Hiding from the truth about 100% renewable energy

The French government has joined the Australian government in ignoring their own reports that say a transition to 100% renewable energy is feasible and involves little extra cost.

Mediapart obtained a report from the French government’s own environment and energy agency body ADEME that showed to use 100% renewable energy by 2050 is materially and technologically feasible and would cost relatively little more than the current electricity supply which is 75% nuclear.

Yet the government is holding a conference with the theme “40% of renewable electricity by 2050: is France ready?” A presentation on 100% renewables was mysteriously removed from the agenda at the last minute, but Mediapart obtained a copy of the study.

Flamanville 3 nuclear reactor under construction

Image (EDF): The Flamanville 3 nuclear reactor was estimated before construction to cost 3.3 billion Euros, but by its intended completion date in 2012, this had blown out to 8.5 billion Euros, with the completion date pushed back to 2016.

The study finds that President Francois Hollande’s target of reducing nuclear from 75% to 50% by 2050 would only be slightly cheaper for consumers than their 100% renewable scenario, sinking claims by pro-nuclear advocates that their favourite tech is the cheapest.

Some people just don’t want to hear the good news. Does this sound familiar?

The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), which oversees the National Electricity Market system (comprising the eastern states and South Australia) published a report in 2013  which looked at several scenarios for Australia to transition to 100% renewable energy in 2030 and 2050, using different rollout schedules and different technology mixes. One of their scenarios showed 100% renewables as soon as 2030 would have a similar cost to the public as maintaining our current energy mix (with the carbon price).

Subsequently, the Australian government are looking at dismantling our far more modest existing target for 41000 gigawatt-hours of renewables by 2020 (about 25% of our energy in total), despite other of their own reports that indicate less renewables will in fact cost consumers more over time. The notion of 100% renewable energy has been ignored by all but the Greens (whose recent NSW election campaign made it a key policy) and micro-parties like Socialist Alliance and the Save the Planet Party.

The AEMO report, commissioned as part of the coalition agreement between the Greens and the Gillard government, was ignored but not suppressed, as the French report appears to have been. The French report, despite being labelled “final report” in the leaked version, has had its release postponed til the northern autumn, with ADEME claiming the study was incomplete. Mediapart say the copy of the report they have made available  seems complete as is.

Autumn is, conveniently for the incumbent French energy utilities, after the French climate and energy agency (DGEC) have put forward their key propositions for what will no doubt be an only partial transition to renewables.

Who is afraid of 100% renewable energy? We can include the coal, gas and nuclear industries with the Australian and now French governments.

Given that France is hosting the international climate negotiations later this year, it makes this news all the more relevant. 2050 is a meaningless date as far as current political negotiations go (and too late to act to prevent dangerous climate impacts), but showing the feasibility of 100% renewable energy is a potent weapon in making action happen.

What’s in France’s 100% renewable energy mix?

The optimal mix of renewables identified in the report was 63% of electricity produced by wind turbines, 17% by solar energy, 13% from hydraulic sources and 7% from renewable thermal sources (such as waste incinerators and geothermal). The large reliance on wind energy is made possible by recent developments in wind turbine technology that enable them to operate in lower wind speeds.

The balance of solar and wind is designed to iron out most variability in each energy source. For times when these are insufficient, energy storage technology is included. Pumped hydro systems, batteries, and using surplus electricity to manufacture gas fuel for storage are the key technologies.

Alternative mixes were surveyed, in case (for example) high levels of onshore wind turbines being built met community resistance. The report suggested greater use of solar photovoltaic, development of marine wave power technology, and greater use of backup energy storage systems to compensate for less onshore wind farms.

The costs of several scenarios were examined: 100%, 95%, 80%, and 40% renewable energy by 2050. The government’s current plan is for about 40% renewable energy, meaning about 50% nuclear; a plan which the study found would result in an electricity cost of approximately 117 Euros per megawatt-hour. By contrast, 100% renewable energy would only cost 119Euro/Mwh.

Interestingly, going nearly-100% renewables did not result in significant savings. 95% renewable energy would lower the costs of building energy storage, allowing shortfalls to be met by nuclear or fossil fuels instead; but the cost modelled was only 116Euro/Mwh, with 80% renewables falling to 113Euros/Mwh.

According to Mediapart, the report does not claim to be the last word in renewable energy planning, but is a rigorous study that took 14 months, and has been reviewed by experts from the energy utility RTE (a subsidiary of EDF), from the International Energy Agency, oil multinational Total, the French meteorological agency and others.

Suppressing such a study while the nation’s utilities are planning the pace of their transition to renewables would appear to be a scandal of the first order. Making the report unavailable as governments and people worldwide consider their approach to the Paris international climate negotiations later this year is no less irresponsible.

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