The industry has warned that, unless the complex layers of regulations are unravelled, France will not achieve the 1.3GW a year it needs to hit its 2020 targets.
Environment minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet in October proposed a number of measures aimed at reducing the permitting process to one year, against an average four to five years at present. She expects the new procedures to be in place by the end of the year.
Kosciusko-Morizet wants regional one-stop shops to coordinate applications for the siting permit and the authorisation under the ICPE regulations, which cover the protection of the environment. Authorities will have to reach a decision within a year, though it is unclear what will happen if they do not. Where one permit is appealed, the time limit on the other will be suspended until the case is resolved. This will avoid the need to reapply for lapsed permits.
The minister also said she was prepared to consider simplifying the rules governing wind-power development zones (ZDEs), within which turbines must be located to qualify for guaranteed power purchase prices. However, she ruled out abolishing the zones altogether, as the industry would prefer on the grounds that they duplicate the new regional wind-power plans.
While it had been hoping for more, the industry welcomed the proposals and said it will work with the minister to ensure the best outcome. "We remain very vigilant as to what actually takes place," said Nicolas Wolff, president of the French wind energy association. "Often ministers say things should improve, but the opposite happens."
Litany of problems
A 337-page report on how to improve administrative processes, commissioned by the energy ministry in 2010 and compiled by CGEDD, an advisory body on the environment and sustainable development, was made public last month.
The report is a litany of the problems the wind industry has faced for years: overlapping, inconsistent and frequently changing regulations; lengthy procedures; a skewed appeals system; overly cautious radar operators; and countless other issues. "Given that wind-power projects currently face serious difficulties in getting accepted, the situation can only deteriorate," it warns.
"This report is the first acknowledgement of our difficulties," commented Wolff. "It represents reality."
The industry is particularly anxious to reduce the number of appeals. It claims that 35% of permits are contested, against 5-7% in other industries, while more than 80% of decisions are eventually upheld. "The multiplication of procedures means opponents can appeal simply to slow down projects," said Jean-Louis Bal, president of renewable-energy trade association SER.
The permitting process consists of four stages: siting permit, ZDE approval, regional wind-power plans and ICPE authorisation. "This gives four opportunities to appeal," Bal explained. The CGEDD thinks the answer partly lies in the state adopting a more coherent approach at all levels, clarifying the regulations and improving the consultation process.
The authors also recommend increasing public involvement. To meet the national goals for wind power "we must convince the public and the elected local authorities, notably by increasing projects in which they are directly involved in initiating or benefiting from", they conclude.
While the signs are promising, with French general elections looming it is unlikely that Kosciusko-Morizet will be taking any big decisions before the spring.