UK, France should put citizen solar ahead of nuclear, says former EDF chief

The nuclear energy strategies of France and the U.K. are short-sighted, expensive and very risky, and citizen-owned solar and wind schemes should be the way forward, says former EDF director Gérard Magnin, who resigned in the summer in protest at the U.K. government’s approval of the Hinkley Point C plant.

Writing in the Guardian, the ex-EDF board member also labeled the current state of France’s nuclear industry as being in "the worst situation ever", and called upon British and French energy regulators to ditch its nuclear plans in favor of increasingly affordable solar and wind energy schemes that put individuals and communities at the heart of a decentralized system.

"The potential for citizen involvement in electricity production is considerable," Magnin wrote. "A recent study showed that by 2050 half of all Europeans could produce their own electricity either at home, as part of a cooperative, or in their small business. Counting generation from wind and solar power alone, these small actors could meet almost half of Europe’s total electricity needs.

"Even more people could support the energy transition, and share in the benefits, by storing power in batteries, electric vehicles and smart boilers. This enables the grid to draw power when it’s cheap and plentiful, and temporarily lightening the load if there’s a peak in demand."

Magnin left EDF in July when the company was given the greenlight to build the Hinkley nuclear plant in Britain, calling the technology earmarked for use in the plant’s design as "very risky". Known as the European Pressurized Reactor (EPR), the technology is said to be too sophisticated and expensive to ever be viable. "But a lot of people in EDF assume their commitments and try to save the face of France."

Since approving the nuclear plant, British officials have conceded that the energy produced at Hinkley will be more expensive than solar at GBP 85-125/Mwh by 2025. Official government calculations forecast that solar will cost as little as GBP 50/MWh by that date.

"The most surprising thing for me is the attitude of the U.K. government that accepts the higher cost of electricity in a time where the costs of renewables is decreasing dramatically," wrote Magnin. "In ten years, when Hinkley Point C is due to be completed, the cost of renewables will have fallen again a lot."

Much of the controversy around the proposed nuclear plant has been rooted in perceived costs and dangers, but for a former EDF head to so publicly attack the plans is particularly noteworthy. Magnin has since gone on to create a community renewable energy platform designed to support citizen-driven schemes in solar and wind, and is convinced that a decentralized system is the way forward for both France and the U.K.

"Renewable energies are becoming competitive with fossil fuels and new nuclear, such as Hinkley Point where EDF will try to build the most expensive reactors in the world and provide electricity at an unprecedented cost," said Magnin.

Recent nuclear closures in France have seen the U.K. exporting electricity across the English Channel this week for the first time in four years. Nuclear currently meets around 75% of France’s energy needs, but the French government has pledged to reduce that figure to 50% by 2025 while increasing the amount of solar to 20.2 GW by 2023.

This year, France will install just over 1 GW of new PV capacity, which is just below the U.K. However, in 2017 France looks set to remain a gigawatt market, while British installations are expected to tail off sharply.