Category Archives: renewable energy

French Ecology Ministry downsized and downgraded in reshuffle

Last month’s cabinet reshuffle left the Ecology Ministry – the former jewel in Sarkozy’s crown of 2007  – shrunken and downgraded. Jean Louis Borloo has been replaced by Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet as Minister, with a smaller title (Energy and the Sea have been moved elsewhere), and ranking in the government downgraded from number 2 to number 4. Borloo was Minister of Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development and Sea, and Kosciusko-Morizet is now Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development, Transportation and Housing.

Adding insult to injury, President Nicolas Sarkozy has betrayed a key promise of the 2007 Grenelle – that the Ecology Minister would be ranked Number 2 in the government. It is now ranked number 4, behind Defence and Economy and Finance. Energy has gone to the Ministry of Finance.

Friends of the Earth warned that the shift of Energy to the Finance Ministry presages the return to a policy of favouring more nuclear and fossil energy production, thereby satisfying the big corporate lobbies at the expense of the interest of citizens.


Documentary explodes myth of nuclear energy as clean and green

France: Pierrelatte

France: Pierrelatte

Since the 1970s, France’s commitment to nuclear energy has been axiomatic and based on a societal consensus that it provides energy independence as well as a source of energy which is both clean and green. The green component of the argument rests on the assertion – taught to all engineering students as gospel – that 97 % of spent nuclear fuel in France is recycled and transformed into re-usable fuel. That myth was shaken last week by a documentary broadcast on Arte entitled “Déchets – le cauchemar du nucléaire” (Waste: the nuclear nightmare) which showed that EDF, which is France’s main electricity provider, sends nuclear waste to Siberia where most of it is not recycled, but instead is laid to rest in the atomic security complex of Tomsk-7, Siberia.

The documentary provoked disarray in parliament, where the Junior Minister for the Environment, Chantal Jouanno, said she would order an internal enquiry. Speaking on France Info radio, she said: “For my part, I haven’t been able to confirm or deny this information, so there has to be an enquiry.”

The main argument of the documentary is that Areva and EDF run a fuel “cycle” where after first use in nuclear power plants, the fuels are treated and transformed into 3 % of of nuclear waste which has to be stored, 1% of plutonium which is re-used to make MOX (a mixture of uranium oxide and plutonium) and 96 % uranium which is enriched to produce new combustible fuels.

Whereas in fact, of the 96 % of the uranium which is sent to Russia to be enriched, only a tiny fraction is actually re-used (in 4 out of France’s 59 nuclear power plants). This means the real rate of re-use is closer to 10 %. Areva and EDF maintain that under French law, it is illegal to send nuclear waste overseas, and therefore the 96 % of uranium which goes to Russia is recyclable fuel.

Now, the fact that this used uranium is sent to Russia is not news. An official overview of France’s nuclear policy is available online, and the pdf entitled “L’énergie nucleaire en 110 questions“, on page 45, states the following: “The volumes of URT (uranium issu du retraitement) used today in France do not justify the extension of or the creation of a specific industry dedicated to the manufacture of URT fuel, this is why it has relies on existing installations overseas, for example in the Russian Federation.”

The semantics of this debate clearly illustrate the chasm between France’s elite engineering corps – notably graduates of the Ecole Des Mines – and the political class and civil society, both of whom have probably fallen victim to a kind of consensual blindness in wanting to believe the myth of a perfectly clean, green and safe nuclear industry in the competent hands of the country’s best and brightest, who themselves have operated behind the veil of their techno-scientific jargon which few have sought to explain clearly to the man in the street.

Earlier this year, Areva withdrew the use of its corporate slogan “L’Energie au sens propre” (“Energy in the literal sense of the term” with a play on the word “propre” which means clean) following action by the ARPP (France’s watchdog for advertising standards) based on a complaint filed by the Green party that the claim that nuclear energy was clean was inconsistent with the production of nuclear waste. Watch this short video (set, oddly, to “Funky Town”) to get a sense of the corporate message Areva is trying to get across – the offending slogan has been replaced by “Experts en énergie (Energy Experts).

What’s left of the Grenelle?

Eighteen months after the Grenelle de l’Environnement, it’s worth taking a look at what’s left of the promises made by President Sarkozy and Jean-Louis Borloo in October 2007. At the time, the meeting was welcomed as innovative and participatory because it brought NGOs into the decision-making process.
Since then those same NGOs have been criticized for their endorsement of a process which has been battered, diluted and edited beyond recognition.

Grenelle I, a broad, big picture text which lays the groundwork for the major reforms envisaged in the Grenelle, was voted in unanimously in October 2008 and appeared to signal a new consensus on the environment among the mainly right-wing deputies. But NGOs were quick to point out that a lot had been sacrificed: the pledge to end the “all-road” era is gone; energy descent targets have been watered down; environmental health has been almost entirely abandoned, the nuclear lobby has been strengthened and it is now impossible to ban a dangerous substance if it is allowed by the European Union.

