • Nuclear at 13%,
  • Gas at 8%,
  • Other including oil 2%;

The performance of the electrical transition allowed the country to rely on an average of nearly

  • 20% wind electricity,
  • 8% solar,
  • 8% biomass,
  • 3% hydro.  

However, this wind proportion is highly variable. For example, between 1 and 15 January 2019, the share of German wind power generation compare with national production evolve successively from:

35 %, 33 %, 19 %, 32 %, 39 %, 18 %, 26 %, 53 %, 43 %, 11 %, 28 %, 44 %, 58 %, 48 %, 45 %.

On the other hand, coal, lignite and gas were on the same period:

26 %, 36 %, 54 %, 44 %, 37 %, 53 %, 49 %, 25 %, 34 %, 62 %, 49 %, 32 %, 17 %, 28 %, 32 %.

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Long live the accordion!  But this dance is expensive.

The daily repetition of start-ups and shutdowns of gas or coal-fired power plants to balance supply and demand is expensive. Some have thrown in the towel. It is also expensive to erase consumers to avoid grid failure, cf. the almost European blackout on 13 January due to the shutdown of over-capacity power plants at around 9 pm.

In addition, Germany’s future electricity transition strategy is in trouble, as Berlin will publish its energy report on February 1. This will set the date by which Germany will cease to produce its 40% coal and lignite electricity. 

In addition to the social challenge, 20,000 coal miners and electricians are employed there, in addition to the cost of compensation for companies such as RWE, the replacement of coal means more gas.  Where will he come from?

After the desertion of nuclear, coal and lignite, and with new wind power, Germany might produce every day 65% renewable electricity and 35% gas electricity from 2030 onwards. However, there will no longer be a safety net and, as in England, this result will lead to new and strong dependencies. One will be Chinese solar energy. The other will concern Russian gas, which is cheaper than US LNG gas shale. This gas debate already has a European political cost because it invariably leads us to this post about Denmark, Poland, Ukraine and European energy populisms and nationalisms.

What to conclude?

Our two dear European neighbours have each taken the major turning point in the electrical transition. They each produce more climatic electricity than we do, they each have higher electricity prices to consumers than in France, and they are each in the process of losing their electrical independence.

Basing a strategy on a climate ideology does not seem to be the key to future electrical independence. Far from being dependent on uranium (which is available everywhere and cheaply), France has cheaper electricity, thanks to nuclear power plants that tend to want to live longer.

In the future, if they are actively supported by renewables, they will prevent us, without carbon, from black-out due to the intermittent nature of the wind or the sun. But it is here that we like more the EDF built for electrical independence by the electricians of 40 years ago, and that we would like to like the EDF of tomorrow: the EDF of electrical independence offered by the circular nuclear economy.

Indeed, our future strategy of electrical independence can mean adopting this circular economy by recycling the waste from our current plants into the fuel of our tomorrow’s plants (RNR). This subject has been widely discussed on this blog. Once transformed into fuel, these “waste” already stored on our soil already represent about 15,000 to 20,000 years of our current electricity consumption; between 2500 and 5000 years of European electricity consumption if we shared this electricity. This great clean-up offered by the circular nuclear economy can become the electrical independence of tomorrow’s continent, before seriously addressing the next step, fusion.