Hollande's energy policy will be out in the open soon
With his announced closure of the 1800 MW Fessenheim nuclear power plant recently, French President Francois Hollande appeared to be good to his pre-election word with regard to substantially reducing France’s nuclear dependency.
But given the reality of French reliance on nuclear power, and the wealth, influence and employment tied up in it, Fessenheim may turn out to be just a sop.
The French premier has consolidated a seemingly entrenched position on fossil power generation in general with his move to leave French shale gas untapped.
Even though Germany has embraced coal, Hollande won’t countenance it, despite the advances in clean coal technology.
His actions are politically motivated as a means of protecting a frayed alliance with the Greens, which may come back to haunt him as the economy grinds to a halt and job cuts pile in.
The issues now being faced by the majority coalition party stretch back to last years’ election wheeling and dealing.
The Socialists agreed not to field any candidates in around 60 constituencies. In exchange, the Greens accepted the Socialists’ goal of reducing France’s dependence on nuclear power for energy to 50 per cent from 75 per cent by 2025 — well short of the Greens’ own goal of zero.
Despite that, the greens, for a relatively small party, now have a big say, and their principles make them ideologically at odds with the realities of French economic strength.
France is the world's largest net exporter of electricity due to it’s very low cost of generation, and gains over EUR 3 billion per year from this. Furthermore the country’s nuclear reactors and fuel products and services are a major export and its 58 nuclear power plants count for about 75 per cent of the national power supply.
In addition they possess possibly the biggest shale gas reserves in Western Europe.
There is plenty of evidence to believe that Hollande is simply playing for time and unlikely to have the stomach to take on the unions, something that is unavoidable if he were to take a hard-line in delivering a reduced nuclear and fossil fuel future.
The nuclear industry alone employs about 400,000 heavily unionized workers, and French companies like Areva and Électricité de France are global leaders in the design and operation of nuclear technology.
As is the case with German utility bosses there is frustration amongst nuclear power insiders in France that Hollande, like Merkel, arrived at the nuclear power slashing objective, without any apparent appreciation of the technical aspects involved in such a dramatic move away from the staple French energy prop.
The tightrope act is compounded by the inevitable effect that going radically renewable would have on power supply and prices, if transition isn’t measured and gradual.
By encouraging EDF to build plants outside France, in other member states, Hollande may have a solution.
If France is to meet renewable energy commitments, without damaging the country’s economic future, Hollande must somehow find a compromise between morality and economy instead of the radical hyperbole he engaged in, in order to win power.
The deal that Hollande strikes with the unions will dictate the true picture for energy policy in France.