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The key question this summer is not “Est-ce que tu viens pour les vacances?” (“Are you coming for vacation?”, a 1988 summer pop hit by David and Jonathan), but rather “What are you doing to consume less energy?” Although the government’s goal seems clear – to get into “a mindset of energy saving,” as Emmanuel Macron said on July 14 – in reality, the debate is more complicated than it seems. From purchasing power to energy independence and the fight against climate change: Let’s take a look at the topic in seven questions.
1. Why is there so much talk about energy conservation now?
There are three major reasons that this is being talked about. First, the use of fossil fuels is by far the main driver of climate change. The burning of coal, oil or gas and industrial processes are responsible for around 65% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide, according to data from the Ministry of the Environment.
In recent months, a sharp rise in prices around the world has added to this. It’s a consequence of the war in Ukraine and, in particular, the cost of energy. Transport, lighting and heating costs more, leading public authorities to look for solutions to help struggling households.
Finally, the current crisis raises the threat of an energy shortage, with the fear of gas or electricity cuts in France and elsewhere in Europe.
Using less energy means less pollution and saving money – but also reduces the risk of the system buckling under the weight of demand.
2. Why should we lower our electricity consumption when there’s going to be a gas shortage?
When the prospect is raised of a winter without Russian gas deliveries (which accounts for 40% of the European Union’s imports), the subject of the continent’s power generation capacity quickly comes to the table. The two topics are linked: A considerable proportion of gas is used directly to produce electricity (around one-fifth of the gas consumed in France, according to data from the French Ministry of Ecological Transition). So electricity savings can also generate gas savings.
Fossil-fueled power plants (mainly gas) produce only 7% of the total electricity used in France, according to the Réseau de transport d’électricité (RTE, France’s electricity transport network), because of the large share coming from nuclear power (nearly 70% in 2021). But this small proportion is crucial to get through the consumption peaks in the year. This is even more true elsewhere in Europe: Gas-fired power plants were still producing 20% of the continent’s electricity in 2020, according to Eurostat. However, the European market is interconnected and the most gas-dependent European Union states are likely to rely on their neighbors’ electricity capacity.
Moreover, the French electricity market was under stress even before the war in Ukraine. In 2020 and then in 2021, RTE warned about the risks to the French grid in winter. The probable abandonment of Russian gas therefore only further accentuates the need to save electricity.
3. Should we expect power outages this winter?
Electricity demand is at its highest in the cold season owing to the increased need for lighting and heating. The challenge is therefore to allow the network to deal with these peaks. However, French electricity production has been at half-mast for several years, mainly because many nuclear reactors are shut down, reducing the grid’s maximum capacity, and the need to save gas further complicates the equation.
Conversely, energy consumption peaks cannot be accurately predicted, since they are highly dependent on the climate. A major cold snap like that of February 2012, which lasted nearly two weeks, would particularly strain the French power grid.
Localized and time-limited cuts are possible
For the time being, the French government has said that there is no risk of a power cut in France. In fact, several steps exist to try to avoid such an outcome. First, there is the call for “environmental action” by individuals and companies to limit their consumption as a peak approach. This is what RTE did by issuing an “orange” Ecowatt alert on April 4. This signal reduced the maximum power demanded by 0.8 gigawatts (GW), for a peak of 71.6 GW, or 1% lower than it could have been.
RTE can also use two other mechanisms, which it will have to pay for: energy reduction by buying power off companies that volunteer to do it, as well as “interruptibility contracts,” which allow the power to certain industrial sites to be cut. If this is not enough, a 5% dip in voltage can be applied to the network (with visible effects).
If the government is ruling out the scenario of a pure and simple network “outage,” it is because there is a last-resort option if all this is not enough: “rotating load shedding.” That is when the government sets up localized outages in the network over time slots of up to two hours per day, between 8 am and 1 pm or between 5:30 and 8:30 pm.
“It is not a question of a universal outage, but those who experience it would probably call it a ‘blackout’ in spite of everything,” said Nicolas Goldberg, energy referent for the consulting firm Columbus Consulting.
