France, one of the world’s leaders in nuclear energy production, plans to draw down nuclear’s share of electricity generation from 75 to 50 percent by 2025—giving itself a 10-year time frame equivalent to the complete shutdown now ongoing in Germany. Which reactors are to be disconnected is not specifically mentioned.

“Finally!” gasped French headlines last week. After months of national debate—of amended drafting bills and a one-year parliamentary discussion interspersed with joint committee reports and opposition intransigence—the nation approved an Energy Transition Law that many are now calling historic in scope and ambition. A political fight is sure to follow, with some observers worried by a cap of 63.2 gigawatts that may provide too much leeway to the embattled industry.

Yet it’s also clear the momentum has already shifted, with environmentalists exulting in their apparent victory.

“This law opens up all renewables sectors to new energy horizons,” said Jean-Louis Bal, the president of the French Renewable Energy Association (SER), shortly after the final vote.

Bal said he was particularly encouraged by new, uniform authorizations that do away with excessive bureaucratic hurdles for wind farms and hydropower and biogas plants. There was also relief at a provision stripped out of the Senate bill that would have required a minimum 1,000-meter distance between wind turbines and residential structures. This was scaled back to 500 meters, with much of the discretion now given to local municipalities.

By 2030, total energy consumption is to be reduced by 30 percent, while the share of renewables is to more than double to 32 percent. These are lofty goals for sure: less nuclear, more renewables, increased renovation rates for improved energy efficiency, a focus on electromobility, and even a fivefold carbon tax increase that rises progressively from a current €14.50 per ton to €56 in 2020 and €100 in 2030.

All are now provided for in a dense text that includes 66 articles on aspects of green legislation covering topics as widely varying as disposal of food waste and the promotion of bicycle tax credits, to the banning of plastic bags, the deployment of smart meters and the issuance of energy checks for low-income households.

Yet, given France’s tense budget situation, analysts questioned the government’s ability to follow through on its pledges.

Decrees establishing the French low-carbon strategy and national carbon budgets should be published in November, promised the minister of the environment, Ségolène Royal. She predicted the creation of 100,000 jobs in the green growth sector over the next three years. During that time, there would be €10 billion of state aid in the form of tax credits, zero-interest loans or bonuses to encourage housing renewal or replacement of old diesel vehicles with electric cars.

Carbon tax tossed into the mix
Analysts said the inclusion of the carbon tax—coming in at the last minute by a show of hands in the final hours of debate—bodes well for the seriousness of the endeavor.

Introduced to the budget in 2014, the tax increase was looked on favorably by companies and environmentalists alike. “The tax gives visibility over time,” Benoît Leguet, director of CDC Climat Research, said in an interview with Reuters. “It allows for clearer decisionmaking in low-carbon investments and responds to a request from some manufacturers.”

Yet this kind of consensus may be short-lived.

Nuclear energy still remains deeply ingrained in the French psyche, its prominence often likened to proof of the country’s greatness. According to regularly conducted polls over the past two decades, French popular opinion of nuclear power remains more or less evenly split. France already produces more electricity than it consumes, with French ratepayers charged some of the lowest prices anywhere in the European Union. France doesn’t have an urgent need for alternative power generation solutions, and, consequently, the new law fails to provide significant support for rooftop solar—the country’s most abundant energy source, according to a report released in October by the Agency for Environment and Energy Management (ADEME).

Yet environmentalists, like Marc Jedliczka of the advocacy group Négawatt Society, say they are nevertheless encouraged given the larger trends now unfolding—namely, spiraling costs for nuclear just when prices are falling for renewables like solar photovoltaics and wind.

Key will be a reduction in energy demand and improved storage capabilities. The ADEME report paints such a scenario, predicting technical feasibility for a 100 percent renewables system by as early as 2050. Leaked and then quickly killed, the report caused a sensation and is said to have propelled the national discussion forward.

“Nothing can stop an idea whose time has come,” said Jedliczka, quoting Victor Hugo. “In the medium to long term, I am very optimistic that PV—both small and large—and wind will develop on their own without public support,” he said.

“Even in France,” he added, “where the opposition has proven itself adept at inventing, testing and improving all kinds of pitfalls for postponing the development of renewables technologies.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500