EDF scientific chief: A 100% renewable energy system is impossible

First rotors being mounted at the Teesside offshore wind farm. North Sea, United Kingdom. [EDF Energy]

Fossil-fueled power is still necessary to balance the intermittency from renewable electricity production. But costs are rapidly dropping, and the socio-economic drivers are in place to support the transition towards renewable energy, says Jean-Paul Chabard.

Jean Paul-Chabard is Scientific Director for Research and Development at EDF, Europe’s largest electricity utility.

Chabard spoke to Pavol Szalai, Senior Editor at EURACTIV Slovakia.

France has recently experienced strikes in the refineries as well as in nuclear power plants operated by EDF. It has been a crisis. If we consider that every crisis can be a catalyst for transformation, can this one lead to something new and positive in the energy sector?

First let me clarify my position: I am Scientific Director of EDF R&D, not EDF’s spokesperson. I speak only within my competences, which are the scientific questions of the energy sector.

Do crises bring progress? Any crisis whatever its character raises the question of resilience of large socio-technic systems. If you take the 1999 storm, which tore down a big part of the French electricity transport system, big strikes in the transport, or terrorist attacks, they make us reflect on the large socio-technic systems.

The transport system, the distribution grid, the city, the IT systems are all interconnected. We ask ourselves how to make them robust and resilient against a disturbance, which can be a laboru strike or a terrorist attack.

For example, this crisis shows us the extent to which we are dependent on petrol in transport. France is one of the European leaders in electromobility. Can this crisis push us towards thinking more about electricity in the transport sector?

Of course, people reflect. Electromobility makes us less dependent on the sources of energy from abroad. In terms of energy independence, our energy systems depend on secure uranium supply. We also have stocks of hydraulic energy; we can manage them in an optimal way.

The electric vector helps us to improve energy independence. Another advantage of electricity is that it allows to decarbonise economy under the condition that it is produced by decarbonised energy sources.

We see a strong trend – not only in Europe, but worldwide – in using electricity. It replaces fossil sources of energy as well as human energy. Our grandmothers washed clothes by hands, we have a washing machine. Electromobility is the substitution of thermic energy by electric energy. In the French industry, we have done a lot to promote electricity, because it leads to more energy independence.

Its second advantage is that it is strongly decarbonised. While Europe emits on average 350 kilogramme of CO2 per Megawatt-hour (MWh), in France it is 15 kg/MWh. It’s because our electricity is produced mostly from nuclear energy, hydraulic energy, and other renewable energies.

France relies a lot on nuclear energy. After the Fukushima accident, France passed a law to reduce the share of nuclear energy in the electricity mix from 75 to 50% by 2025. Doesn’t this reduction testify of a doubt about nuclear energy, which can have a negative impact also on research?

There is no doubt about nuclear energy. It is efficient, competitive, and decarbonised. We still have huge nuclear research programs to permanently improve safety.

Based on the lessons from Fukushima, we reinforced the safety of French reactors, which implies also research activities. For example, here in Paris-Saclay, we have created a laboratory on seismic issues in partnership with other research institutions. There is no doubt about nuclear energy, because we also extend the life of the existing reactor fleet.

We build new reactors, whether it is today in Flamanville, or tomorrow in England. There is no doubt about nuclear energy, there is simply a necessity, which is normal, to diversify energy sources under the condition that it will allow decarbonisation of electricity.

Humanity is not facing a lack of energy, but climate change. The reserves of oil, gas, and coal can produce energy for centuries. But it is not sustainable, because we may feel the effects of climate change well before, including its catastrophic aspects.

Can EDF extend the life of existing nuclear power plants and build new ones at the same time? The French Law on Energy Transition imposes a ceiling on production capacity.

The Law on Energy Transition imposes a ceiling on the installed capacity at 63.2 GW, which is the current capacity. The grid connection of new reactors like EPR in Flamanville will lead to the disconnection of other reactors. We cannot extend the life of all reactors at the same time as connecting Flamanville and respecting the Law.

Reactors will be closed because of their age and safety, or because of economic considerations?

I cannot answer this question. I am at EDF R&D, I am not the operator of the nuclear fleet.

New nuclear reactors are mostly built in Asia. In Europe, only four units are in construction. European public opinion has turned largely against nuclear energy. Can research save it?

Countries have, of course, very different positions on nuclear energy. Some have decided a nuclear moratorium, others invest in developing new capacities. The UK, for example, belongs to the latter group. EDF is there an important player.

We hope that tomorrow the construction of new reactors will start and all of them may not, by the way, be built by EDF. Every country can make its choices. But we don’t see from the part of the European Union a general decision to stop nuclear energy.

