More of the same foot dragging

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The French wind industry had no clearer idea of its future market at this year's annual renewables conference than it did at last year's event, despite much talk and many promises by government in the intervening period

Expectations were riding high that this year's French Renewable Energy Conference, held mid-June in Paris, would mark a milestone in the development of wind power in France. A packed audience hoped to hear new industry minister François Loos announce in his opening address the long awaited results of the government's call for companies to tender for provision of 500 MW of offshore wind power, launched in January 2004. It appears there was yet another administrative delay, however, and Loos said he would make a statement in "the coming days."

The two-year deadline for offshore project completion will be pushed back accordingly, but the problem, said Antoine Saglio of conference organisers the Renewable Energy Syndicate (SER), is that developers have now missed this summer's building season. All construction will have to take place in summer 2006. Before they even get to that stage, however, winning bids have to go to public enquiry and obtain all the relevant siting permits. No one is under any illusion that this will be easy. Loos explained that an inter-ministerial committee has been examining the "delicate" questions of environmental protection and conflicts among users of the maritime resource. Resolving these issues will be crucial over the coming months.

Jobs and more jobs

The conference took the form of four round-table talks on development of renewable energy in France and the role of local communities. One of the main themes to emerge was the role a dynamic renewables industry could play in job creation. SER estimates the industry as a whole could generate some 75,000 new jobs by 2010. Of this, wind might contribute 20,000-25,000 as against 2000 today.

Loos reminded delegates that employment is a top priority of the new government. To be sustainable the French renewables industry must develop on an industrial scale, he argued, and called for a large scale turbine manufacturer to set up in France. SER's André Antolini said the industry was "ready to rise to the challenge." He offered to help put in place measures to encourage a firm to make such an investment. Most importantly, is the need for any investor to be convinced there is a stable regulatory framework to ensure long term growth and sufficient demand.

Another big topic hanging over the conference hall was an imminent announcement regarding the new French energy law (box). The law, which sets out French energy policy and long term objectives, has had a long and tortuous passage through parliament over past months, during which several major amendments were introduced. For wind, the most important of these was the proposed removal of the 12 MW ceiling on projects eligible for premium purchase prices as fixed by government, the establishment of "wind power development zones" (ZDEs) and the setting up of regional wind targets (Windpower Monthly, June 2005).

The inter-house commission, which worked out a final version of the law, reported back on June 21, five days after the conference. In general, delegates were optimistic that the law would "allow both more and better quality wind development," as Loos put it. This did not prevent speakers voicing their frustration at the switchback ride wind has had over recent years. As Antolini commented, "It is high time a lasting economic and institutional framework is established and that the industry is no longer shaken up every six months and plunged once again into uncertainty."

A prolonged period of stability and growth is essential if France is to meet its EU commitment to deliver 21% of its electricity from renewables by 2010. This would require an estimated 8000-10,000 MW of wind power. Loos said industry ministry figures indicate, however, that just 2000 MW might reasonably be achieved by 2007.

More optimistically, national energy agency ADEME estimates the country's installed capacity will double to reach 800 MW by the end of 2005, though it is debatable this rate of growth can be maintained over several years. Loos revealed that over the last two years the rejection rate for siting permission was as high as 30%. Even when permissions were granted, 30% of decisions were contested, meaning more delay and additional costs for project developers.

Not surprisingly, the administrative hurdles faced by developers in France came in for much criticism during the conference. Samuele Furfari, of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Energy and Transport, raised the loudest laugh and applause of the day as he listed the 27 or so different administrations involved in each planning application in France. Developers need the "tenacity and stamina of a marathon runner," he commented. He added that while the European Commission had not received any formal complaints, he was aware many developers were exasperated by the current system.

The issue of public acceptance of wind plants cropped up repeatedly during the day. Loos stressed the importance of public consultation coupled with well-designed projects to win over public opinion. One speaker noted, however, that in France wind turbines seemed subject to a unique set of aesthetic standards.

Nevertheless, the public still seems favourably disposed towards wind power. Delegates heard that according to the latest Louis-Harris opinion poll commissioned by ADEME, 76% of French people are willing to accept wind turbines in their region, while 60% will accept a small station of eight to ten turbines at least a kilometre from their home. This comes, despite an active and vocal anti-wind lobby. Overall, 99% of respondents say they support the development of renewable sources of energy. The majority are even willing to pay up to 11% more on their electricity bill in order to fund it.

While recognising this fact, Loos said the industry must become more competitive compared to fossil fuel power generation in order to justify current levels of government spending. In 2005 government support for renewable energy amounted to EUR 570 million, he said, of which EUR 200 million was spent on electricity and EUR 120 million on research and development. Antolini agreed that the

drive towards competitiveness was important, but pointed out that the cost of renewable energy continues to fall, while fossil fuel prices rise.

The industry must be wary of any attempts to reduce tariffs paid today under the fixed premium purchase price arrangement for output from wind plant under 12 MW, warned Antolini. At current levels the purchase rates only just cover development costs and allow a small profit. If rates fall, projects will no longer be financially viable. Here again, the industry is waiting to see what the forthcoming energy law proposes.

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