Texas vs. France: A Look at Who’s Bigger, Hotter, and More Prepared for Climate Change

wikimedia solar furnace

A solar furnace in the Pyrenees, France.

If you drive around the Lone Star State, you’re sure to see bumper stickers that say, “Texas: Bigger than France.” It references an ongoing debate about which “country” is bigger (something Texans feel very strongly about), but a closer look (aka, a quick Google search) reveals Texas and France are roughly equivalent in size. This, however, is where the similarities end – at least until recently.

Earlier this summer, France and the rest of Western Europe were in the grips of a record-breaking heatwave. Texans are certainly no strangers to crippling heat, even if we have been enjoying a relatively mild summer (so far) with regular spring and summer rains. But one year of El Nino climate patterns does not mean Texas is in the clear. Nor does it mean one abnormally hot summer in France is the last one they’ll see.

Global climate change predictions show that extreme heat and drought are on the rise, meaning both Texas and France increasingly need to consider water in their energy decisions. Why? Because as temperatures increase, so will our energy demand, which means an increase in demand for water, too.

Both France and Texas are facing some tough times ahead based on climate models, but their responses are very different.

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France relies on thirsty nuclear

France currently generates about 76 percent of its electricity from nuclear. The country made a deliberate choice to increase its nuclear energy load in reaction to the oil shock of the 1970s—a move aimed at making France more energy independent. As climate change has advanced, nuclear energy has helped curb carbon emissions from the country’s power sector by reducing the need for coal and natural gas imports from other parts of Europe.

But, besides the well-known waste issues, nuclear energy also has a dark side: it is very water-intensive. In fact, nuclear is one of the most water-intensive electricity sources, which is evident in the makeup of France’s overall water use. In France, the power sector withdraws about 65 percent of all water in the country – withdrawal being the amount of water taken from the source, much of which is returned. And it consumes about ten percent – consumption being the portion of that water used and not returned to the original source for reuse. For comparison, the U.S. withdraws about 40 percent and consumes three percent. (For more on these terms, see here.)

Texas’s generation mix is also very thirsty, but not quite as much as France’s. Texas generates about 57 percent of its electricity from natural gas, 23 percent from coal, and 11 percent from nuclear, all thirsty resources.

Weather events heating up

France has been suffering from heatwaves and droughts just as Texas has, creating problems for the country’s electric reliability and economy. This latest heatwave caused several power cuts in France, just as heat caused problems for the power sector in 2003. In 2003, the equivalent of four nuclear power plants went offline because the water was too hot to cool the reactors and fires broke out. France’s electric exports fell by half. In 2009, drought conditions on top of a power sector workers strike took so much power offline that France became a net importer of electricity for the first time in nearly 30 years. This year’s heatwave took out power to as many as one million homes.

Texas has managed to fend off a lot of power cuts throughout the drought, but electricity demand, especially during the hottest and driest times, has also meant an increase in demand for water from the power sector. In other words, Texas’ hot and dry conditions have created a vicious cycle of fossil-fueled power plants needing more water – water that we don’t have – to complete cooling operations.

For both Texas and France, climate models predict more heatwaves, which exacerbate droughts. This should concern the power sector in both countries, but France is already taking direct action while Texas leadership continues to bury its head in the sand.

Actions on climate: France vs. Texas

France has actively worked to address climate change. As part of the European Union (EU), the country has long participated in the EU Emission Trading System and has a carbon reduction target. Nuclear has served as a key low-carbon power source in France’s energy policy. Recently though, France has set a target to reduce its electric generation from nuclear to 50 percent by 2025, mainly due to cost factors and some safety concerns following the Fukushima disaster, not because of water considerations.

What’s more, the falling costs of renewable energy, such as solar and wind, has made their increased deployment more attractive for Europe. France already generates about 14 percent of its electricity annually from renewable energy sources, although that is still well below its 2020 target of 23 percent – and behind many other fellow EU countries. Denmark, for example, recently generated 140 percent of its demand from wind energy during one day earlier this year. And Germany broke a record with over 50 percent of demand met through solar power on a sunny day in 2014.

More importantly though, France renewed its commitment to renewables by passing a law that both quadruples France’s carbon tax, and will require 40 percent of France’s power to come from renewable energy by 2030. Compare that with Texas, which only generates about 7 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, most of which is wind (Texas’ solar potential has barely begun to be tapped).

France, as part of the EU, benefits from being part of a market that imports and exports energy relatively easily across country borders, and sets region-wide climate change targets as well as country-specific clean energy goals—along with the leadership to support those goals. In the run-up to the international climate negotiations in Paris this December, French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently called for all members of the Group of 7 major advanced countries to reduce emissions up to 70 percent below 2010 levels by 2050.Unfortunately, much of Texas is in the ERCOT market, which makes regional trading, import and export programs more complicated.

While Texas has modest statewide energy efficiency and renewable energy goals, they are not tied to the long-term issue of climate change. This short-sighted view means priority is not placed on the development of low-carbon energy resources, many of which are also water-conserving energy resources.

Although the driving force behind reducing nuclear power in France is not high water usage, the severe heatwaves and droughts plaguing the country are shifting the issue to the front lines. The switch to more renewable energy will help the country meet its climate goals – but it will also help strengthen France’s resilience to drought and heat.

Texas leadership could take a page out of France’s book when it comes to planning for the future. By formally recognizing the need for climate change solutions and considering energy resources holistically – looking at both its emissions and water usage – Texas stands a better chance at mitigating some of the worst effects of what is coming down the road…even if that road leads to Paris, Texas instead of Paris, France.

Photo source: Wikimedia/H Zell

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