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14 October 2021

Macron gambles on nuclear and hydrogen for 2022 re-election bid

French President Emmanuel Macron has unveiled a vision for his country’s innovation through to 2030, which places green hydrogen, small nuclear reactors, and a French competitor to Netflix at the center of his re-election bid for April next year.

The incumbent President will not officially launch his campaign until 2022, but the €30 billion plan he outlined in a 90-minute speech at the Elysée on Wednesday proves his desire to stay in power. With a focus on “reindustrializing” France through entrepreneurship, the centrist leader placed focus on key issues that distinguishes his La République En Marche! party from those on the right and far-right. Rather than focusing on identity and immigration, Macron will focus on working hours, salary increases, and the growing proportion of the voting population that are prioritizing climate change.

By 2030, Macron has echoed the sentiment of his compatriot leaders with an ambition for France to be a leader in carbon-free power production by 2030. Rather than through wind and solar power, however, the two technologies key to France’s success would be mini nuclear reactors and green hydrogen plants – potentially paired together.

Macron has claimed that Europe will never have enough renewable power generation capacity to produce sufficient green hydrogen while also satisfying electricity demand in other areas. The idea would be that France’s surplus of nuclear plants could be used to drive electrolyzers and produce clean hydrogen. Macron stated on Tuesday that by 2030, France would have at least one small modular nuclear reactor in operation, as well as two megafactories for the production of green hydrogen.

Within the rainbow of hydrogen colors, this type of production is distinct from ‘green’ hydrogen in that the power driving the process is from nuclear, rather than explicitly renewable sources.

Known as ‘pink’ hydrogen, the problem here is that costs will not fall as quickly as green hydrogen, due to the price of the required electricity, which will account for over two-thirds of the cost of hydrogen by 2050. Nuclear power currently costs over €100 per MWh in most cases, while wind and solar power – currently at around €40 per MWh – are projected to fall into the single digits by the middle of the century.

While green hydrogen will become the most cost-effective form of production by 2027 at $1.70 per kilogram, pink hydrogen will fall slowly to around $4.00 per kilogram by 2050. Even if SMRs can hit their target prices of €70 per MWh, costs will still be well above $3 per kilogram.

One thing that might continue to play in Macron’s favor is France’s historic acceptance of nuclear power. In 2019, nearly half of the French public saw nuclear energy, which accounts for 70% of the country’s electricity, as an asset. Overall, France’s support for nuclear power has increased by 17 percentage points in the past two years.

With an ongoing energy crisis, he can also continue to play on the evident issues in relying on natural gas imports. Although his early presidency saw Macron announce the shutdown of 14 reactors and intentions to cut nuclear’s contribution to France’s energy mix from 75% to 50% by 2035, the current energy crisis appears to have forced a reconsideration.

In the past week, France has teamed up with the likes of Finland and the Czech Republic, among others, to push the EU to include nuclear energy within sustainable finance rules, although this is facing significant criticism from the likes of Germany, which has promised to phase out all nuclear power by the end of 2022.

With green politicians hoping to end France’s dependence on nuclear, citing radioactive waste and safety issues, this will inevitably end up being a fierce point of debate in the run-up to 2022’s election. The right and far-right want more reactors, and Macron’s focus on small nuclear reactors is an attempt to keep both sides happy.

Along with plans to develop a pink-tinted green hydrogen industry, Macron also outlined plans to invest heavily in medical research, with at least 20 biotech drugs against cancers, as well as emerging and chronic illnesses. He also added that France should be able to produce 2 million electric and hybrid cars by 2030 and build a low-carbon airplane during the same timeframe.