France’s Solar Future

The French are understandably proud of their nuclear power. In 1974, after the first oil shock, the French government decided to rapidly expand the country’s nuclear power capacity. In only 14 years, France built 58 reactors at a cost of about €140 billion in today’s money.

Their 56 reactors have provided uninterrupted low-carbon, and relatively low cost power for decades. No other country gets as much energy from nuclear as the French, and most French people do not want that to change. 

But 2022 saw a turning point for French energy. For the first time France became a net importer of electricity. This was due to low water levels in rivers, limiting cooling capacity of reactors, and to unscheduled maintenance due to corrosion issues. President Macron responded by nationalizing EDF and subsidizing energy prices to the tune of €70 billion (according to the FT). 

Now EDF is saddled with around €54 billion of debt, which only adds to the already severe debt situation that France finds itself in (110% debt to GDP), which pushes up the costs of borrowing. Meanwhile, EDF has raised its cost estimate for the construction of six new nuclear reactors to €67.4 billion. A senior manager at EDF recently told me that the power utility had become very good at managing power stations but no longer good at building them. Flamville took 16 years to build at a cost €13 billion, up from the original estimate of €3 billion. Unfortunately nuclear power stations are at the top of the list of Prof Bent Flyvberg’s Iron Law of Mega Projects – “over budget, over time, under benefits, over and over again.”

Contrast this with how solar and battery storage have benefitted from Wright’s Law.  

In 1936, Theodore Wright, an aeronautical engineer, made a compelling observation.

He was studying the cost of making aeroplanes. The more planes they built, the more process improvements they discovered; and these process improvements led to cheaper planes and greater demand, in a virtuous cycle. Every time the production rate of planes doubled, the cost reduced by 20%.

In 1976, the year the French were building their new fleet of Nuclear power stations, the price of a solar system, adjusted for inflation, was $106 per watt. Over the past 50 years, the price of solar has plummeted to $0.38/watt, a decrease of 99.6%. By contrast, nuclear power costs have increased by between 30% and 40% because of what MIT (this paper) calls “soft costs”.  

France has the potential to become Europe’s leading solar nation: it has the land, the sunshine and massive demand from a large population. But it will not be a simple transition. Currently, France has less installed solar than the Netherlands, a country whose population is only a quarter its size. 

For France, aesthetic concerns are delaying rapid rollout of solar. Fortunately, it’s possible to ramp up solar without spoiling pristine lands. A new law makes it compulsory for carports to be covered; land alongside railway lines and highways is an option, as is farmland, which makes up 52% of France’s landmass. 

Studies show that certain crops thrive under solar panels …and not only crops. 

I recently met a South African farmer who is leasing land to a solar farm. The IPP (independent power producer) pays him fixed monthly rent, and the elevated panels allow sheep to graze in the shade underneath. What’s more, the condensation from the panels waters the grass in summer. He could not be happier.

As we pivot from fossil fuels to electricity, solar panels will become commonplace and we will accept them more and more. What I am most excited about is how solar and battery storage will increasingly become integrated into commercial and industrial fleets of vans, trucks and buses, which have to be zero emissions by 2030 in most European cities. Our new event, Global Decarbonization Expo (March 2025 at Porte De Versailles) is about bringing the buyers and sellers of these technologies together.

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