Nuclear: the Achilles’ heel of EDF’s Hercules

In la Tribune 16/102019

The Plan named Hercules must split EDF’s integrated model in two: nuclear, gas and hydraulic power generation on the one hand; distribution, sales and renewable energy networks on the other. But this plan is distressing for three reasons: organization, energy independence and the environment

Organization: from two to four, then from four to two

First torment. Hercules is presented as a copy/paste of the German plan that followed Fukushima and precipitated the closure of nuclear power by accelerating the development of renewables. After lengthy negotiations, in 2016 it succeeded in breaking into four companies the integrated model of the two German electricity producers competing with each other, RWE and E.ON : two with power generation, nuclear, coal and trading, two with electricity distribution and renewables. But, weakened, the fourth, Uniper, was cut and sold in pieces. And anticipating another dramatic cut, quickly, 18 months later, in March 2018, the German-style concertation rethought the plan and returned to the duopoly. This defragmentation was implemented in automn 2019. RWE reintegrated the global upstream power generation activities (coal and lignite, nuclear, gas, renewable) plus wholesale electricity sales and 17% of E.ON’s capital; downstream E.ON combined the global distribution of electricity and gas. The 2016 plan was short-term and therefore losing out, while efficiency in electricity is 2019 and the return to the long term. As a fact, since the March 2018 announcement, RWE shares have doubled and are expected to increase by 50% over the next 5 years.

With regard to this Berlin’s round trip, Hercules is 2016. It will therefore be incomplete, because it does not consider the sector, but only EDF, and a pragmatic plan would have saved time by directly copying the Berlin of 2019. Under this hypothesis of an orderly disintegration, Hercules would have transformed EDF into a world producer and wholesaler of electricity like RWE, and like E.ON another major player in the sector, such as Engie, would have been involved in world distribution of power and a gas. Thus, the distribution of EDF’s debt would be simpler than between EDF Blue and EDF Green. Delivered from the special tax, VAT surtaxed, and subsidizing renewables, the French electricity bill would be reduced by 15%. EDF would attract young engineers again; Arenh system would no longer create losses and would eliminate the spectrum of another Areva, equalization would no longer be in danger and the FNCCR would keep access to Enedis, and the future infrastructure of the electric car would be better decided. Ultimo, EDF would recreate value, its share would rise, as would Engie’s.

Is this positive list iconoclastic? In Germany, experience says no. But will we wait for other constraints (see the entry of Chinese CTG at Energias de Portugal) to force things, or will EDF be added to the “it will never happen” catalogue: Alcatel-Lucent, Alstom-GE, Arcelor-Mittal, Areva, CLAL-Fimalac, Lafarge-Holcim, Péchiney-Alcan… ?

Second fault

The second fault of Hercules lies in the blindness of the copy/paste of renewables. French rural areas already disfigured by onshore wind turbines would have to accept more, while in Berlin they get tired of it while the cessation of subsidies caused the bankruptcy of Senvion, the fourth largest wind energy company in Germany, with 4,000 jobs at stake. For their part, our seas cannot accept the volume of German or English offshore wind turbines, because our shallow seabeds are narrow. The solar energy is made in China and our peak consumption in the evening in January and February is the opposite of our peak sunshine in summer, the north only has an average of 1,100 hours of usable light per year, the south only 40% more. Conversely, the 2,500 to 3,000 hours of regular sunshine in Morocco, Arizona or California will marry all year round with the peak daily consumption at noon.

Copying and pasting is therefore unsuitable for green electricity to produce up to 50% of our consumption, but urban renewable energy may be an option: wind and solar power in cities, on defence towers, on peripherals, thermal renovation, smart cities… Why don’t municipal candidates take up the subject?

Energy independence and metal dependencies

The second Herculean anguish is “energy independence”. It is a failure in England where electricity is no longer national, distributors fail and on August 9, 1 million households were cut off from the grid. As a result, it talks about renationalizing National Grid, the local RTE…. In Germany, despite the retirement of nuclear power and lignite/coal by 2038 at the latest, wind power without subsidies is no longer laughing at all, Berlin is moving towards a dependence on Donald Trump gas or Russian gas.

It is here that a false friend of energy independence appears: the storage of hydrogen. It comes today from the vaporeforming of natural gas, whose carbon footprint is not zero, but tomorrow it should come free of charge from the electrolysis of water thanks to the fatal electricity of renewables. However, without nuclear or thermal power, there is no more fatal electricity which, to manage intermittency, will be stored in batteries, via metals at volatile prices (vanadium, cobalt, nickel…). That storage will mechanically increase the cost of wind power, even to 50 euros/MWh. However, if the hydrogen hypothesis were to persist without free of charge power, produced from European or extra-European natural gas, its outlets would have to remain industrial, as its electricity would be produced via platinum-charged fuel cells. The market for this expensive metal, still without substitution, produced in South Africa and Russia, is narrow with fugitive prices.

There would be so much to say on this subject about metal dependencies and the fake-news that gnaw at it, because I am not sure that Hercules has measured its impact or asked who will agree to pay that price.

Concrete, copper, steel, metals and critical materials

Third torment of Hercules. In 2018, Eurostat reported that 45.9% of European electricity came from thermal, 25.5% from nuclear, 12.2% from wind, 11.8% from hydro, 4% from solar and 0.6% from other sources.

Replacing this 71.4% of thermal and nuclear electricity with solar, onshore, offshore, or even floating windmills would be a Herculean extractivist effort: a gigantic production of concrete sand, copper, iron and coal for steel and other critical metals and materials.

Unfortunately, wind turbines in Europe, China and the United States are slaves to intermittency of the wind, they only turn between 20% and 25% of the time (24% in France). That is, they actually produce electricity only for 4 to 5 years during their 20 years of life, no more. The life expectancy of a solar panel is same pattern, but already trapped overnight, it produces more towards the equator than towards the poles. In addition, with concrete, copper, steel and other critical materials once again, the energy of wind and sun, which is very diluted in the atmosphere, must be re-concentrated undergone by the race for renewable energy gigantism.

But it remains imperfect. With wind, the electricity actually produced by 900 giant onshore, offshore or floating wind turbines of 6 MW each is just equal to that of a single 1650 MW power plant. This is why, between intermittency and concentration, a wind or solar MWh will cost the planet about 5 to 10 times more in various natural resources than a nuclear MWh. This mining is hardly weakened by recycling, which is incomplete by definition: what about the circular economy of concrete blocks or wiring after dismantling a wind turbine?

High consumption of natural resources

What is the link between Hercules sand, concrete, copper, steel and other critical metals and materials? It is a very long-term consumption of many natural resources, but whose extractivist philosophy has never been revealed. Unconsciously hidden, it has not been embodied in ecological accounting and I regret that we are not yet dynamically measuring the cost of one MWh in kilos of copper, concrete or liter of water… That is why, although we have other solutions, we devour these natural resources where the wind and sun are moderate, rather than generously reserving them with efficiency in regions of the world where the wind and sun are regular or abundant.

A Hercules alleviated of these three fears would help EDF to reform itself, because it would no longer be an orphan of hope, but built by a holistic dimension and a bold strategy. They themselves would then be the bearers of an integrated organization, energy independence and a responsible and accountable ecology of natural resources.