Cécile Maisonneuve is Director of the Center for Energy of the Institut Français des Relations Internationales. Paul Hockenos talked with her about the German Energiewende, France’s energy future and the public debate about the renewables, which is only just beginning.
Ms. Maisonneuve, is Germany the only country in Europe pursuing an Energiewende?
Four months ago, the French launched a national debate about an energy transition. The question is: What will France’s energy future be in 2030? It’s new in more ways than one: It’s not happening just at the highest levels of government in Paris, but across the country and includes ministers, NGOs, companies, and local communities. All the issues are on the table: transportation, electricity, energy efficiency, heating. We have an EU commitment, which for France means a 23 percent share of renewables by 2020. Hopefully this discussion will result in legislation by the fall.
Has there been enthusiastic participation in the discussion so far?
Because it is new, you have to get people on board. The French aren’t used to discussing energy issues in a public forum. So far, participation has been a bit low. Polls show that four out of five people don’t even know about the debate, but the same number of people say that energy issues are important to them. So the government is advertising the discussion and the French will hopefully become interested in this new way of engaging with energy issues.
How do the French view Germany’s Energiewende?
The French are always interested in what Germany’s doing. One poll shows that 53 percent of the French think that Germany’s energy path is good. They’re not critical of Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power. Yet 64 percent are in favor of nuclear energy for France. I understand that as the French saying Germany can do what it wants, but we want to be masters of our own energy mix. What’s missing is more cooperation on energy issues between France and Germany.
But the Hollande government is committed to reducing France’s dependence on nuclear energy.
During the election campaign, Hollande said that France should reduce the electricity produced by nuclear power plants from today’s level of 75 percent to 50 percent in 2025. So this is part of the debate, but there is nothing happening in terms of implementation, with the exception of the announced shut-down of France’s oldest nuclear plant in Fessenheim in south-east France.
Germany’s very proud of the way it’s increased the share of renewably produced electricity in its energy mix. But you mentioned that we’re embarking on energy transitions and not just electricity transition. What do you mean by that?
This is important because we’re talking far too little about other uses of energy such as heating and transportation. We Europeans are spending hundreds of billions on imported oil and this is impeding Europe’s economic recovery. It’s like driving a car with the brake on. So we have to move on the electrification and/or gasification of transport, another promising field. Energy efficiency is another field where huge improvements can be made, especially in the housing sector. There’s a lot of room here for either bilateral cooperation or EU-level cooperation. What we’re missing today is a clear and global vision for the future.
Germany and France recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty and their special relationship for over half a century. One upshot of the celebrations was the reinforcement of a new office for French-German cooperation on renewable energy issues. Is this the way forward?
This kind of office is important, but to me it’s clear that it’s only the beginning. We have to develop very concrete cooperation between businesses, but also between communities and regions. We often think of cooperation between big industries, but we also should think about it on the level of small and medium-sized enterprises in the energy sector. In the future, we’re going to have a mix of centralized and decentralized energy generation, so there’s lots of room for cooperation.
Currently, Germany is reaching out for more cooperation on energy issues, especially in the direction of its immediate neighbors. You can see this at the conference today and yesterday. Yet one’s not entirely convinced that it’s selfless… We welcome cooperation on the European level. But the fact that Germany is only doing this now, now that it’s clearly experiencing difficulties, gives the impression that it’s perhaps merely interested in mutualizing the costs of its policy choices post facto. So it’s something we have to discuss. Energy mix is a national prerogative but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t coordinate better with one another.
Cécile Maisonneuve is Director of the Center for Energy of the Institut Français des Relations Internationales. She has worked in the French National Assembly on the defense, foreign affairs, and law committees and as a senior executive at AREVA, a French multinational involved mostly in nuclear power.