Insight Report: French wind passes coronavirus 'stress test'

Sector shrugs off H1 installation drop and hopes for 'ripple effect' as stimulus package homes in on energy transition

Although installations dropped during lockdown, France installed roughly the same amount in the first eight months of 2020 as last year (pic: Senvion)

The pandemic seems to have confirmed the wind sector’s role in the energy mix and anchored the energy transition firmly at the heart of French politics.

While it may be too early to assess the long-term impact of the health crisis, experts agree that it has been a successful "stress test" for wind and other renewables.

"With an average production rate of 25-30% of energy consumption during the lockdown, renewables have proven their ability to cover a significant part of the country’s energy needs… This demonstrates, for those who still doubt it, that these energies today have their full raison d’être in the French energy landscape," said Jean-François Petit, CEO of renewables company RES (France).

Wind production survived lockdown relatively unscathed, accounting for 9.5% of the country’s electricity mix in the first semester.

"In the short-term, we can already see that Covid-19 hasn’t had any impact on production. There was plenty of wind, and our wind farms all worked very well, proving their resistance," says Alexandre Roesch, executive officer of renewable energy trade body SER.

However, the mood is less upbeat when it comes to wind development, as projects saw a significant drop over lockdown, with installations down 45% in the first half.

But even then, experts don’t seem particularly concerned that Covid-19 will have a lasting effect. They say the slowdown is likely to be temporary, with projects merely delayed rather than cancelled altogether. France has 790 onshore projects totalling 10GW in the wings, and 10 installations for 3GW offshore.

"There’s no reason why we shouldn’t go back to how things were before. National wind targets haven’t been reviewed, and given how tender auctions are organised here, we’ll be able to make up for any delays," says senior climate and energy researcher Nicolas Berghmans, at the Paris-based Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations.

As Berghmans points out, the pandemic did not prevent the government’s energy plan — which sets the budgets — to be adopted in April. It aims to boost renewables’ share of electricity production to 40% by 2028, with targets for onshore wind capacity to reach 33.2-34.7GW and for France’s offshore wind fleet to be built out to 5.2-6.2GW.

Pandemic aside, extra efforts will have to be made to stay on target. "Even before Covid, we weren’t going fast enough to meet France’s energy plan," says Berghmans. Wind trade organisations say that many of the changes they had been pushing for before the crisis —simplifying application processes, reducing red tape and facilitating repowering — still need to be made. Action is also needed on gaining more public acceptance of wind projects.

"Lots of misinformation still circulates about the technology and we are constantly having to demonstrate all the advantages it can bring, including jobs," Roesch complains.

France’s new crisis stimulus package, announced on 3 September, may be a nudge in the right direction. Emmanuel Macron’s government, not initially known for its green credentials, took many by surprise by allocating one third of the €100-billion plan to the energy transition. While wind has not been specifically mentioned (as a roadmap has already been set), its proposals for reducing CO2 emissions including a €7-billion support plan for developing green hydrogen (some of it powered by wind), raising hopes for a positive ripple effect on wind.

"Before the crisis, there was no guarantee that the energy transition would be at the heart of policy. Now it is seen as an opportunity," concludes Berghmans.

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