We speak a lot about nuclear energy, but we should not forget that EDF is today one of the top European producers of renewable energy and we are by far the largest constructor of wind parks in the United States. In Europe, we want to double our capacity of renewable energies from 25 to 50 GW by 2030.

What is the focus of your nuclear research? Is it the fourth generation reactors, waste management, or safety?

Safety, reactor life extension, performance of the existing fleet. The decommissioning part is marginal. The fourth generation will come in a relatively long time. It is more up to the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies renouvelables (CEA), with whom we of course work, to prepare it.

The management of the waste with the highest radioactivity – spent nuclear fuel is considered the Achilles’ heel of the nuclear industry. Is research in this domain sufficiently advanced?

There is an institution in France called Andra, which is responsible for radioactive waste and which runs a very important research program. One of its missions to propose a solution for the underground disposal of highly radioactive and long-lived waste. There is an enormous research going on, which from my point of view is satisfactory.

I am asking because this research has not yet resulted in the operation of such a disposal.

It takes a lot of time.

When the public looks critically at nuclear energy, it is also because of the waste management.

The time scale is relatively long. The volume of spent fuel coming out of reactors is relatively small. It can be stored before treatment. Then it will be ultimately disposed. It is true that the public opinion would like to have a solution allowing the transformation of nuclear waste. That is not the way it works. Taking time to treat them doesn’t mean we cannot treat them.

You raised the question of a new UK nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point. The investment decision has been delayed to fall 2016. Do you have confidence in this project?

Again, your question comes out of the perimeter of my competences. It is not EDF R&D, which manages this project.

Nuclear energy in Europe is developed today mostly by France, the UK, and Central European countries like Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Do you work with Central Europe or do you have information about the cooperation?

Concerning research and development, we have common projects within the EU. There is a program called Nugenia.

What is the goal?

There are various fields – safety, life extension, reactor performance. Nugenia is funded by the EU and has various academic partners across Europe selected via public procurement.

EDF R&D also has a team in Poland.

Yes. They are focused mostly on coal-fired power production.

The big dream of the green movements in several countries is to have an electric system powered 100% by renewables. Will that be possible in the future?

Renewable energy is an umbrella term for a group of energies which are not exactly comparable. Norway is 90% powered by renewable energy. It is hydraulic energy. Norway has a relatively low population density with a strong watercourse, which allow for an important production of electricity. Moreover, they stock electricity thanks to pumping stations. All European countries don’t have the same capacities. Developing hydraulic energy is easier in a country with a small population.

If you wanted to build a dam in the Netherlands or Belgium, you would get into trouble. First, because of the terrain. Second, because they are densely populated. The hydraulic potential varies across countries.

In the coming years, intermittent renewables will grow. Contrary to coal-fired, gas-fired, or nuclear plants where you only need the fuel to produce electricity, in the case of intermittent renewables it is the weather deciding. And you don’t necessarily produce electricity when it is needed.

In such moments you need other means to compensate – conventional ones. Or you need to store electricity, which is today very costly.

So in order to develop renewable energies like wind and solar, we still need conventional means of production and the development of electricity storage.

We need means to manage the intermittency. Today we cannot build an economically sustainable system of 100% intermittent renewables.

So it is possible technically, but not economically?

There are other problems on the technical side. We drafted a study on a European electricity mix 60% powered by renewable energies.

Three times more than today?

Approximately. But there are considerable issues. We would need considerable capacities to balance out the intermittency. It is not only necessary to bring to equilibrium supply and demand – that is the minimum – but also maintain the frequency. And for that we need systemic services. They are held today by European companies which rely on fossil-fired power. If you take them out, you will have a grid which is difficult to manage.

A 100% renewable energy system is still hard to manage. It is technically impossible and economically unsustainable.

Can you make an estimate when it will be possible at the current rhythm of research? In this or more probably in the next century?

It depends what we call 100% renewable. We will still need complementary sources. It will depend on the development of economically sustainable electricity storage. In order to build them we need batteries and for that we need raw materials. Are they sufficiently present on Earth to assure the necessary storage capacities? I don’t know.

But we already see that the cost curve of intermittent renewables is strongly decreasing. Costs decreased for photovoltaic panels, for onshore wind, too. In the case of offshore wind, the costs will be high in the beginning. Electricity storage will develop. The drivers are there for us to see in this century a system with more intermittent renewables. Whether we will go towards 100%, I don’t know.

Will we move above 50% in Europe in this century?

It is not completely unimaginable.