France has just started a national energy debate which will continue until May. How far and how fast the wind market moves depends, in part, on the outcome of this national soul searching, by means of which the government hopes to fathom the electorate's preferences for energy sources over the next 30 years.
Until now the French wind market has been based on a tariff system created by the previous government of Lionel Jospin. The owner of a wind farm under 12 MW has earned EUR 0.0838/kWh for the first five years of its operation. Over the subsequent ten years the tariff varies according to the productivity of the site, between EUR 0.0305/kWh for a wind plant that produced an average of more than 3600 kWh/kW during the initial period and down to EUR 0.0838/kWh for a production of 2000 kWh/kW. On January 1, though, the new government cut the tariff by 3.3%, and will make the same cut each year.
The aim of the variable tariff is to favour the development of less windy sites, effectively subsidising projects that take into account environmental factors and ease of connection to the grid. This system applies only to the first 1500 MW of capacity installed in the country. Once that target is reached the tariff will drop by about 10%.
There is no shortage of critics of this apparently costly system of kick-starting a French wind industry. A majority in parliament recently tried to scrap it as an inefficient use of resources -- a vote which the government seems to have succeeded in rejecting. A swing in the public mood against paying higher prices for green electricity, however, cannot be ruled out. "Everything is possible," warns Antoine Saglio of the Syndicate for Renewable Energy (SER).
Wind promoters have been generally happy with the tariff, even if it limits projects in size and does nothing to encourage development offshore. Proof that the system favours wind power development is evident in the arrival of "carpetbagging" foreign companies that have set up subsidiaries in France or made alliances with foreign companies. Last year Le Merdelou, the first German-owned wind farm in France, went into production.
The consensus among wind power developers is that the rules are in essence satisfactory, but many details need attention. One of the main problems is that building permits for wind power are notoriously hard to come by in France's bureaucratic system, which devolves physical planning powers to the departmental prefects, but does not give them clear guidelines about what is and is not in the national interest.
Legislators threw an extra spanner in the planning works in an amendment to a bill passed in January. This requires any turbine of 12 metres or more to have a building permit and a turbine over 25 metres to be approved by public enquiry. A wind farm of over 2.5 MW, meanwhile, will also need an impact study. And all developers must agree to dismantling the turbines when their working life comes to an end.
A final provision of the bill seeks to limit the proximity of one wind farm to another. Technically, under the price decree, no single wind farm can be bigger than 12 MW. In practice some developers have got around this by bolting two smaller wind farms together to make a larger one, which still benefits from the tariff. At least one developer -- foreign, as it happens -- has submitted plans which would stretch this approach to its logical limit and create a giant wind farm from several smaller groups. Such an approach is widely seen as unnecessarily provocative in a wind industry which is acutely aware that mega-wind farms in the French countryside are likely to turn public opinion against it.
The solution legislators came up with is to establish a minimum distance between wind farms so they cannot be combined at the whim of the developer: it is now up to the government, in consultation with the industry, to set the figure for this. A distance of 1.5 km has been proposed but industry campaigners are hoping this will be reduced.
The new right-of-centre government under Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has yet to reveal its attitude to renewables fully and unambiguously, but it got off to a worrying start when the incoming environment minister praised nuclear energy for its environmental credentials. Since then the government has been making greener noises and it looks as if it is about to pass the first measure which will put its legislation where its mouth is, the Pluriannual Investment Program (PPI).
This decree, expected imminently, will set out the extra capacity that will be needed from now until 2007 and stipulate which energy sources are to be favoured, and how they will be funded. SER, which has advised both previous and present governments, predicts the PPI will be the new government's first clear commitment to meeting France's target under the EU directive of generating 21% of its electricity from renewable energy sources (up from 15%) by 2010. "Although there are still a number of obstacles to be solved," says SER, "the decree at least reassures professionals in the renewables sector."
Significantly, the decree is expected to at last lay the basis for a legal framework for developing offshore wind farms, and to set out the terms for future calls for tender that will provide a pricing structure for the electricity produced.
If the PPI fulfils its promise it will set an up-beat tone to the national energy debate which will lead up to a new framework law on electricity production to be put before parliament this year. The hope is that it will bring together all existing bits of legislation affecting renewables and tie up any loose ends. "The market has moved erratically and there hasn't been enough dialogue between the industry and parliament," says Antoine Saglio of SER. "We hope things will now settle down a little bit. It would be easy to make it easy: to define objectives and stop fiddling with the rules." If wind can get its case across to ministers, legislators and the public over the next few months and sell itself as a cost-effective and environmentally sound complement to France's giant nuclear wind industry, then the great leap forward can begin.