In this exclusive interview with Energy Post, the man in charge of EDF’s flagship new research centre just outside Paris, Jean-Paul Chabard, explains where the company sees its future opportunities. With an R&D budget of €650 million, EDF has the largest R&D effort of any utility in Europe. The EDF Lab at Paris-Saclay, which opened in March, houses half the company’s 2,000-strong R&D staff. Chabard says “electrical storage is the grail for an electricity producer like EDF” He also has high expectations for solar PV, digitisation and electric mobility.
The new Paris-Saclay Campus just to the southwest of the French capital is one of the Top 8 “World Innovation Clusters” according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). That puts it on the same list as esteemed sites such as Silicon Valley. The Paris-Saclay Campus site is about 5 km long and 2 km wide. It brings together private and public sector actors – from companies to universities to research institutes – in a gigantic research effort that will represent about a fifth of France’s entire R&D spend.
Little wonder then that national energy champion EDF, Europe’s number one in R&D, has been a partner from the start. The EDF Lab Paris-Saclay, the biggest of its three French and seven international R&D centres, started development at the same as the cluster back in 2008. It opened its doors in March 2016 for the first time. The Lab’s entire genesis has been overseen by a man who has devoted his career to R&D at EDF. Jean-Paul Chabard, scientific director at EDF’s R&D, has been an engineer with the company since 1984.
In this exclusive interview with Energy Post, ahead of an event on 28 September in Brussels at which EDF will share its latest achievements in energy research with stakeholders in Brussels, Chabard explains why and how the EDF Lab at Paris-Saclay is different to other research centres, what EDF’s research priorities are, and how these will shape the future of the company and Europe.
Q: How is the EDF Lab at the Paris-Saclay campus different to your other R&D centres?
A: It’s much more open. The architecture includes some buildings which are in an “open area”, which means researchers from the campus can join EDF researchers in these places, freely. It’s very new for our researchers to work together like this. There are lots of innovative spaces too, to facilitate innovation and creativity.
So the architecture makes a difference, plus the way we manage our working teams. We already have some common laboratories between EDF and academic institutes. We are also bringing together lots of different positions to facilitate contacts between people inside EDF. At present, about half of EDF’s R&D staff is on this campus. That’s about 1000 people. It’s really very different from the other sites we have.
Q: What does it represent in terms of EDF’s R&D budget?
A: It’s about half the budget also. This site is working on all the topics in which R&D is involved. There is no particular specialisation.
All the projects that contribute to developing decarbonised energy are very exciting and especially electrical storage
Q: How much of your R&D budget is spent on nuclear research?
A: Forty percent of the total budget is devoted to nuclear. The other 60% is divided quite equally among renewable energy and storage, efficient and new uses of electricity, and electrical grid and smart grids.
Q: How has this budget evolved over time? How do you expect it to change in future?
A: The R&D budget was quite stable in the past. We were able to make some significant advances and develop new activities in areas such as cyber-security. We expect to do more on this, plus data analytics, renewable energy and electricity systems in future.
Q: At what point did nuclear energy drop to less than half the total R&D budget?
A: I can’t tell you exactly. In the field of nuclear, we are mainly concentrating on lifetime extensions and the safety and performance of existing plants. We could reduce this in the past to devote more people to other activities. But it remains an area of focus.
We have another part of our R&D team devoted to nuclear new-build.
Waste and decommissioning research are part of the R&D budget too. And we have a part dedicated to innovative reactor concepts, such as the Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) that we are developing in partnership with the UK.
Q: All energy companies are suffering from low wholesale prices. Budgets are ever tighter. Do you worry? Where will your money come from in future?
A: Of course we have a budget just like other entities inside the company. But R&D is identified as something which creates value. We are supported by the head of the EDF group. About 70% of our activity is directly financed by EDF businesses. The other 30-33% is financed by a corporate fund. This is for more long-term, exploratory research.
Our budget coming from EDF will probably be under pressure in the near future in line with the drop of the electricity wholesale prices in Europe. But we are in a process to increase external funding sources through the promotion on the international market of our innovations and know-how developed and implemented for EDF business units.
Q: RWE has created a separate “Innovation Hub” within the company to do exploratory research. How do you make time and space for this in the face of daily business pressures?
A: We are organised in a matrix-like way. We have a mandate to keep in mind that a certain part of our activity has to be devoted to long-term programmes. Of course there is the pressure of today, but to help keep that at bay we have also identified some priorities to structure our long-term research.
The first priority is the development of local energy systems and the way that these systems interact with more global ones. This is a key question for the future: you can use local renewables, local storage, and a local grid, but you cannot operate in complete isolation from the overall electrical system. The question is how they can co-exist. Data science is a second priority due to the digital revolution. Third is storage. We are looking especially at batteries, solar PV and electro-mobility. Fourth is Small Modular Reactors, as I mentioned earlier.