In short, the worst case scenario is far from being the most likely today. Preparing the French grid for next winter has an environmental cost – when fossil fuels have to be used to meet demand – and an economic cost – if the state has to pay businesses to stop consuming. It will require further effort to reduce our electricity consumption.
4. What is the government doing to reduce energy consumption?
In recent weeks the government has called on individuals to reduce their energy consumption by unplugging as many electrical sockets as possible when they’re away, reducing their heating temperature and not sending emails with overly large attachments. The Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne also addressed a note to her ministers on Tuesday, July 26, asking administrations to be “exemplary” in this area.
In Le Journal du dimanche (Le JDD) on July 24, the Minister of Energy Agnès Pannier-Runacher announced several measures aimed at businesses. Among them, the widespread application of the ban on illuminated advertising between 1 am and 6 am and the ban on stores having their doors open when the air conditioning or heating is on.
5. Do individual actions do much?
The individual measures that the government is encouraging are based on a simple logic: reducing energy consumption through small actions, applicable now, in preparation for the arrival of the energy consumption peaks of the coming winter.
Lowering the heating temperature of your home by one degree can, for example, reduce your bill by 7%, according to the Agency for the Environment and Energy Management (Ademe). There is room for improvement on this point: The average heating temperature is around 22°C in the European Union, while it is recommended to limit it to 19°C in rooms in use.
However, these short-term measures will not be enough to meet the long-term climate challenge. The goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 requires much greater energy savings and a shift away from fossil fuels. To take the example of heating, we will not only have to agree to eliminate energy waste, but also to optimize the energy performance of our homes and replace oil and gas heating systems with more efficient alternatives.
6. What is energy sufficiency?
During his speech on July 14, Emmanuel Macron said he wanted to reduce French energy consumption by 10% by 2024, compared to 2019. The aim? “To prepare for a scenario where we have to do without Russian gas completely.” When he mentioned energy sufficiency in his speech, Mr. Macron explained that we will have to “organize our lives differently and aim for a smoothing out of consumption peaks.”
These remarks have not helped to dispel the vagueness around two distinct ideas: on the one hand, rationing efforts made in exceptional situations, which may include the idea of spreading energy consumption more evenly to avoid excessive peaks; on the other hand, a moderated energy consumption, which follows a stricter logic, with a reduction in energy consumption through structural and sustainable changes.
Beyond a simple search for efficiency, mitigating energy use aims to respond to climate change by drastically reducing CO2 emissions. This involves a search for energy savings, particularly given that electricity production was still the source of 41% of CO2 emissions in the world in 2018, and also by a transition to less carbon-intensive energy sources and a more global rethinking of our consumption patterns. A study published in the journal Nature in September 2021 estimated that limiting global warming to less than 1.5 ºC by 2050 would require keeping nearly 60% of oil and natural gas and 90% of coal in the ground.
In addition to climate change, other environmental challenges have arisen, such as the depletion of energy resources. Although this phenomenon is difficult to predict over time, the trend is that it is becoming increasingly difficult, costly and polluting to exploit fossil resources such as oil.
7. Will the current crisis benefit the fight against climate change?
It depends. On the face of it, small and large energy savings are part of the answer to both the short-term energy crisis and the climate crisis as a whole, but the subject remains politically sensitive. That’s why the French government has put in place measures to mitigate the sharp rise in fuel and gas prices, such as a discount at the pump and a tariff shield.
These measures protect consumers’ wallets, but they do not encourage them to make savings.
“We are killing the price signal and with it the need to make energy savings,” said Mr. Goldberg of Columbus Consulting, according to whom more targeted aid to the least well-off households could have avoided this pitfall.
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Worse, the fear of power cuts is delaying France’s exit from coal-fired plants, which emit even more greenhouse gases than their gas-fired counterparts. The coal-fired power plant in Saint-Avold, Moselle, in eastern France, which was shut down on March 31, may be restarted this winter “as a precautionary measure.” Or when short-term objectives clash head-on with climate issues.
Will we have a winter without gas? What difference can individual actions make? Seven questions on saving energy
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