A lukewarm host nation

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While French exhibitors, delegates and visitors flocked to this year's European Wind Energy Conference (EWEC) and Exhibition, held in the sun-drenched Mediterranean city of Marseille (main story), ministerial-level support was less in evidence. Delegates had to make do with a brief video message from the Secretary of State for Ecology, Chantal Jouanno.

In tempered words of support, Jouanno confirmed that wind power is expected to meet up to a third of the country's 23% binding renewable energy target, but indicated that the "real debate" today in France is the issue of the public's acceptability of the technology. To avoid wind turbines being scattered all over the countryside, the government has decided to introduce regional plans so that people know exactly where turbines can be installed (Windpower Monthly, April 2009).

Jean-Louis Bal, renewable energy director at the French environment agency, ADEME, agreed that acceptability is a problem, even though opinion polls regularly come out in favour of wind power. "It would be a mistake to avoid addressing these negative opinions," he believes. One argument in wind's favour is that its value to the consumer is increasing. Wind energy generated 5.6 TWh in France in 2008 at a price of EUR 85/MWh, compared with an average market price of electricity close to EUR 69/MWh. The forecast this year is for production to reach 7.5 TWh at around EUR 87/MWh, compared to an average wholesale price of around EUR 78/MWh. "The gap is closing," Bal noted, adding that already the additional cost to the French consumer is less than one euro a year.

JOb creation

Another advantage to wind power is job creation. The sector employs nearly 7000 people in France and is forecast to add another 9000 new jobs by 2012, Bal told delegates. He later admitted, however, that it was difficult for France to develop a home-grown industrial base given that most of the gaps in the supply chain are already filled by companies from other countries.

For this reason, France is targeting new areas, such as the offshore sector and particularly floating turbines for deep-water sites, he said. To support such projects, the government has created a "demonstrator research fund" of EUR 400 million over four years to allow innovative concepts to be tested on a large scale.

André Antolini, president of the French Renewable Energy Syndicate (SER), noted that nearly 400 French companies are already active in the sector, from making components to transporting turbines. In the last two years alone, five new factories producing wind turbine towers and bases have opened in France, employing 500 people. And two new manufacturing facilities making blades and components are due to open in Bordeaux in the near future (Windpower Monthly, April 2009).

Marc Vergnet, head of the only French wind turbine manufacturer producing megawatt-scale technology, saw a link between the two themes: acceptability and establishing a local industrial base. "If we had a local assembly structure, we would have fewer political problems," Vergnet believes. Another factor is that in the early days of wind energy in France local citizens were not involved and so tended to be opposed. But the major problem, according to Vergnet, is that France is a nuclear country and this is "really deeply rooted in our politicians and civil servants."

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