French tender deadline impossible to meet -- Industry calls on government to rethink 500 MW timetable

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The timetable for project completion under France's 500 MW wind power tender is "totally unrealistic" says the French wind industry. It is calling on the government to delay this month's January 30 deadline for submission of bids and for a significant extension of the January 1, 2006 project completion date.

According to the tender framework, electricity regulator Commission de Régulation de l'Electricité (CRE) has up to July 31 to assess the bids. If CRE takes the maximum time permitted, developers will have under six months in which to go to public inquiry, obtain building permission and arrange for grid connection, among other things, say two wind industry lobby groups, the French Wind Energy Association (FEE) and the Renewable Energy Syndicate (SER).

Given the normal administrative delays and difficulties securing grid connection, FEE and SER maintain the schedule is impossibly tight. While some projects may have completed the necessary administrative procedures, SER's André Antolini believes they will be in the minority. Most project developers will want to hear if their bid has been successful before spending more money on dealing with the paperwork, he says.

The two industry groups also maintain that the tender's assessment criteria are flawed. Selecting winners almost exclusively on among the lowest price bids, regardless of technical or environmental qualities, will not deliver the desired result, they say.

Once bids are in, CRE will award points to each project. A maximum of 12 points can be awarded for price, but only four for "environmental impact and local acceptance" and two points for the candidate's "technical and financial robustness." In practice, the two organisations argue, the projects offering the lowest bids are likely to be either impossible to finance or not sufficiently well designed to receive planning permission.

For both these reasons, say SER and FEE, selected projects will have little chance of being realised. This will reflect badly on the entire industry. SER's Antoine Saglio compares the situation to that of France's previous wind market framework, the ill-fated EOLE 2005 program, under which many projects were proposed, but few saw the light of day. "No lessons have been learned," he laments. "Once again the industry has a noose round its neck."

Surge expected

For 2005, however, the industry expects a development boom under the established market framework, which offers guaranteed premium purchase prices for electricity generated by wind stations under 12 MW. Construction permits have been granted for over 850 MW of new capacity. At its national wind conference in Caen last month, energy agency ADEME estimated that France's total installed wind power could double in 2005, to reach 800-900 MW by the end of the year.

Expectations of a boom in French wind have been heard before, however. Far from the anticipated market take-off in 2004, only 150 MW of power was installed, bringing the total to around 400 MW at the end of the year. A combination of administrative delays, difficulties in securing grid connection and the 12 MW ceiling for premium purchase prices, which result in scattered wind plant at higher cost, is blamed for the sluggish growth. It appears, however, that administrative procedures and grid connections are now being processed more quickly.

Rhetoric and reality

Whether growth will be fast enough for France to meet its renewable energy commitment to the EU is another matter. Antolini says that at present rates, around 2500 MW can realistically be achieved by 2010, far short of the 8000-10,000 MW required for France to provide 21% of its electricity needs from renewable sources by that date -- as repeatedly promised by the government.

Wind industry members generally agree that the necessary elements are in place for development to take off. The critical missing ingredient is political will. If the government is serious about achieving its ambitious target, says Jean-Marc Armitano of FEE, it must show a real engagement with local authorities and local communities.

"There is a wide gulf between the rhetoric and the reality," he argues. On the one hand the government insists France will meet its commitment and on the other it is failing to support the industry on a practical level by ensuring all state bodies embrace the objectives. Industry minister Patrick Devedjian insists the target can be reached, although a ministry spokesman, Pascal Dupuis, admitted at the Caen conference that it would not be easy. "France can do it," he said, "But things need to take off fast, and now."

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