Energy drive

Published : Jul 04, 2008 00:00 IST

France, as the next head of the E.U., faces the challenge of adopting clean fuel and finding new energy sources.

recently in Paris and Lille

IN July, France will be taking over the rotating presidency of the European Union (E.U.) for a period of six months. The responsibility comes at a crucial time. The high oil prices, the present and future projections of global geopolitics, and the E.U.s resolve to adopt clean fuel make it clear that the challenge before France is not only to secure sustainable competitive, secure energy sources for domestic use but also to resolve national disparities at a pan-European level. In the context of protecting Europe from external energy crises and in achieving secure and clean energy supply, a diverse mix of energy sources would be the best path to follow. In effect, this would mean an attempt to coordinate energy policies with other member-states, no easy task given the fact that energy-related decisions were taken unilaterally before the E.U. was formed.

There is, however, one common factor in the current situation that binds E.U. members that is, its striking similarity with a crisis 30 years ago when oil prices quadrupled just as they have now. Frances response at that time was to opt for a path of self-sustainability and adopt nuclear power while other countries continued to import fossil fuels.

As in the rest of the world, the main challenge before the E.U. is to reduce its dependence on oil imports. Last year, E.U. nations agreed on an informal energy policy that essentially said it was a priority to use sustainable, diverse and efficient sources of energy. During discussions, the two top priorities of all the countries became clear security of energy supply and cost-effectiveness of energy sources. But there was one radical deviation all countries agreed that a variety of low-carbon technologies should be included in their forthcoming energy policies.

Since energy is responsible for 80 per cent of all E.U.s carbon emissions, it was essential for the member-states to adopt a strategy that was committed to reducing greenhouse gases. The challenge before France is to take this forward. Renewable sources of energy were the most obvious option, but the problem of achieving a cost-effective balance remained.

In order to follow through on this demand for a diverse energy portfolio that generated low emissions, the European Commission published a Strategic Energy Review that said, For 2050 and beyond, the switch to low carbon in the European energy system should be completed, with an overall European energy mix that could include large shares for renewables, sustainable coal and gas, sustainable hydrogen, and, for those member-states that want to, Generation IV fission power and fusion energy.

As the rest of Europe, France is pursuing a goal of sustainable, competitive, secure and clean energy. Given the present and projected situations of global geopolitics, it is only natural that a diversified mix of energy sources is looked at.

At present nuclear stations, oil, gas and renewable energy sources (in that order) account for the primary energy supply in France. The country is planning to intensify production from traditional renewable sources such as wind and geothermal and hydel sources and also explore newer techniques to generate energy from biomass, sewage and landfill gas and municipal solid waste.

Biofuels remain a contentious issue in France, as elsewhere, but tax reductions as well as capital grants are in place to promote their use. In order to encourage the use of renewable energy sources numerous schemes such as tax credits of 50 per cent, VAT reductions and subsidies for biomass heating plants are in place.

Identifying the transport sector as the largest consumer of energy, France uses a system of incentive contractual arrangements to run its public transport. Studies conducted by various independent authorities confirm that incentive contracts lead to better technical efficiency.

The northern city of Lille has a model public transport system that operates on a contractual basis. The system offers a high-speed underground train service, the first in the world to be automated; buses that run on biogas; and trams. The frequency and cost of the public transport system encourage people including city officials to use it.

Small deterrents such as queueing up for tickets and the long wait for trains and buses have been eliminated with the introduction of convenient options such as an integrated smart card system. Smooth intermodality between the different modes of transport has encouraged even people living outside the cities to use it. Stations offer conveniences such as terminals where people can register for health insurance and check the details on the government family welfare site.

Public approval for the system was evident from a 24 per cent increase in the use of public transport between 1998 and 2008. But Lilles most impressive achievement is the use of biogas for operating its transport system. In a good example of closed-circle waste management, Lille uses its local waste and sewage for fuelling 75 per cent of its fleet. This comes from treating and converting 100,000 tonnes of organic waste annually.

A self-service system of bicycles has also found favour with the public. Publicly owned bicycles were launched in 1976 in the French city of La Rochelle, but it is only of late that the idea has really caught on.

The Velib bicycle scheme started in Paris last year was an instant success and, apparently, has already had 19 million users. The system is quite simple. There are about 21,000 cycles available for hire.

A cycle can be picked up for a small fee, ridden to a destination, and deposited at another cycle stand. Within the past year 15 cities across France have adopted this system and eight more plan to follow suit.

Despite a serious agenda for renewables, France remains committed to nuclear energy. This has been the cause of much cross-border and international discord but Frances devotion to a nuclear energy programme has given it the advantage in the current climate change debate. The country has one of the lowest carbon dioxide (CO{-2}) per capita emissions in the E.U., which it attributes to the use of nuclear power.

Frances turn as E.U. President comes just eight months after the creation of the European Nuclear Energy Forum. This conglomeration of European Commission stakeholders is meant to debate the pros and cons of nuclear power while keeping in mind the need to decrease emissions and reduce dependency on imported oil. With its history of nuclear power, France is suddenly at the centre of what many call a nuclear renaissance in Europe.

A highly placed source at the CEA (Commissariat a lEnergie Atomique), Frances research body on nuclear energy, said: There has been a significant change in the European landscape and there is now a trend towards nuclear energy. It is generally accepted that if you want to deal with climate change you cant do it without recourse to nuclear energy. Even the notoriously anti-nuclear E.U. is willing to consider nuclear power as one of the answers to greenhouse gas emissions.

France is also working with the United Kingdom on building nuclear plants. The British Energy Minister has described nuclear energy as safe and affordable. Italy, which shut its last reactor in the late 1970s, too, has said new plants will be constructed in 2013.

France itself plans to build more nuclear plants. On the international front, France has initialled an agreement with India to develop nuclear cooperation. Only Germany seems to be opting out and plans to shut down nuclear operations totally by 2020.

The French have good reason to promote nuclear energy. Nuclear power accounts for more than 40 per cent of the countrys needs and provides almost 80 per cent of its electricity far higher than the E.U. average of 31 per cent.

France even sells electricity to neighbouring countries and takes a wry view of the fact that some of the importers are countries that have a strong non-nuclear policy. Public support for nuclear power is further enhanced by the fact that the country has not witnessed any major nuclear mishap. Even the inevitable doubts about disposal of nuclear waste and the availability of uranium are handled with confidence.

The CEA says that the availability and sustainability of uranium is not an issue because of the closed-circuit method of production in which the maximum is extracted from uranium. This also means there is less waste to dispose of. At present nuclear waste is buried deep but ongoing research by the CEA to transmute the waste holds further hope for safer disposal techniques. Though the CEA does agree that nuclear energy is not a panacea it believes that it is a vital element, especially in this crucial period when the choice is between finding cost-effective renewable sources and the continued use of fossil fuels.

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