France

France

Serious fears that French wind market will fail -- Government policy could kill entire industry claim lobby groups

France will not reach even a third of its own wind power targets and will fall similarly short of its renewable commitment to the EU, according to a just released independent report. National forecasts remain upbeat as ever, but unfolding events suggest that the government either does not care about the wind industry, does not know what it is doing or would secretly like it to fail. The next few months may decide whether France is still in with a chance of becoming one of Europe's leading wind power producers or will be left behind as a might-have-been-market where vast resources remain untapped.

The report into the future for wind energy in France, by the Boston Consulting Group, compares the country's aspirations, action and progress with early market conditions in Spain and Germany. France has promised the EU it will deliver 21% of its electricity from renewable sources of energy by 2010. That would require an estimated 10,000 MW of wind power. The report concludes that less than a third of this is realistically achievable and then only if France is able to take effective measures now. Meantime, barriers to wind development are piling up.

Competitive tenders

While many wind developers in France see an expanded system of subsidised power purchase prices as the only way of kick-starting the market, the government is adamant that its support for large wind stations will be in the form of issuing competitive tenders for contracts aimed at driving prices down. In this way it says it will avoid exorbitant cost to the electricity user or the tax payer. The result is that France has a hybrid pricing system. Wind farms smaller than 12 MW currently benefit from a fixed power purchase price guaranteed over 15 years.

Although developers have avoided the 12 MW limit by combining smaller wind farms into larger units, France's installed capacity has crept up at a disappointing rate. About 100 MW has been installed over the past 12 months. The wind industry wants the 12 MW limit raised to 50 MW to take into account today's larger turbines and to prevent the spread of many small wind farms over the landscape.

Best price policy

The government, however, would rather see market forces set the purchase price. Earlier this year, it issued two calls for tender for wind farms over the 12 MW limit -- for 1000 MW of capacity on land and 500 MW offshore.

Industry minister Patrick Devdjian argues that requiring wind power producers to compete for contracts will reduce the price of developing the French wind resource. He also believes larger projects will produce more wind power for less money. "Why this system and why not just use an obligation to buy? Because it is the government's duty to ensure that development comes at the best price for the community and one would think with some justification that the profitability of a project of fifty to a hundred megawatt is higher than that of a project of six megawatt," says Devdjian.

While the intention of creating larger wind farms is welcomed by the wind industry, the calls for tender have been dismissed by many as an unwelcome return to the ill-fated EOLE 2005 program, which saw many projects proposed but very few built. The fear is the tenders will prove ineffective in getting wind capacity built, or even destructive of the wind industry if they fail to spark a market in France.

A joint statement by the French Wind Association (FEE) and the Renewable Energies Syndicate (SER) has denounced the terms of the calls for tender as flawed because the selection of winners will be governed mainly by price. Each project bid will be awarded points by the electricity regulator, CRE, in a scoring system ranging from zero to 20. A maximum of 12 points will be awarded for price, but only four points for "environmental impact and local acceptance" and two points for "technical and financial robustness of the candidate."

Quality ignored

The implication, say FEE and SER, is that only the lowest bids will be accepted, regardless of their quality. These are bids which in practice are likely to be either impossible to finance or are not sufficiently well designed to succeed against the various planning hurdles that are so common in France. The country's first offshore wind farms would be especially difficult to build under these conditions, say the two groups. Driven by price alone, offshore projects could easily be scuppered while still on paper by the many competing users of the sea who oppose them.

The few bids which do succeed -- and they could come from giant foreign power producers aiming for a loss-leading toe in the French wind power market -- would be concentrated on the windiest, most exposed sites lending fuel to the arguments of protesters who say that France's precious landscape is being industrialised, argue FEE and SER. The success of a few cheap bids might also jeopardise the subsidy system, they claim, as it could be used as evidence that wind power can be generated at much cheaper costs than French developers can manage. While the government would be able to say it had done its best to encourage renewable energy it would effectively have killed off the wind industry, or, as SER's André Antolini puts it, achieved "eolicide" ("windicide").

Unsympathetic

The government has shown little sympathy for the tough time the wind industry has been having in the national assembly. Elected regional representatives debating a new foundation law on energy policy have turned on wind with a ferocity out of proportion to public opinion. Only with difficulty have changes to the permitting laws for wind plant been resisted -- and there may yet be battles to fight before the draft energy law is finalised.

A government circular in September 2003 informed the prefects -- the appointed officials who head up each département and judge applications for building permits -- of the latest legislation requiring them to balance local objections with national energy policy. But two months ago an amendment to the new energy law threatened to transfer siting authority from the regional prefect to the mayor of the local area in which the wind farm is to be built. The wind industry's fear is that mayors under local pressure will ignore national interests and be more tempted than not to turn applications down. Worse, the amendment tried to assign a right of veto over any wind farm application to the Commission Departementale des Sites, Perspectives et Paysages, a committee whose rationale is to protect the landscape without necessarily considering future energy needs.

For now, the wind plant siting rules outlined in the draft energy law remain the same. The attempt to alter them specifically with regard to wind power plant was seen by renewable energy campaigners as "discriminatory" and the sign of an emboldened opposition which wanted to sabotage the wind industry once and for all. "We have accepted constraints already: to submit wind farm applications to public inquiry, to carry out impact studies and even to dismantle the plant at the end of its working life," says Antolini. "This was a declaration of war."

Opposition

The voice of public opposition to wind is more present and noticeable in France than it has been in the past. Before the assembly debate, however, the wind energy lobby believed it was winning the war of words. A survey published by the environment agency, ADEME, shows that wind is broadly accepted. Of the thousand people questioned, 62% say they are willing to accept a wind farm of eight to ten turbines within a kilometre of their home (25% definitely, 37% probably). "The NIMBY effect is not as pronounced as some people claim," says ADEME's Jean-Louis Bal.

The root of France's troubles may be that people see wind energy as a "good thing" but do not see the need for it. The country already generates enough electricity to be able to export its surplus, almost all from nuclear power, without producing greenhouse gases. "It is turning into a political debate," says SER director, Antoine Saglio. "We did not want that. The risk is that it becomes nuclear against wind."

tensions

While trumpeting its support for wind energy, the government has shown little stomach for defending it. If there is a backlash against wind, in apparent defiance of public opinion, says Devedjian, it is the fault of the wind industry and up to the industry to provide the solution: "Certain practices, certain ways of campaigning have created tensions and I think the wind power industry has everything to gain by reinforcing and promoting the good practices that it has adopted, with the aim of achieving greater transparency and quality of action, especially when dealing with local communities," he says.

The French wind industry has always protested its belief in open debate and this summer it will be put to the test. It may have defeated crippling changes to the planning laws, but it will almost certainly have to fight further battles with its opponents as the draft energy law is tossed back and forth between the two houses of parliament. It may be proved right about the ineffectiveness of calls for tender, but it still has to justify its main demand that the government put weight behind the power of fixed prices as the only way to create a domestic wind industry which contributes to the national "energy bouquet" and creates jobs, without unduly transforming the rural landscape.

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