The beginning of the end for petrol

The lofty desire to stop emitting CO2 as part of our fight against climate change has stimulated research into and development of renewable energy sources. The predominant yet implicit issue here is that oil will become rarer and rarer. Each oil well undergoes a period of increasing production over the first half of its life, which then peaks and starts to decrease as the well dries up. Over the past ten years, many smaller wells contributing to global production have dried up and therefore been shut down. New production, which is fewer in number and lesser in volume, struggles to meet the increasing demand. Since 1980, we have been consuming more oil than we have been able to find, boring into the stocks discovered by the previous generation. How much will be left for the next generation, given that it takes nature 100 million years to make oil?

Whilst demand continues to grow, the worldwide supply of hydrocarbons is going to begin to fall. When will it reach its peak? Sometime between 2010 and 2020, according to geologists ( If we do not do anything to reduce our consumption, the law of supply and demand will kick in, sending the price of petrol spiralling and therefore that of food and other raw materials as well. Was the 2008 crisis a mere taste of what is to come? The poorest and developing countries will be the first to suffer.

The production of greenhouse gas is intimately connected with the burning of fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) and hence our way of life, endangering the future of the planet. The Kyoto protocol was adopted in 1997 after the seriousness of this issue was realised on an international scale. Stringent targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2008/2012 in comparison to 1990 levels were set for most industrialised countries. France, therefore, adopted a Climate plan to quarter national greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

French Guiana will not escape the consequences of global warming. The same trends will be observed here as those around the world, such as the 1.2°C rise in temperature recorded at the Rochambeau station since 1950. Climate change will have several major effects. A rise in sea levels of between 10cm and 90cm would result in the coastal strip receding and the mangrove forest migrating inland, as well as more frequent floods. The more severe effects of the El Niño phenomenon would lead to longer droughts, as well as more violent rain on occasions. The Amazonian forest could give way to savannah, meaning a loss in biodiversity and large amounts of CO2 being released (by forest fires). World experts are unanimous in stating that, if we reduce our consumption of fossil fuel, global warming can be contained and climate change reduced. Surprisingly, that would also enable us to keep the price of oil at an affordable level and therefore make some savings!

This is why the “Grenelle de l’Environnement” (Environmental Forum) law, voted by the National Assembly on 21 October 2008 for the French overseas departments, stipulates that “energy independence shall be achieved by reaching an objective of 50% of final energy consumption in French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and La Réunion from renewable sources by 2020, and that exemplary programmes, specific to each department, shall subsequently be developed with the end goal of achieving energy independence by 2030”.

The power system in French Guiana – a special case 

French Guiana is a special case, in comparison with the other French overseas regions, as it has a vast continental landmass and also due to the fact that the coastal and inland areas are clearly separated. On the one hand, the coastal network is similar to those systems found on the islands of the other Overseas Departments – apart from the Petit-Saut dam which produces between 50% and 70% of the electricity consumed in French Guiana depending upon annual rainfall, with the rest being produced by oil-fired power stations. On the other hand, there are the isolated inland towns powered by large electric generators, where 35% of the population lives in remote villages without an electricity supply. The power system in French Guiana can therefore be characterised by its disparities, fragility and the major role that fossil fuels play in power generation. In French Guiana, electricity costs twice as much to produce as it is sold for and is subsidised by a national solidarity fund. Even when the inland areas do have a power supply, they suffer from frequent power cuts.

In 2000, less than 20% of the energy consumed in French Guiana came from renewable sources (Petit-Saut) with over 80% coming from oil imports, of which 53% was used for transport and 22% for electricity, much of which was used for the air-conditioning of buildings. Electricity consumption is rising in line with population increase (between 3% and 4% per year), whereas petrol consumption is growing a lot more rapidly.

Renewable energy sources in French Guiana

Renewable energy, derived from the power of the sun, wind, rivers, seas, vegetation and underground heat, can be used to produce heat, electricity or fuel. They are limitless sources since they are replenished as they are used. Because they do not generate any greenhouse gases, they provide a solution in the battle to protect mankind and nature. French Guiana has strong potential with regards to certain of these energy sources.

