Now he has decided it is time to stand down and on March 1 handed the reins to Jean-Louis Bal, formerly director of sustainable energy at the national environment and energy management agency, Ademe.
A self-confessed addict of pressuring the powers that be for things he firmly believes in, Antolini does not see himself retiring just yet. He will stay on in an advisory role for another three years.
A born lobbyist
Born in 1943, Antolini graduated with a masters in law and a doctorate in economics from the Sorbonne University in Paris. He began his career in real estate, founding the Citadines Apart'hotel group, which builds and rents out serviced apartments to business travellers worldwide. At the same time, Antolini served as president of the French federation of building developers, starting out on what is now 25 years as a lobbyist.
His move into energy happened by accident. When Goldman Sachs bought the Citadines group in 1997, Antolini left to join his friend Paris Mouratoglou's fledgling company, Siif Energies, which was beginning to focus on renewables. "I just jumped into renewables and fell in love, especially with wind energy," Antolini recalls. "I found wind turbines really beautiful and understood that wind energy was part of the future."
The gamble paid off. In 2000, state utility EDF started acquiring what would eventually be a 50% stake in Siif, making it EDF's renewable energy arm. This allowed the company, renamed EDF Energies Nouvelles, to embark on a period of rapid global expansion. Antolini rose with it to become deputy director, helping the company grow largely on the back of its wind activities, until his retirement in 2006.
Promoting wind power
Wind power was only just taking off in France in the 1990s. Once again, Antolini decided to put his lobbying skills to use and in 1997 was elected president of SER. The federation had been established in 1993 by Marc Vergnet, founder of the eponymous turbine manufacturer. SER's remit is "to promote the development of renewable energies in France, defending the interests of different stakeholders and informing its citizens and their representatives of the benefits of these forms of energy". It is also involved in drafting legislation and regulations.
Antolini arrived just as the industry was starting to gain credibility. Not only did he have experience of managing a large federation, but as director general of Siif he understood the industry, Vergnet recounts. His personality also played an important role. "He is determined, a good negotiator and has a great ability to summarise arguments," Vergnet says. He also knows how to listen and has the gift of empathy, but at the same time was "willing to defend the federation against all attacks". His other great asset was an extensive network of contacts, especially in the echelons of the state, which he continued to develop over the years.
As a result, Antolini took SER from just seven members in 1997 to more than 550 today. Only two of those original seven came from the wind sector: Siif and Vergnet. Today it has 230 members grouped under its wind power branch, the French wind energy association, FEE. This merged with SER in 2005. In addition to developers, consultants and manufacturers, the federation now includes local authorities and lawyers among its members - a sign of the times.
The wind industry has changed out of all recognition since Antolini joined SER. The turning point was the introduction of the guaranteed premium purchase price in 2001. This offered the "first workable tariff", together with a target of 1.5GW. For Vergnet, securing the tariffs was Antolini's greatest achievement. "It was an extraordinary piece of work, very well argued - a masterpiece," Vergnet comments. Since then, installed capacity has grown to more than 5.5GW, and France is aiming for 25GW by 2020.
Not that it has been an easy ride. It was "a very hostile environment, with very tough battles", Antolini recalls. One of the most difficult moments was the "first attempt to kill wind" in 2005, when legislators removed the 12MW ceiling on wind plants. Those opposed to wind power tried to replace it with a minimum of 30MW, then 20MW, knowing it was very difficult to obtain siting permits for large projects in France. In the end, thanks in part to intense lobbying by SER, the law made no mention of ceilings but instead introduced wind power development zones, ZDEs, leaving decisions on size to local authorities.
The second "brutal attack" came during the passage of the Grenelle 2 law early last year. Legislators again sought to impose tough new regulations, including a minimum of 15MW. "It was life or death for the industry," Antolini asserts. Members even came out on the streets in protest, while SER took out full-page adverts in national newspapers pointing out the sector's potential to create jobs alongside its environmental credentials.
At the same time, Antolini was involved in tense negotiations behind the scenes. He persuaded the government to drop the most damaging measures - or at least soften them. The energy minister also introduced a crucial amendment requiring that at least 500 turbines be installed each year, and followed it up with a circular specifying the number expected in each region. "Not everything is resolved for the wind industry, but it is very important that we can have a meeting with the government and hold up that circular," Antolini says.
While acknowledging that onshore wind still faces big problems in France, Antolini believes the key battle now lies offshore. The first of two tranches of 3GW is being put out to tender to meet the target of 6GW of offshore capacity by 2020. The question is how much will get built. A previous call for proposals for 500MW in 2004 saw just one project chosen - and even that is unlikely to be built now. The government insists it has learnt from that experience, but Antolini says the industry is watching carefully to see what happens next - particularly how realistic the prices of the selected bids are.
To help monitor that process and ensure the industry's voice is heard, Antolini will stay on as special adviser to SER until 2014. He also remains vice-president of the Union Francaise de l'Electricite, the electricity employers' federation, and a member of the energy council, which examines laws and other parliamentary texts relating to energy.
Looking back over his career, Antolini says he is most proud of what he has achieved for wind power. Despite the difficult environment, he helped build the strong foundation the sector has today and brought it into the mainstream. He reflects back to 1997: "It was really a niche market, with very few players, and the public did not know what it was", he explains. Now, public opinion polls regularly give wind power an approval rating of over 75%, thanks in part to SER.
Antolini's success with SER is all the more amazing for being achieved on a voluntary basis. Jean-Louis Bal will be the body's first salaried president. As Antolini reminded delegates at SER's annual conference in February, France took third place for new installed capacity in Europe last year, after spending many years "at the back of the pack". Now it is up to Bal to seize the baton.