Bernard Durand and Jean Pierre Riou, energy experts and authors of numerous articles in our columns, have just written “The treason of the clerics”, a voluminous working document on the perverse effects of the development of intermittent renewable electricity (iREl), which in Europe consist notably of wind power and photovoltaics. This 107-page document, accompanied by 30 pages of notes and references, aims to bring together the best sources to highlight the contradictions and dead ends of the various aspects of European energy policy. The two authors answer our questions here.
European Scientist: You titled your research work on intermittent renewable electricity in Europe “The Treason of the Clerics”. Why ?
Bernard Durand and Jean-Pierre Riou: “We took the title from a 1927 work by Julien Benda which made the headlines on the eve of the Second World War. In this lucid work, he defended the idea that the “clerics”, intellectuals whose mission is to defend justice and reason, had betrayed this mission for personal interests. In an afterword in 1946, he asserted that this betrayal served an undemocratic ideology and had precipitated the onset of war. Our book is likewise disturbingly topical. In Europe, these clerics, who are essentially the public authorities and elected officials, amass laws and decrees, but also lies, to impose the development of practically useless wind turbines and solar photovoltaics, for electoral goals and financial profit, to the obvious detriment of communities, citizens and the economy.”
E.S.: In your research, you state that intermittency is the source of all evils. Can you expand on that?
Bernard Durand: We’re talking about electricity, which is just one of the forms of the energy we use. The power of wind and photovoltaic electricities fluctuates considerably and constantly with the force of the wind and the intensity of the sun’s rays, respectively. They are intermittent, variable. These natural variations are obviously independent of human will. We cannot control them. Wind turbines and photovoltaic panels cannot follow demand, that is, adjust their production to our electricity consumption in real time and at the frequency of 50 hertz, two conditions which are essential for the stability of the electric grid.
So these sources of electricity are of little use standing alone. To be useful, they must be permanently associated either with controllable power stations or with storage to permit compensation for the intermittency. Because storage facilities do not now have enough capacity and probably will not for a very long time, controllable power plants are used for backup, generally running on fossil fuels (coal and gas) in Germany, nuclear in France.The result of all this is a series of problems resulting from the development of the iREN. We explain them in our book: a much higher price of electricity for the consumer, however much the production cost falls; lack of efficiency in lowering CO2 emissions from power generation in most European countries, which make heavy use of fossil fuel driven power plants; uselessness in countries whose electricity production already emits little CO2 due to their heavy use of nuclear and / or hydroelectricity — France, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland — and consequent irrelevance for the climate emergency; impossibility of doing without controllable power plants (nuclear in France), which must be kept on full power to cope with periods without wind and sun (night or very cloudy sky); inability to contribute to the electrical security of Europe; etc …
Other problems result from the iREl’s ecological impact: Wind turbines and photovoltaic installations have low power productivity per unit of area occupied. This makes them much more destructive of natural spaces, and they produce more waste. In France, iREM occupy 100 to 1000 times more surface area and produce 10 to 15 times more waste per MWh of electricity produced than nuclear power plants. And, as mentioned above, this electricity is unusable alone.
Jean-Pierre Riou: I would add that the lack of assured production from intermittent sources – wind and photovoltaics -means that the European electricity system must keep all of its controllable capacity, as shown by the figures for their development for what is now a quarter century of exponential growth of intermittent energies. This is particularly damaging to the nuclear economic model, which is indispensable. This intermittency also imposes a major restructuring of the electric grid to enable it to suppress large useless outputs locally as soon as the wind blows or the sun shines.
E.S.: From this point of view, how do you rate the European Green Deal as it was originally formulated? What do you think of the European Parliament’s new requirements aiming for a totally carbon-free Europe – we talk about carbon neutrality? (See the article by Samuel Furfari on this subject.)
B.D.: The policy of the Green Deal, and more generally the European energy policy, is deeply hypocritical and dishonest, because it consists of setting means instead of objectives. This is particularly glaring when it comes to electricity. It sets proportions of renewable electricity, in fact proportions of wind and solar PV electricity, to be achieved at set time horizons, and claims that this is to deal with the climate emergency, which is absurd. In fact, this would require setting a quantitative target for CO2 emissions per kWh produced, the same for all member states, leaving them free to choose the means to achieve these targets. It thus penalizes countries which already have very low CO2 emissions from their electricity production, such as France, for the benefit of countries where these emissions are very high, such as Germany. This bias suggests that the European Commission and Parliament are very open to influence, not only from Germany but also from the wind energy and fossil fuel lobbies, especially the gas lobby.
E.S.: As the German model has shown, iREl is not sufficient on its own up to now. Do you think that a technological solution will solve this problem one day?
