Neither backwards or forwards in France

After a drawn out national energy debate, at times bordering on the farcical, wind power is neither better nor worse off than it was before. But plans for a national wind power agency are in process and local authorities have been told to look favourably on wind plant siting applications.

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After a drawn out national energy debate, at times bordering on the farcical, wind power is neither better nor worse off than it was before. But plans for a national wind power agency are in process and local authorities have been told to look favourably on wind plant siting applications

The government trumpeted it as an exercise in democratic consultation. Green campaigners said it was merely a public relations campaign in which the real issues were never aired. The wind industry declared it a moderate success. France's National Energy Debate of 2003 failed to catch the public's attention and reached predicable, sometimes farcical, conclusions which left few people impressed let alone informed.

To conclude the debate, junior energy minister Nicole Fontaine drew up a White Paper which sets out energy policy for the next 30 years. This will form the basis of a draft law to be put before parliament shortly. French energy policy will now rest on four premises: the right of access to energy by all French citizens; the continuing fight against global warming; the preservation of a large measure of independence to limit the impact of any future disruptions to world oil supply; and the creation of a healthy, competitive energy market in France

Fontaine had little to offer the renewables industry except to renew the government's commitment to reach its EU target of 21% of electricity from renewable sources by 2010, most of the needed capacity to come from wind. As to whether France was going to reinvest in nuclear -- on which it is heavily dependent -- Fontaine said it would keep its options open until 2012-2015, when existing reactors would be nearing the end of their working lives.

"There is a double national consensus," says wind power consultant Paul Neau, summing up the debate: "To save energy and to invest in renewable energy; but if the budgets continue to be consumed mainly by nuclear power the renewables industry could have problems."

Wind power's attempts to sell itself to the public were not helped when a committee of "three wise men," set up to mull over energy policy, published its report just before the appearance of the White Paper. The section on wind power, written by two of the sages, begins by declaring that, "Wind energy is neither clean nor renewable. Because of the intermittent nature of the resource, the use of wind necessitates complementary power stations that can be switched on and switched off at will -- gas-fired power stations best fulfil this role. Wind is therefore not clean because it helps contribute to the greenhouse effect and it is not renewable because it uses up fossil fuels."

An elegant rebuttal of this reasoning by the Association Global Chance pointed out that since France was dependent on nuclear power, wind was jointly responsible for producing nuclear waste. And that because the nuclear industry was not capable of supplying all of France's energy needs it was responsible for the fossil fuels and green house gases that went with oil and gas power stations. Coal, meanwhile, could be described as a low emissions fuel source because it had nuclear, hydro power and wind as complementary energy sources to share its eco-burden.

A welcome bit of sanity came from parliamentarian Jean Besson, moderator of the debate. He advises Fontaine to set up a national steering committee for wind energy to end the haphazard development of the market. This provision has been incorporated into the draft law but, says Antoine Saglio of the Renewables Energy Syndicate, "It will take a year or so to get into law and that will be too late. Why not now?" So where did the National Energy Debate leave wind? "It's not going backwards but its not going quickly forwards either," says Saglio.

Clearing the way

Meanwhile, the French government has sent its long awaited circular to the prefects, the political heads of the departements and regions into which the country is divided, advising them on how to deal with siting applications for wind farms. It is signed by the ministers for the environment, transport and industry and sets out both the rationale of national energy policy and siting law.

The prefects are ultimately responsible for whether planning permission is granted for any given project and the French wind industry has long complained of the delays and obstructions they cause through lack of knowledge of the technology, or by showing too much concern for local public opinion. The arrival of a new prefect in Finistere, for example, has meant the suspension of wind power development in the departement until he is satisfied that close enough attention is being paid to the protection of the landscape and to population distribution.

The government circular encourages prefects to see wind power from a more national, less parochial, not to say personal, perspective. "The promotion of clean and renewable sources of energy is a priority of French energy policy," begins the circular before explaining France's renewables commitment under EU regulations and to tell the prefects, "your aim should be the speedy realisation of wind farm projects while ensuring, through a preliminary evaluation, that there is public consultation and participation so as to safeguard all relevant interests and ensure their compatibility."

In a 27-page appendix, the circular sets the various bits of legislation pertaining to wind farm planning applications and asks the prefects to follow two broad operational principles: to guarantee the clarity and transparency of planning procedures and to facilitate local implementation of wind farms.

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