Europe has a highly interconnected electrical system. This is not favourable for the development of storage. It can be more efficient to send your electrons to the other side of Europe than store them
Beside long-term research, innovation is another priority for EDF Group. We want to play a central role in the innovation ecosystem. This is why we are developing inside EDF’s R&D an Innovation Hub in which Paris-Saclay will be the focal point. It means developing a global policy for innovation support which involves providing energy start-up companies with various forms of support (funding, partnerships) and internally facilitating research projects and their industrialization. The Innovation Hub provides support for the most innovative of these companies, even setting up demonstrators in entities or subsidiaries belonging to the EDF group, or entering into commercial partnership with them.
Q: Is your long-term research carried out by separate teams of people, or does everyone get involved?
A: We run R&D projects. We have some people who are more on operational projects and some who are more on long-term projects. It depends on competences. We regularly check that we have the right competences on the right subjects. We tend to avoid having people doing only long-term work because we think that the link with business is very important.
Q: EDF is at heart a technology company. Do you also do non-technological research?
A: Yes, we have people working on the economic efficiency and regulation of the energy system. We also have social scientists working on the acceptability of new plants, and new devices – the smart meter is a big subject. Energy efficiency and the behaviour of people, and their impact on the system, are all topics in our R&D programme.
One hundred and fifty to two hundred researchers are working together in a new lab to develop new technologies for PV cells
Q: What research are you most excited about?
A: I would say that the most exciting work is on the energy transition. All the projects that contribute to developing decarbonised energy are very exciting and especially electrical storage. It is the grail of an electricity producer like EDF. At the present time it’s very difficult to store electricity in an economically efficient way. If we are able to develop new devices for this, it will completely change the business.
Q: How far away are we from a storage revolution?
A: In the recent past, the cost of batteries has decreased very rapidly. We are not yet at a price which is compatible with large-scale development in Europe because Europe has a highly interconnected electrical system. This is not favourable for the development of storage. It can be more efficient to send your electrons to the other side of Europe than store them. The business model for storage depends on the electrical system. In California you can have local solutions, which make the development of batteries more favourable. The price for the battery that we have now could be attractive in California but it is still too expensive for the European market.
New technologies can make a difference, however. I think we need another four or five years. EDF is also working on new battery technologies. We recently launched a spin-off from one of our research teams, which is a new concept for a battery working with zinc and air.
Q: Is storage an area where EDF hopes to be a leader in future?
A: We are not a battery manufacturer but if we can play a role in developing new technologies and test these technologies for electrical services, it can give EDF an edge over competitors.
Of course we are talking to battery manufacturers. But we are also working with our EDF subsidiary in the US to develop storage farms to support the grid. So we have operational projects under construction to test in advance what could one day be done on the European market. In China – where we also have a research centre – there are lots of demonstrations too in which we can be a partner, for example on concentrated solar power technologies.
In ten years’ time, we will have a lot of relations with our customers. We will be a player in the field of smart homes and smart factories
At present, our main storage research is on batteries i.e. electrical storage. We are also looking at other technologies but only for technical and economic evaluation, not direct research.
Q: Which technologies besides storage do you have high expectations for?
A: Solar PV is another. We have quite a strong R&D programme for this in partnership with other industrial companies and academic labs. We have a big joint project with other partners on the Paris-Saclay campus. It’s called the Ile-de-France Photovoltaic Institute. There we work in partnership with organisations like Total, Air Liquide, France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and École Polytechnique (a higher education institution). One hundred and fifty to two hundred researchers are working together in a new lab to develop new technologies for PV cells.
Electro-mobility is also very important for us. This is about developing the use of electricity. It’s very important for the decarbonisation of energy.
Q: The EU will publish a new research, innovation and competitiveness strategy this November. Do you have any expectations from Brussels?
A: We are a partner in several European projects and we hope to increase that number. We really think that the EU is there to support all the ways of decarbonising electricity. That includes nuclear together with renewable energy. Nuclear will play a role as one of the solutions that is useful for reaching the objectives of the COP21 Paris conference. I think the EU has a key role to play to help meet the goals of the energy transition.
Q: How do you see EDF as a company evolving? What kind of an organisation will it be, ten years from now?
A: It will probably be a company in which digital will play a role that is very, very different from today. In ten years’ time, we will have a lot of relations with our customers. We will be a player in the field of smart homes and smart factories. We will be able to help our customers optimise their energetic solutions and their energetic consumption. Being close to customers by developing new, competitive, decentralised and personalised solutions is indeed a key goal of EDF’s strategy called CAP 2030.
Q: Will EDF still be an engineering and technology company or become more of a service-oriented utility?
A: We are an engineering company and to produce electricity in future, we will need technological objects. The electrical network is one very specific object. It is huge and probably more complex than anything mankind has ever designed, so it will require very clever engineering people to work with it. I think we will have to keep this expertise.