France uses Renewable Energy to offset a Decline in Nuclear Power Generated Electricity

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 4th, 2012

Week in Review

France may be moving ahead in renewable energies but they are only a sideshow to the major electricity producer.  Nuclear power.  In the grand scheme of things there is only one renewable energy that is a serious player.  Hydroelectric power.  Which is picking up the slack during some planned outages at their nuke plants (see French utility EDF sees profit up 4.6 percent as renewable energy offsets lower nuclear output by Associated Press posted 7/31/2012 on The Washington Post).

Electricite de France saw profits rise 4.6 percent in the first half of the year as growth in renewable energy offset lower nuclear output…

The increase in profits and sales came despite more planned outages at nuclear plants — and also unexpected extensions of those outages — this year than last. The company’s chief financial officer Thomas Piquemal said those issues should be resolved by August.

Hydropower, which struggled last year, and other renewable energies made up the difference. Excluding one-off charges, the group’s net income grew 10.3 percent.

Executives said that the group’s better-than-expected results were also due to a reduction in costs.

One would almost get the impression that the French, too, are abandoning nuclear power in favor of renewable energy sources.  To save the planet.  Well, they are pursuing renewable energy sources.  But they’re not abandoning nuclear power.  Because they can’t.  Taking a look at French electricity production explains why.  (These numbers are pulled from Table 6 in The French wholesale electricity, natural gas and CO2 markets in 2010-2011 and Part V in THE FREN CH ELECTRICITY REPORT 2010).

(Note: The variation is in electricity produced.)

Nuclear power produces the majority of French electricity.  About three-quarters of it.  And they were increasing their nuclear capacity in 2010.  And of all their electricity sources nuclear power is operating nearest full capacity.  Of all the nuclear reactor capacity they installed 74% is producing electricity.

The next largest producer of electricity is hydroelectric power.  And it only produces 12.4% of all electricity.  Of all the generating capacity of hydroelectric power only 31% actually produced electricity.  So more than two thirds of hydroelectric dam capacity sat idle.  Hydroelectric power increased 9.9% in 2010 “as a result of changes in the availability of water resources and the use of reservoirs” according the French Electricity Report.  Which means hydroelectric power is only as good as the volume of water behind those dams.  And once they build those dams it’s up to the weather to snow in the winter (in places that have winters with snowfall) and rain in the the spring, summer and fall.  With more than two-thirds of installed capacity sitting idle either it hasn’t rained or snowed enough in the mountains.  Or that water is being diverted for other uses.

The next largest producer of electricity is natural gas producing 5.5% of the total.  Because of the speed they can bring a gas turbine on line we often use these to handle peaks in demand.  So they don’t run all of the time like the nuclear power plants that provide the baseload.  Based on these numbers the baseload handled the electrical demand most of the time as these gas turbines only produced at 42% of their installed capacity.

After natural gas comes coal at 3.5% of the total.  A 7.6% drop from the previous year.  With 72% of installed capacity sitting idle.  A basic shuttering of the coal industry to make way for renewable energy.

Wind power produced 1.7% of all electricity.  An increase of 22.2% from the previous year.  So they’re increasing wind power.  But it’s almost statistically insignificant.  Worse, of the installed capacity only 24% is producing electricity.  That’s because they can only produce electricity when the wind blows.  But not too fast.  Or too slow.  Only a narrow band of wind speeds can produce electricity at the same frequency (typically 50 Hertz in Europe) that matches the grid.

And solar power produced a statistically insignificant 0.1% of the electricity total.  And this is a 281.6% increase over the previous year.  But of the total installed capacity only 34% of it produced electricity.  Because it is sometimes night.  And sometimes cloudy.  Which is why it will be difficult to get a large percentage of our electricity from solar power.  The fuel may be free.  But it’s just not always there.  Also, photocells are semiconductor devices that produced low DC currents.  So you need a lot of solar arrays to produce useable power.  And additional electrical equipment to convert the DC power into AC power.  And more if you want to store power during the day to use at night.  So even though the fuel is free solar power can be very expensive.

So nuclear power isn’t going anywhere in France.  It’s too reliable.  And it’s just too prevalent.  To replace that capacity would require enormous amounts of money.  Which just isn’t that prevalent during a European sovereign debt crisis.

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