Two changes to permitting procedures to be implemented over the summer months are expected to release the log jam in French wind power projects. Despite ambitious government targets and the fixed premium wind tariff that have resulted in a wind developer rush in France, the country's installed capacity has only risen by 100 MW over the past 12 months and is still under 200 MW for the whole country, including Corsica and other overseas territories.
France, says European parliamentarian and wind supporter Mechtild Rothe, may have signed up to the EU renewable energy directive, but it has not adopted the spirit of the document: "The administrative procedures in some countries, not only in France, are still too inefficient and slow," she said recently.
Unexpectedly, things seemed to get worse, not better, at the start of the year. In January, an amendment to tighten up permitting procedures for wind farms was tacked on to the end of a gas liberalisation bill: any project with turbines over 25 metres in height must go before a public inquiry. At first, project developers opposed this hastily passed measure as arbitrary and unnecessary. Most parliamentarians in favour of the new legislation may have been motivated by a desire to save the French countryside from indiscriminate development, but a few were almost certainly hoping to undermine France's premium wind tariff support system before it had got into its stride. The immediate effect of the new law was to put a halt on all sizeable wind projects on which construction work had not started. An estimated 300 MW had secured building permits, but would now have to wait for public inquiries to be set up.
Since January, however, opinion in the wind community has been gradually shifting in favour of public inquiries. They will make the system clearer, bring the small but vocal opposition out into the open; and lay the facts before a judge. "Everyone can express themselves freely," says one of the first companies to submit a project to a public inquiry, "and bad ideas can be consigned to the dustbin." Although short term growth is impossible, points out Charles Dugue of Vestas France, the future looks more secure: "There are plenty of projects that have all the relevant bits of paper signed but now they must pass public inquiries. There won't be many megawatts added in 2003 but there should be a steady flow of building in the medium and long term."
Not that developers agree with the 25 metre threshold, which is seen as too arbitrary and too low. In May, an amendment presented in the senate was aimed at converting the height limit to a 2.5 MW capacity limit. One justification for this was not to prejudice France's only manufacturer of large turbines, Jeumont Industrie, which is not anticipating using towers of less than 25 metres
One beauty of the public inquiry system is that it reduces the power of veto of the prefect -- the government representative who presides over each département and who plays a key role in the planning system, often delaying wind farms. With most of their focus on their constituents, prefects have generally paid less attention to the demands of national energy policy than to the voices of not-in-my-backyard protests at home.
This summer's second initiative is intended to fix the prefect problem. Energy minister Nicole Fontaine, speaking at the annual conference of the Renewable Energy Syndicate (SER) conference in Paris in May, promised that the government's long awaited guidance on "the transparency of procedures" for wind power development will be sent out to prefects "very soon." The document is expected to make the case for prefects to look favourably on wind farms.
"It would be desirable if it gave prefects an idea of the quantities of wind power they are expected to contribute," suggests André Antolini of SER. But it is unlikely the government will go that far. It has been making ambiguous noises about the level of its commitment to wind power recently. "Certain politicians are convinced, but the battle is not finished," warns Antolini.
At the conference, Fontaine argued that too much emphasis was being given to wind compared with the other renewables. "Responses must be founded on reason not, as happens too often, on passion: the impact on the environment of renewable energies must be considered and managed, but without going to extremes." Nonetheless, the government is committed to installing between 2000 and 6000 MW of wind power capacity (with an estimated 1500 MW from offshore) by January 1, 2007.
To get anywhere near this, the government will need a clear strategy for wind by the autumn when it is to introduce a new law on future energy policy as a conclusion to the national energy debate taking place this year. By then a working group looking for new ways for France to reduce its CO2 emissions should have reported. Its brief is to "transform ideas born in laboratories into products that can be commercialised for all."
By the time the new law is placed before parliament, prefects should have received their wind power guidance, public enquiries should be running all over France and a great many more projects should have been cleared for development. But nobody can guarantee that the next year will see the quantum leap in installed capacity that has long been predicted.