Consuming less energy to boost growth

At a time when we are reaching peaks in electricity consumption and when the recent report by the Court of Auditors revises the cost of the thermonuclear park, the energy question is a social, environmental and industrial issue.

These days we are reaching record levels of electricity consumption, around 97,000 megawatts, which puts Brittany and Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur on red alert due to their almost "electrical insularity" (lack of high-capacity lines linking them to the grid). At these levels, our "energy independence" is not totally sufficient and we have to import 6 to 7,000 MW per day... when Germany still manages (!) to export electricity, even after having shut down 9 nuclear reactors.

These climatic episodes inevitably bring back endless minutes of television news reports on car breakdowns, slips and snow removal from doorsteps, but also, more dramatically, on human lives in danger and situations of great social emergency. As temperatures rise, we must not forget too quickly the social, environmental, industrial and strategic issues raised in the long term by the question of access to energy.

While energy is an environmental issue (increasing scarcity of resources, pollution and CO2 emissions), being more and more expensive and scarce, it is also a social, economic, industrial and political issue. So, if we have to save energy for the planet, we will also have to finance it, while preserving the environment, purchasing power and competitiveness. In a statement that caused a stir at the time, Christophe de Margerie explained in an interview with Le Parisien on 12 April 2011 about the future price of petrol: " There is no doubt about the 2 euro supermarket, the real question is when, and we must hope that this does not happen too quickly, otherwise the consequences would be dramatic ".

However, this energy inflation is not a scoop, it is inescapable, unless it is compensated for, and therefore masked, by subsidy and aid schemes, which are surely necessary to reduce the energy pressure that is imposed even more harshly on some people.

The price of a barrel of oil is once again hovering around 100 dollars, on an upward trend since 2009 after falling following the peak in the summer of 2008, and the price of a litre of super unleaded 95 is reaching record levels above 1.50 euros; natural gas has increased by 60% over the period 2005-2011; the report by the Court of Auditors re-evaluates the production price of KWh from the thermonuclear park upwards to 42 euros per MWh; Domestic fuel oil is back to almost 1 euro, not far from the peaks of summer 2008, after having been for a long time in a 35/40 cts zone between 2000 and 2005, before skyrocketing, falling back, and again rising continuously over the last 3-year period during which it will have doubled.

Energy inflation is real, it is even perennial. And while this budget represents an average of 8% of the household budget (about 60% for housing and 40% for transport; and an average of 2,900 euros/year/household), this share can reach 15% for the poorest households, with a fairly marked difference between urban and rural areas, to the detriment of rural areas. For some, the fuel bill alone can even represent 25% of their budget. The energy bill thus becomes an energy divide, regularly prompting associations, elected representatives and the Energy Ombudsman to sound the alarm on fuel poverty and to call for a form of "energy shield" (the name can be debated). According to some, this fuel poverty concerns 15% of French households (i.e. about 4 million households). When the bill increases faster than the thermometer drops, with the freezing temperatures, fuel poverty increases.

The energy issue is becoming a major national cause, for social reasons, but also for economic and industrial reasons. Indeed, the price of energy impacts everything and everyone. Especially since this price is not limited to the production (or import) itself. It is also the price of security, the price of independence, the social price of access to energy. And if we talk a lot about the cost of labour, the cost of energy, as a significant input, particularly in industry, is also a determining variable in competitiveness and the attractiveness of offers.

Impacting purchasing power, strategic choices, consumption habits, geopolitical relations, research, housing and transport, the price of energy has become a systemic determinant. And this price also modifies the energy mix. When the Court of Auditors re-evaluates the production price of IPR in a range of 70-90 euros per MWh, it is a level that makes onshore wind power competitive.

The price of energy and political and strategic choices therefore influence our supply and consumption, and this is not new when we recall our recent energy history:

  • Since the 1973 oil shock, we have considerably changed our primary energy consumption structure: the share of coal has fallen from 15 % to 4 %, that of oil from 68 % to 31 %, while the share of gas has doubled (7 % to 15 %), and that of electricity by ten (4 % to 43 %) (Source : Commissariat général au développement durable, chiffres clés de l'énergie 2011)This is mainly due to an increase in the transport sector, while the industrial sector is decreasing its share of energy consumption.


  • It is also important to realise that oil is no longer consumed in the same way as before. Between 1973 and 1985, the growing share of nuclear power replaced oil (10 times less electricity produced from oil over the period), and in terms of consumption, oil is competing with gas and electricity, dropping from 61% to 32% in industry, and from 58% to 35% in the residential-tertiary sector, to represent less than 20% in these sectors today. On the other hand, the transport sector in 2010 represents 71 % of total final oil consumption compared to 30 % in 1973. In total, we are now consuming oil at the same level as in ... 1985. To stay with this energy, another preconceived idea to combat is that of our oil dependence on the Gulf countries: the share of the Middle East has decreased significantly, from 71 % in 1973 to ... 17 % in 2010 (compensated by the North Sea, sub-Saharan Africa and the countries of the former USSR). It should also be noted that the increase in the price of oil is driving efficiency improvements. For example, the average consumption of vehicles on total registrations has fallen from 6.7 l/100 in 1985 to 5.1 l/100 in 2010, a gain of 30%. (Over the same period, the price of diesel at the pump almost compensated for this gain by the same amount).
  • As regards natural gas too, a few points of reference are useful: whereas we produced a third of our consumption in the 1970s, we are now totally dependent on imports, and these come not primarily from Russia, but from Norway (32 %, then 14 % from Russia, 14 % from Algeria and 15 % from the Netherlands).
  • Between 1973 and 2010, domestic electricity consumption grew twice as fast as overall energy consumption and even tripled in volume (natural gas consumption has also almost tripled since 1973, but has been almost stable since 2002).

Beyond the political and often dogmatic question of nuclear power, we can see that it is the question of price and access to energy that is at stake. With a bit of hindsight, we can see that the energy transformation is indeed possible, we have already experienced it, it still has to be extended, no doubt taking another step, to be drawn over the next 20 or 30 years, which we are not hearing today.

The question of energy prices is a societal issue, a determining variable. If the price of energy (energies) increases, its budget can only be reduced by gains in efficiency and effectiveness. Therefore, energy inflation can generate alternatives, innovations and employment (new, more economical equipment, better yields, new materials, eco-design, etc.). Saving energy can create growth. Energy degrowth becomes a virtuous degrowth, generating sustainable growth.


MINISTRY OF ECOLOGY, SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT, TRANSPORT AND HOUSING / General Commission for Sustainable Development / Key energy figures - 2011 edition