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January 3, 2012

A team of energy experts, engineers and architects wants to free the French of their nuclear dependence by 2050. In an election year, the appeal to energy austerity is attracting attention from left to right.

General view of a nuclear power plant in Cattenom, France, 01 Avril 2011
A campaign to reduce energy waste is catching on in FranceImage: picture-alliance/dpa

It's all in the name.

Since last autumn, the French organization negaWatt has been staging its own Tour de France to gather support for its vision of how the country should power its economy in the future.

The idea comes from American environmentalist Amory Lovins, who coined the term negawatt in 1989. It describes a unit of energy saved through conservation or efficiency.

In France, which gets more than three quarters of its electricity from nuclear power, the appeal to efficiency has been winning approval ever since Japan's Fukushima disaster of March 2011.

"Ours is not an anti-nuclear religion," says Thierry Salomon, vice president of negaWatt. "But nuclear energy does not represent a sustainable form of energy production."

The events of last year have given negaWatt its own burst of energy.

Visual representation

Official launch of the self-service electric car. December 5, 2011
NegaWatt says France could cut its energy needs in halfImage: picture-alliance/dpa

NegaWatt uses two graphics that look like underground train maps to represent its vision.

On the one hand, it lists sources of energy. On the other, energy requirements – things like heating, transport and electricity.

The first graphic presents the current situation in France. Thick bars on graph represent its most important sources of energy – uranium, oil, gas. The bars for renewable sources are much thinner.

Renewables meet around 6 percent of France's total energy needs, compared to 40 percent for nuclear and 33 percent for oil.

France consumes 1927 terawatt hours of energy, but according to negaWatt's calculations, the country could cut this in half to 849 terawatt hours by 2050.

In this picture, the thick bars have disappeared and the most significant energy sources have turned to biomass, biogas and wind energy. There is no bar for nuclear.

A negaWatt presentation in Paris, August 29, 2011

The end of uranium

"Eighty percent of French nuclear power stations went on line between 1977 and 1987," says Yves Marignac, negaWatt's nuclear expert who heads the Paris office for WISE, an independent global information service on energy issues.

"That means that if you give each an average lifespan of 40 years, French nuclear energy will hit a wall by 2027."

Marignac says that if France doesn't build any new reactors, it will have to phase out its current fleet within six years of 2027.

"It's not possible to do it any sooner because the renewables will need time to get going, but we can't wait any longer because of safety issues" says Marignac.

Breaking the taboo

Nuclear energy is taboo in France.

Late last year France's opposition Socialists and Greens agreed to campaign together to reverse the country's dependence on nuclear energy.

They promise a common platform to reduce nuclear energy from 75 percent to 50 percent of France's electricity needs by 2025.

The deal ends France's political consensus on nuclear power and has been strongly attacked by President Sarkozy's administration.

It could also prove tricky to apply as demand for energy in France is growing. This is the front that negawatt wants to attack.

"Energy demand can be reduced significantly by technical means," says negaWatt's Marc Jedliczka.

That includes improving heat insulation in buildings, switching to electric cars, and getting urban planners to find ways to reduce distances between people's homes and their work places.

"Our slogan 'more moderation' is a call to the nation to rethink its behavior," Jedliczka says.

A good neighbor

French President Nicolas Sarkozy delivers a speech at the nuclear electricity production center of Tricastin, November 25, 2011 in Pierrelatte, southern France.
President Sarkozy faces pressure to reduce nuclear energyImage: dapd

Jedliczka says Germany's decision to commit to a nuclear phase-out could serve as an example for France.

He says there is a lot to be learnt about generating energy from synthetically produced methane gas.

"The Germans have a head-start in operational areas," says Jedliczka, "their political context is different."

But the mood in France may be changing too. NegaWatt's campaign has been drawing interest from the left and right.

While the business magazine Challenge has said it believes negaWatt presents a "new way forward," headlines like "Earthquake in the energy sector" and "This way for the nuclear phase-out" are ensuring energy will be a deciding factor in the upcoming French presidential elections.

Author: Suzanne Krause / za
Editor: Nathan Witkop