France’s nuclear giant has a plan to survive the wave of renewable energy that’s sweeping aside old-fashioned utilities across Europe. First it needs to disprove the conventional wisdom about how reactors work.
Electricite de France SA says its fleet of nuclear reactors aren’t just able to provide a steady stream of power, they’re flexible enough to complement a large fluctuating supply of renewable energy.
Combined with a 25 billion-euro ($31 billion) solar plan and potential investments in huge batteries, the utility says it can ride out the energy upheaval, while also helping the French government fulfill its goal of cutting reliance on nuclear power. “Our nuclear is flexible, it’s variable,” said EDF Chief Executive Officer Jean-Bernard Levy. “Renewable energies are totally complementary.”
That combination is the most cost effective way of generating low-carbon electricity in France, EDF says, but that doesn’t mean it comes cheap. Huge investments are needed to prolong the life of atomic plants plus billions more for renewables, but right now the utility is struggling to generate enough cash. It needs to spend 48 billion euros in the 12 years through 2025 to renovate reactors and expects to fund about half of the 30 gigawatts of solar developments the company plans on French soil by 2035.
EDF, a 72-year-old state-run behemoth that operates the world’s largest fleet of reactors, isn’t perceived as being a natural fit for the future. The growing market share and falling price of fluctuating electricity sources like wind and solar is disrupting established power generators across Europe, forcing them to mothball or close plants that aren’t used enough to be profitable, or can’t quickly accommodate swings in supply and demand.
Most atomic plants were designed to provide steady output around the clock, not submit to the whims of the weather. “If you’re not flexible, you’re going to struggle,” said Jonas Rooze, the head of European power transition at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “Nuclear is probably incompatible with large volumes of solar and wind.”
EDF disagrees, saying its reactors can vary output by as much as 80 percent twice a day. All 58 of them are equipped with control rods, which can be inserted into the core and slow the rate of fission that generates energy. The mechanism is usually used for emergency shutdowns by automatically falling in between nuclear fuel assemblies, but EDF the equipment can be easily maneuvered to accelerate or slow the rate of power generation. It says it can also fine-tune output by changing the concentration of a chemical in the reactor.