Long-awaited French energy bill puts renewables center stage

France’s highly anticipated energy transition law, announced earlier this week, seeks to gradually reduce the country’s reliance on nuclear power between now and 2050, with renewable energy brought ever closer to center stage.

The energy transition law, described by French environment minister Ségolène Royal as the "most ambitious in all of the EU", was presented on Wednesday and revealed that renewables have been set a generation target of 32% by 2030, with a target to cut C02 emissions by 40% on 1990 levels by the same date. Further, fossil fuel consumption is also targeted to fall by 30%.

Energy targets for further ahead were also outlined, with a four-fold C02 emissions cut targeted by 2050, based on 2012 levels.

Nuclear still at the forefront

The often-divisive issue of nuclear power in France was given careful consideration by the government. As a key part of President Hollande’s election strategy in 2012, Royal was at pains to announce incremental reductions in the country’s reliance on nuclear power, rather than swingeing cuts.

Hence, the draft law outlines that the proportion of France’s electricity generated from nuclear sources is set to decrease to 50% by 2025. Currently, that figure stands at 25%, indicating not only how dependent France is currently on nuclear power, but also the size of the task the country faces in transitioning down to just 50% reliance.

A recent report from French grid operator RTS put the current figure at 73.3% in 2013, with renewable energy achieving penetration rates of 18.6%. Tilting this balance further in the favor of renewables – particularly solar PV – appears to be the easiest win for Royal, although she was careful to press home the fact that nuclear will remain France’s leading source of energy for some time to come.

"France has chosen to go with nuclear," she said, adding that it will remain "the lynchpin of our energy mix" until way beyond 2050.

Financing the transition

During the bill’s unveiling, Royal also announced a financing agreement via a network of leading French banks in which €10 billion ($13.39bn), spread over three years, will be funneled towards aiding the energy transition.

However, some environmental commentators in France feel that such a sum is not enough to satisfactorily achieve the proposed transition. “The minister put the figure at €10 billion over three years in the form of tax credits, energy cheques and funds to support local communities, individuals, businesses and banks, particularly in the energy renovation or transport sectors,” said a statement by the WWF France. "We estimate that annual funding requirements of an extra €30 billion are required."

Compelled to match the EU Commission’s targets on C02 emissions, Royal nevertheless drew praise for France’s ambitious targets on renewable energy, which exceed the recommendations of 27% set out by the Commission.

"This law will make France the country of environmental excellence," Royal said, affirming that France will carry more clout when national leaders come to debate the Commissions proposed 2030 targets at the summit in October.

"France must act as a positive example for other members," the minister added.

France’s solar ambitions may have stalled in recent years, but the country still added 613 MW of PV capacity in 2013, according the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA), and is on course to get close to that figure in 2014. The country’s FIT scheme has a clear and stable evolution, and political support is happy to sanction the installation of 1 GW of capacity per year – below the heights of 2011 and 2012, but an encouraging compromise nonetheless.