Grenelle II, which will get a first hearing in parliament in the early months of 2009, will present more challenges to as it is not just more controversial, but also highly technical, and lays out – sector by sector- the major reforms to be implemented in a range of areas from urban planning, construction to carbon capture and biodiversity.

The main axes are:
• Construction – improving energy performance of existing buildings
• Urban planning – compete overhaul to take into account new energy/climate targets
• Transport – series of incentives to boost public transportation use
• Energy – mandatory carbon audit for towns with more than 50,000 residents and companies with more than 500 employees
• Ban on advertising of pesticides to individuals; of cellphones for under-12’s; obligatory labeling of phones and wireless boxes to indicate strength of electromagnetic charge; nanoparticles; biodiversity corridors

Disappointment among the Greens, the left and the NGOs can be summed up by this commentary which ran in December’s issue of La Décroissance: “Elimination of the anti-nuclear movement and political ecology, assertion of the primacy of sustainable development and green capitalism, relaunch of car sales and economic growth, skyscraper construction: this was the deal that the Grenelle participants took part in.”

Geothermal electricity project in France gets underway

France inaugurated an ambitious pilot project last month to produce electricity at a commercial scale using geothermal energy in Soultz-sous-Forets in Alsace.

The project – a Franco-German joint venture – is the world’s most advanced project of its type for the mass production of geothermal energy. If successful, it will be followed by an industrial prototype of 20 megawatts with the capacity to supply electricity to a town of 20,000 residents.

At the official inauguration on June 13, Prime Minister Francois Fillon injected the first geothermal kilowatt into the Strasbourg electricity grid. 

How does it work? The basic principle is to convert the high temperatures deep below the earth’s surface – 200 C at a depth of five kilometres – into electricity. By fracturing granite bedrock at that depth and pumping its saline water, engineers are able to extract the rock’s thermal energy and use it to produce electricity. Some local residents have filed lawsuits claiming property damage from the shaking resulting from the underground blasts.

The Soultz project was initiatied in 1987 and funded by the European Commission. Since 2001, it has been managed by a consortium of European energy companies, including France’s EDF. Technical details available here.

via Actu-Environnement


Summer reading list

Bastille Day signals the start of summer in France, and, as if by magic, the weather has gone from grey and chilly to picture perfect for the national holiday. Here’s my list of books to read for the summer. What’s on yours?

“Une mer sans poissons” by Philippe Cury and Yves Miserey

“Resilience Thinking” by Brian Walker and David Salt

The Geography of Hope” by Chris Turner

“Deep Economy” by Bill McKibben

“The Green Marketing Manifesto” by John Grant

The Bottom Billion” By Paul Collier

Starck’s wind turbine

photo courtesy of Flickr

Unveiled in Milan this April, Philippe Starck’s wind turbine is priced at 300-400 euros, looks like a cake beater, and is available in six different sizes. Attractive, affordable, and yard-ready, Starck claims that it can provide between 10-60 percent of a household’s energy needs.

via Ob Designer


Thoughts on the R-word

R is for rationing – a dirty word that everyone is avoiding, but which looms nonetheless as the unspoken sub-text of all public discourse on the current scarcity of resources – food, fossil fuels and water. It’s also referred to as demand management, if you like institutional gobbledygook.

Growing up in Hong Kong, I remember water rationing. The water was trucked over from China and the British army distributed it to households once a week. When resources are rationed, behaviour modification follows suit. Seen in that light, it might not be such a bad thing.

This month’s issue of La Decroissance has an interesting commentary on the subject: “What if rationing, fortuitously, instead of being a constraint which is imposed or even voluntarily agreed upon, became the opportunity to invent another type of society which is more respectful of nature and humans?” It points out that rationing already exists in a number of countries: water in Algeria and Jordan, electricity in Brazil, South Africa and Niger where big cities are plunged into darkness 12 hours a day and Cuba, where many essentials like rice, bread and soap are rationed.

Denis Baupin, deputy mayor of Paris and a member of the Green Party, has called for the creation of a kind of rationing card for fruit and vegetables which will allow low-income households to buy 40 euros worth of organic fruit and vegetables per month.

Yves Cochet, another Green deputy in Paris, said in a recent interview with Le Monde: “Politicians are afraid to address the subject of economizing energy, of saying ‘We have to tighten our belts’.” Energy descent is not articulated as a goal in the European Union objectives for climate change. Right now, the objectives are: by 2020, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, renewable energies to account for 20 pct of production, and a 20 percent increase in energy efficiency.

via La Decroissance and Le Monde