‘Wind and solar power make it impossible for France to close down its remaining fossil fuel power stations’
“My parents having little time for excursions,” wrote Marcel Proust “took the habit of letting me go walking without them around Méséglise, enveloped in a large plaid blanket which protected me from the rain and which I threw all the more willingly over my shoulders because I knew that its Scottish stripes scandalised Françoise . . .”
As there is Thomas Hardy country in the Dorset Hills, the phrases of Marcel Proust meander, like lanes lined with his favourite, racily-scented hawthorn flower, through the countryside where he spent his summers as a child, until you wonder if they’ll ever, ever come to an end.
À la recherche du temps perdu is full of the flat, big-skied upland around Illiers-Combray, west of Chartres. It was conducive to his meditations, his aesthetic enthusiasms, his perceptions of the human psyche and human ridiculousness (usually his own). Its places were too. Like Saint-Jacques Church at Illiers-Combray (Saint-Hilaire Church, Combray in Swann’s Way) whose tower was the measure of all things: “It was the Saint-Hilaire tower that gave all occupations, at all hours, from all points of view on the town, their shape, their crown, their consecration.”
That church tower is 45 metres high. Construction has been approved to surround Proust’s Combray with three windfarms whose blades will rise 150 metres into the sky, 35 metres higher than Chartres Cathedral itself.
At the peak of the coronavirus panic on April 21, the French government quietly issued “Decree number 2020-456 relative to pluriannual energy planning”. Ignored by the media, it contains, nevertheless, a bomb. A dramatic down-scaling of nuclear power and up-scaling of renewable energy.
France will, over the next eight years, build 6,500 new wind turbines to add to the 8,100 it already has. They will be larger than the existing ones so the new wind farms will enable France to more than double its existing installed wind power capacity.
France is engaged in an act of landscape spoliation on a massive scale, from the vineyard slopes of Burgundy to the fortified medieval city at Carcassone. Construction recently began of a windfarm next to the Mont Sainte-Victoire, the craggy mountain near Aix-en-Provence, the one that Cézanne painted over and over again.
“They ‘uniformise’ the landscape,” says Julien Lacaze, president of France’s century-old landscape preservation society Sites et Monuments. Different parts of France have different countryside and different architecture. Take roof tiles. Slate in Brittany, coloured and varnished in Burgundy, terracotta in the south where the Romans, so they say, moulded them on girls’ thighs; wind turbines are the same everywhere.
They have a nice name in French. Éoliennes. From the Greek god of wind Aeolus (Éole in French). But, says Lacaze, they are like the white PVC door frames that are replacing varied, ornamental, wooden ones all over the country.
The constant movement of the blades is exhausting too, he says. “It’s something that we’ve inherited from our hunter ancestors. If something moves, even in the corner of your eye, your attention is attracted to it.”
The biggest problem is the scale. French church towers are usually lower than the one at Illiers-Combray at about 30 metres. The windfarms going up now in France are 185 metres high. A prefect in Burgundy has authorised the construction of 65 wind turbines that will be 240 metres high. The Eiffel Tower is 324 metres high. It’s good to have one of these. Having thousands would be quite different.
None of this would be alright if it didn’t cost anything but, according to the French Court of Audit, the newly-agreed expansion of renewable energy (including solar, biomass, etc.) is going to cost £110 billion.
And here’s the good bit. For this money, France is going to get no reduction in carbon emissions. Thanks to the nuclear power programme begun by General de Gaulle in 1945 that made France by far the biggest per capita nuclear power producer in the world, 90 per cent of French electricity is already carbon-free. In 2019 French electricity was 71 per cent nuclear, 11 per cent hydro, 6 per cent wind and 2 per cent solar. Only 10 per cent was CO2-producing thermal (mainly natural gas).
France is spending £110 billion to solve a problem it doesn’t have. And wind and solar make it impossible to close down its remaining fossil fuel power stations: wind turbines generate about a quarter of their installed capacity because the wind often doesn’t blow enough, doesn’t blow in the right direction or blows too much. For solar power the number is even lower. Fluctuations are huge from day to day, even from hour to hour.
If it were possible to store electricity efficiently, this wouldn’t be a problem. But there isn’t so there is. There’s a bit of pumped storage (water pumped to a high reservoir with surplus power and released through turbines to a low reservoir to generate electricity when it is needed most), but France is already using most of its hydroelectricity potential. Battery solutions are only at research stage.
So, in order to avoid drops in wind turbine electricity supply to the grid leading to power cuts, the electricity company needs to switch to some other source. Stopping and starting nuclear power stations is slow and costly. Thermal is the only real option. In France (and the UK), it’s mainly gas.
Last year, nuclear electricity production fell while France sharply increased its wind power production—and increased its fossil fuel-based electricity production.
France has announced that it will close 14 nuclear reactors by 2035, bringing nuclear power’s share of the electricity generation mix down to 50 per cent. This is likely to have a similar effect. By closing nuclear reactors to achieve its target of 40 per cent renewables in the energy mix by 2030, France may actually end up moving further away from its objective of carbon neutrality by 2050.
France doesn’t need the extra electricity production wind and solar bring. It could get that easily by cranking up its nuclear plants to full capacity. Neither does it need them to decrease carbon emissions.
Wind turbines are, for all intents and purposes, decorative. Tens of billions of pounds to decorate the countryside with millions of tonnes of concrete and metal. That really would have scandalised Françoise.