France’s New Biomass Plan Aims to Offset Delayed Coal Phase-Out

In a recent pronouncement, President Emmanuel Macron unveiled an ambitious strategy to convert France’s final two coal-fired power plants into biomass facilities by 2027. While this marks a notable stride toward a more sustainable energy landscape, it concurrently underscores the President’s inability to honor his prior campaign commitment to entirely phase out coal from the nation’s energy portfolio by the year 2022.

France’s electricity generation landscape predominantly leans upon nuclear power, with coal accounting for a meager fraction, contributing to less than 1% of the energy mix. Nonetheless, Macron’s decision to effectuate the transition of these two coal plants into biomass facilities is seen as a substantial stride as France vigorously pursues its target of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

In a televised interview conducted jointly by TFI and France 2 news channels, President Macron championed the transformative plan, declaring, “France shall be at the forefront in Europe’s exit from coal.” However, swift criticism arose as observers noted that this announcement essentially reiterated a pledge made during his 2017 presidential campaign—a pledge that remains, as of 2023, conspicuously unfulfilled.

In 2017, then-candidate Macron had fervently pledged the closure of France’s remaining coal-fired power plants by the close of 2022—a commitment subsequently enshrined into the French Energy and Climate Law of September 2019. However, as the calendar now turns to 2023, two coal plants persist in operation, serving as crucial backups during peak electricity demand episodes.

One of these plants, the Cordemais facility located in Loire-Atlantique, was originally slated for cessation of coal-fired operations in 2022. Delays were attributed to a twelve-year setback in the construction of the Flamanville EPR nuclear reactor and sluggish progress in the deployment of renewable energy sources, rendering Cordemais indispensable in maintaining regional grid stability.

The other operational coal plant, Saint-Avold in Moselle, was temporarily closed in March 2022, triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which disrupted gas supplies across Europe, intensifying concerns regarding energy security. France, grappling with unavailable nuclear power plants due to corrosion issues, had to temporarily resurrect Saint-Avold to manage energy demand during the winter of 2022-2023.

Anticipating a more stabilized energy supply situation in the approaching winter months, a new decree issued in August has sanctioned the continued operation of both coal plants until the culmination of 2024, accompanied by an additional allowance of 500 operational hours over this period. This decision is proactively aimed at averting grid instability during peak energy consumption periods.

Despite coal’s negligible contribution to France’s energy mix, accounting for a mere 0.6% of electricity production in the preceding year, the extension of coal plant operations raises concerns regarding the nation’s commitment to a transition toward cleaner energy sources.

Furthermore, this announcement rekindles the ongoing debate concerning the availability and suitability of biomass as a viable energy alternative. Biomass energy is derived from the combustion of organic materials such as wood, agricultural waste, and biogas. Initially, the French government had projected a more substantial role for biomass, yet doubts have since emerged concerning its feasibility.

In the case of the Cordemais power plant, the conversion endeavor has already reached fruition. Following a series of setbacks, including the withdrawal of Suez as an initial partner, EDF and the Paprec group, specialists in waste recycling and recovery, have collaborated to manufacture wood pellets for fueling the power plant.

As France vigorously endeavors to attain carbon neutrality by 2050, the transition from coal to biomass indeed represents a commendable step in the right direction. Nevertheless, President Macron’s inability to fulfill his earlier commitment to phase out coal by 2022 has elicited criticism, casting a shadow over this renewed promise.

In the pursuit of a sustainable energy future, France must not only meet its targets but also grapple with broader challenges encompassing energy security, the accelerated deployment of renewable energy sources, and the conscientious utilization of biomass resources. The ultimate success of these endeavors will ultimately determine France’s capacity to make a substantial contribution to the global fight against climate change.

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