Biomass is the total amount of living organic plant (such as wood) and animal matter. With its wealth of forests, French Guiana sets itself apart from the other French Overseas Departments with the sheer scale of its biomass reserves. The greatest potential lies in waste from the clearing of agricultural land and logging. A first biomass factory producing 1.7 MW in operation at Kourou is under way, along with several other projects. By 2020, it should therefore be possible to produce over 20MW from biomass stations, with the advantage of constant levels of production and a guaranteed power output.

Hydroelectric power is either generated by dams or by what are called run-of-the-river power stations which use the river’s current. Since French Guiana is very flat, the dam at Petit-Saut flooded a surface area of more than 350km2 in order to reach a height of 35m. It is a landmark structure in French Guiana, and the large body of water it retains has the unique advantage of offering several months’ worth of electricity production. Unfortunately, it also gives off large quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, which cancels out its carbon savings. Run-of-the-river stations without a lake, such as the Saut-Maripa power station which supplies Saint-Georges, do not present this problem. Other sites have been identified on the Mana, Compté and Approuague rivers which would make it possible to produce between 7MW and 15MW in the next few years.

Photovoltaic solar energy is generated by units which directly convert sunlight into electricity. For over thirty years now, this source has been used to supply remote houses and villages. Around a thousand families depend on it, such as the inhabitants of the villages of Saül and Kaw as well as many full- or part-time farmers along the coast. A dozen villages on the Maroni and Oyapock rivers should have an electricity supply soon. More recently, solar units have also been used to directly generate electricity for the grid. Within the next few years 40MW capacity is expected to be installed. This is as much as the network can handle without disruption, given that this is an intermittent and fluctuating energy source.

Wind power uses a wind generator to produce electricity. Unlike the West Indies with its strong trade winds, the wind in French Guiana is of average strength. Nevertheless, the fact that it is regular and there are no cyclones means that a wind farm of 12MW with large 2.5MW wind turbines is a possibility.

Which power plan?

Exploiting the potential for renewable energy sources, along with a determined policy to reduce consumption, should enable French Guiana to meet its energy needs by 2020, predominantly by biomass power generation and energy savings, followed by hydroelectric, photovoltaic, and wind power.

Those concerned – local authorities, the State, EDF and businesses – are clearly willing to develop these sectors, especially since renewable energy now costs less than oil in French Guiana (with the exception of photovoltaic power which should nevertheless come down in price significantly). Further work needs to be done to establish appropriate tariffs for wind and biomass and to guarantee stable tax exemption schemes. In the run-up to Copenhagen, the Region and the Department have decided to work together to reduce greenhouse gases produced by logging and clearing land for agriculture. This will require working in consultation with all those involved in agriculture so as to assist and encourage young farmers to set up farms and therefore make best use of the wood generated by clearing the land, which is currently burned in situ.

In addition to the environmental benefits these green sectors would deliver for French Guiana, there are also significant socio-economic advantages. All in all, the development of renewable energy could result in the creation of between 400 and 450 jobs, injecting nearly a hundred million Euros into the local economy by 2020. Biomass is the sector producing the most jobs locally, mostly requiring people to collect, transport and shred the wood.

Not forgetting energy management

In French Guiana, as elsewhere in the world, the trio of renewable energy, the energy efficiency of equipment and the sparing use of energy (by changing our consumption habits) will allow us to respond to global and local issues. The aim here is to identify potential savings, enabling energy imports to be maintained at current levels, if not diminished, for a population that will double in size within 20 years. If you have not already done so, you can equip yourself with energy-saving light bulbs, a solar water heater, energy class ‘A’ home appliances and a good air-conditioning unit which can greatly reduce consumption, or even avoid the need for air conditioning entirely, by insulating your roof and protecting your walls, doors and windows from the sun. Shops and offices should do the same, creating over 500 jobs.

Above all, however, the greatest efforts need to be made within the transport sector – a topic which often rears its head and yet continues to pose an issue – with the development of urban public transport systems for the whole of the island of Cayenne and the development of green alternatives such as cycling and walking. This appears to be an area in which French Guiana is happy to lag behind, since the network of cycle lanes does not even link Cayenne with Matoury and the Departmental Council struggles to meet purely urban needs with inter-urban means of transport.