J.P.R.: Since it is impossible to store electricity on a large scale at a cost acceptable to the community, Germany is considering increasing the power of its back-up gas power plants, with the hope of reducing its dependence on Russia through the production of green gas.
France Strategy recently recalled “To achieve carbon neutrality in 2050, we must stop using fossil gas. And because we cannot wait to know if we can win the bet on renewable gas before taking action, we must immediately begin to restrict the use of gas by focusing on other low-carbon energies, particularly electricity and biomass.”
Germany is doomed to make this gamble to prolong its headlong rush towards ever more intermittent energy. Yet no economic model seems to be envisaged in the medium term to achieve this. Meanwhile its electricity mix target for 2050 is on track to to emit more than 100 million tonnes of CO2 per year, or 5 times more than the French mix today.
B.D.: Since Jean-Pierre has just answered you on the case of Germany, I will answer on technological solutions. We would need to create enough electricity storage to accumulate enormous quantities of electricity, in order to replace controllable power plants as regulators of intermittency. Today’s types of storage canot do this, they can only play a marginal role. There are currently plans to create storage from hydrogen produced by electrolysis of water, the needed electricity being produced by wind turbines or solar panels, the hydrogen then being used to produce electricity on demand via fuel cells or hydrogen turbines. Although very complicated – a real Rube Goldberg machine – and therefore unsafe, this is technically possible on a small scale. But the energy efficiency of these processes is very low, 20% to 30%, which means that:
1-we would waste most of the electricity produced,
2-the cost of electricity would be considerably increased,
3- the impact on the environment, the surface occupied and the quantity of materials used, would be multiplied by 3 to 4 per kWh of electricity supplied to the consumer!
Fifteen years ago, the Norwegians tried to make a hamlet on the island of Utsira self-sufficient in electricity with wind turbines, using electrolytic hydrogen production and storage. After four years of setbacks, they gave up. You can never say never, but massive storage of electricity is currently like waiting for Godot, which we constantly hope for, but never happens.
E.S.: Do you think there is one country in Europe that is doing better than the others in terms of energy policy?
JP.R.: If we limit our response to electricity production, which is at the heart of our work and would help decarbonize other sectors such as heating and transportation, we can consider France to be a model in terms of climate change, thanks to a production mix more than 90% carbon-free since 1995 due to its nuclear power plants and hydroelectric dams. It is worth noting the efficiency of the United Kingdom, which has spurred considerable progress thanks to the leverage of a carbon tax, whose price signal has led to a drastic reduction in coal.
B.D.: I agree with Jean-Pierre concerning France, but only if it keeps its nuclear power, so that we can electrify transport and housing on a massive scale. It would have the best chances of doing so, but it is currently working stubbornly to ruin them!
If we’re only looking at the CO2 emissions per kWh of electricity produced, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland undoubtedly have the best results. But they owe this to a natural advantage that other European countries haven’t got, a very high per capita production of hydroelectricity. This is the only way Norway produces its electricity. Sweden and Switzerland also have significant nuclear production.
But when we consider energy in general, fossil fuels are the main suppliers in transport and housing, sectors that are very energy-intensive, and there are ultimately no very large differences between most European countries in terms of CO2 emissions per capita. Those that do not use fossil fuels to generate their electricity, i.e. the four countries above, have a clear advantage over the others. An energy policy that best preserves the future would be one that would reduce the use of fossil fuels as much as possible, on the one hand to emit less CO2, on the other hand to guard against a supply crisis, especially of oil, which is indispensable for transportation and thus the main determinant of our economic activity. No European country is there now.
E.S.: If you could advise Brussels, what energy policy(s) would you like to see for the EU?
BD: It would have to set per capita objectives and not means, leaving the choice of means to the member countries:
– A target path for the reduction of CO2 emissions on a European scale,
– A target path for the reduced use of fossil fuels, particularly oil to improve its energy security,
– A target path for net consumption (taking into account recycling) of raw materials used.
And Brussels would need to develop a vision, not just for a few decades, but for at least a hundred years, if not a thousand. For the record, let’s recall that an uninterrupted increase of only 1% per year for 1,000 years in the quantity of raw materials consumed means a multiplication of their consumption by about 20,000!
J.P.R. : Nuclear power has been considered essential to climate policy by many institutional observers. Even in Germany, nuclear power is coming back to the forefront with an about-face by some environmentalists who realize, albeit a little late, that there is little alternative for a rapid exit from coal. Nuclear power is, with hydraulic power, whose resources are limited, the only controllable energy that does not emit CO2. But Brussels does not seem to understand the need to encourage it. In fact, it looks like a struggle for influence aimed at preventing France from having a competitive advantage over its neighbors in terms of carbon-free energy.
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