« We won’t improve our economic resilience without successfully completing the energy revolution »

OPINION. The unprecedented impact of the measures taken in the fight against COVID-19 has not spared the French energy landscape. In this sector, as in many others, we are becoming aware of the need to build a model which demonstrates much greater resilience, making the most of both local and decentralized sources of renewable energy. By successfully completing the energy revolution, we will revitalize our local regions and be able to meet the other challenges we are currently facing, such as those associated with healthcare, climate and self-sufficiency. By Stéphanie Andrieu and Arnaud Mine, co-founders and directors of Urbasolar.

We have the means to move forward in a positive direction, but we urgently need to successfully complete the comprehensive revolution in practices that is underway in the electricity sector. At the top of the list is our ability to think both locally and globally, an essential precondition to being able to develop a more resilient model.

Renewable energy has proven it’s here to stay

From a local point of view, it is essential to base our strategy on a decentralized electricity grid capable of bringing the maximum value-added to our landscape. This direction is part of the logic of the circular economy. This is a sector in which solar energy, with its specific characteristics, has a big part to play. This is because there is no economy without energy, and there will be no truly resilient circular economy without local and decentralized energy sources. That means energy which is not dependent on distant production infrastructure, based on technology which is itself dependent on the physical presence of highly specialized personnel, and besides which, is subject to the availability of external resources such as gas, uranium or oil.

This is why, right from the first days of lockdown, we have had to question the ability of our electricity producers to continue operating their power plants effectively, whilst having to deal with the constraints imposed by the virus containment measures. This led to a major revelation: our energy infrastructure is all the more resilient to potential lockdown periods when it does not require large-scale human intervention, and the basics of remote working and remote management may apply.

From this point of view, renewable energy in general, and photovoltaic technology in particular, has shown us all its advantages as, on the one hand, it requires little maintenance, and on the other hand, it is completely ready for the digital revolution both in terms of site management and power plant operation. Maintenance teams can carry on working in conditions adapted to COVID-19 lockdown as they can use digital tools to manage a vast number of decentralized power plants remotely.

This is not always the case with traditional power plants, whether nuclear or fossil-fuel combustion, which, because of their size and complexity, require considerable monitoring and maintenance by experts while carrying a high degree of operational risk. We can scarcely imagine the seriousness of a situation in which these highly specialized technicians were unable to work on this type of power plant.

Energy sources which provide energy independence and transfer value to local areas

Today’s renewable energy production facilities are intelligent systems which bring in expertise from all over, thanks to digital tools which make it possible to manage a vast array of small facilities. The digital revolution is therefore a strong catalyst for deploying renewables across the whole of France.

These innovations and intelligent digital technologies can re-balance the value of a project, with a large part of its value residing in the real estate and the space being used, while the hardware and professional know-how are simply complementary elements. This is the opposite of how value is distributed in energy production technologies which cost billions, such as in the construction of an EPR nuclear reactor.

It is therefore no surprise when we observe the extraordinary appetite of local communities for solar energy. They have identified this as the solution for creating jobs and revenue in areas where economic activity is depressed and where public services are disappearing and tax revenues are no longer the solution to financing local administration. A solar energy park can bring many hundreds of millions of euros of revenue year on year into a local administration’s budget. For a local community, this is a unique opportunity to capture some of the value generated by this technology.

Here we can see today that around 85% of the value added by a solar energy facility is essentially local. The considerable decrease in the cost of photovoltaic panels means that when the price of these often Chinese panels is compared to the 30-year operating life of a power plant, it represents no more than 15% of the total cost. This is also why the question of whether to relocate solar panel production facilities back to Europe, although both possible and desirable, is not the real debate. The cost structure of a solar power plant above all involves a local workforce, making solar energy an industry which is firmly rooted in local communities even though the panels themselves may not be produced in France or Europe.

Competitive zero-carbon energy at the heart of a new energy landscape

One essential question concerns the competition between production technologies which do not emit CO2. Who is able to produce the cheapest zero-carbon kWh both today and in the future and in a way which is compatible with combating climate change?

On this subject, some French people still think that renewable energy costs too much, particularly compared to nuclear energy. We must remind them that the cost of solar or wind energy today already compares well to and, is more often than not, lower than almost all ‘traditional’ electricity production technologies.

In fact, the cost of producing electricity from solar energy has decreased ten-fold over the last decade, and this downward trend is set to continue. Sure, there is still the issue of the intermittent nature of electricity production from solar energy which is often raised by its detractors, but do we really need to remind them how difficult nuclear power stations are to manage?

While we’re on this subject, we should above all note that solar energy production can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy thanks to improvements in meteorological forecasting tools, and there is also the very low energy consumption by new digital tools, meaning that this type of energy production can, to a high degree, be reliably included in electricity grids. Right now, we are able to deploy renewables on a massive scale.

Nevertheless, an essential hurdle in this unlimited deployment is linked to the lowering of storage technology costs. Here again, though, the technological revolution is under way, with industrial tools being implemented across Europe, and we are seeing electricity storage infrastructure being connected to energy grids. The switchover is imminent.

An urgent need for ambition, both national and European

It’s around this regional logic and technological vision that we must create a European vision around supplying our own independent electricity supply for our continent, in particular, involving the construction of cross-border energy transport infrastructure.

On top of the undeniable benefits of renewable energy for the post-COVID-19 world which must address the challenges posed by this healthcare crisis and others which may follow, but also and above all, which must face up to the challenge of combating climate change, we will need a European vision and desire to re-establish our self-sufficiency in zero-carbon electricity production. These energy sources are local, as we have said, but we must also think globally, with wind energy being more relevant in certain regions, and solar in others. For this new electricity system, we need to innovate and invest in European electricity transport grids which will allow us to optimize further and use the best resources in the places where they are harnessed.

Storage capacity will complete this vision. The European Investment Bank has now made a firm commitment to invest in a European energy storage industry, with €1 billion for 2020 alone. A vast relaunch plan linked to energy transition is also soon to be announced. This is, we hope, a real sign that our leaders, politicians and financiers are waking up to the scale of the challenge that lies ahead.

Photo credit : Urbasolar