Last year, not without trepidation, France got hitched to the principle of fixed tariffs for wind power. No one attending the Global Windpower conference in Paris in April could be in doubt from the triumphant speech of the then industry minister Christian Pierret that France had devised a support system second to none. It would, predicted energy planners confidently, not only kick-start the French market, but cause it to leap from less than 100 MW of installed capacity to 10,000 MW in less than a decade.
Since then, however, the country has been waking up to the hangover from the celebrations. The unexpected defeat of Lionel Jospin and his left-of-centre supporters in presidential and parliamentary elections made way for a new government whose commitment to putting into practice France's ambitious renewables program has yet to be proven.
In practical terms, though, nothing has changed since June 2001 when the Jospin government issued the decree that wind producers had long been waiting for. Any new wind farm coming into operation from that moment would earn a guaranteed EUR 0.0838/kWh for the first five years of its operation; for the subsequent ten years payment would be calculated according to a sliding scale based on the productivity of the site, from EUR 0.0305/kWh for the best sites to EUR 0.0838/kWh for the least windy.
The architects of this scheme had considered alternative markets: competitive calls for tenders (previously tried in France in the EOLE 2005 program) and a green credit system for trading the environmental value of renewable energy separately from the physical electricity. Both were rejected as unlikely to generate the Great Leap Forward that was needed. Their "advanced" tariff system is the only way to stimulate a national renewables industry, they argued; it is an efficient way of spreading wind energy around the country rather than concentrating it in the most favoured locations; and it provides "fair and sufficient" profits for private investors, attracting French and foreign companies into the market. It is not state aid, they argued, because it is electricity consumers who foot the bill.
signs of boom
For wind power producers the drawbacks to the system are contained in its limitations: the tariffs apply only to wind plant of 12 MW or under and are only available for the first 1500 MW of capacity installed. Nevertheless, for the past 16 months France has been showing signs of a wind power boom. Foreign firms have converged on France in a feeding frenzy, making alliances with French companies or setting up subsidiaries of their own on French soil. The usual pattern of operation is for a small French company with ground level know-how to ally with a much larger foreign company which can provide the technology and investment. "The market for wind energy in France is facing a politically secure boom," says Oliver Eggert of Germany's P&T Technology, a wind project developer and one of the latest entrants into the market. P&T has just set up a French subsidiary in Rennes to oversee the creation of an envisaged 20 wind farms in Normandy and Brittany totalling 95 MW.
But with the boom just getting going, the government changed hands. Jean-Pierre Raffarin's centre-right government briefly interrupted the air of unfettered optimism with the first announcements of the new ministers. Whereas Pierret had been won over to renewables to the point at which he was able to declare "I am committed without ambiguity to renewable energy," the new appointee, Francis Mer, began his tenure in office by describing wind as "an energy with an uncertain future, especially because of the doubts raised by its nuisance factors."
The new environment minister, Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin, made things worse when she remarked that investing in nuclear power was the best way for France to combat the greenhouse effect as it would not increase carbon emissions. Environmental campaigners were dismayed by her tone: "It was a declaration that said there will be no debate," complained the Green Party's Catherine Grèze. The argument that nuclear power is good because it does not pollute is often repeated in France, so heavily dependant on its nuclear power stations, but no one expected an environment minister to repeat it.
Fears that a government capable of making such pronouncements might try to tinker with the wind power tariff system or even rescind it have so far proved unfounded. "They have to respect the decree. We think it is not possible for them to modify it," says consultant Paul Neau. We think it is a good decree and not only for the tariffs. It is good for the environment because it makes less windy sites, less environmentally sensitive ones, profitable as well. For André Antolini of the Syndicat des Energies Renouvelables (SER), who is in close contact with the politicians who decide energy policy, it is up to the wind power community to carry on arguing its case: "When there's a change of government it takes a little time to convince new people. We have to show them that the only way forward is wind energy," he says.
Wind and nuclear
The truth, however, as Antolini points out, is that the only tenable political position to hold in France is to be in favour of both nuclear and wind at the same time: what is known as "dynamic cohabitation" between the two diametrically opposed philosophies. President Jacques Chirac made this clear in a message to the Global Windpower Conference: "In the future, we will have to call upon all forms of energy available in an equitable manner. Dependence on oil alone or nuclear energy alone belongs to the past. But we must be careful not to swing the other way and opt for the utopia of renewable energy alone."
Antolini argues that a head-on clash between nuclear and renewables is not only futile but shows a lack of pragmatism. Even if, as seems certain, France opts to retrofit its ageing nuclear reactors, it will take a long time. Only wind is in a position to fill the energy gap before new nuclear power comes on stream. It will have a decade of grace to prove its credentials.
It is probable, but not yet certain, that the new government will not seek to go back on the three core pieces of legislation governing French energy policy. Most influential of all is the electricity law of February 2000 which favoured support for renewables and led to the tariff system being adopted. The EC's directive on renewables, to which France is committed, set the target to boost production from renewable sources by 40 TWh before 2010. Wind will have to take the lion's share of this: the industry ministry forecast is for 7000-14,000 MW of wind capacity by 2010 producing 20-35 TWh annually. "It will be impossible for France to meet even half its renewables target if wind energy doesn't take off quickly," says Antolini.
The third key element in France's energy legislation is the Pluriannual Investment Program (PPI) for electricity production published in January. It defines the direction of national energy policy between now and 2010. Pierret described the PPI as "a vision to demonstrate to the world. An economic strategy to complement the decree on prices." Renewables have to take the lead in energy policy, stated the PPI, and most investment should be directed towards wind energy. Antolini is confident that the placing of renewables at the forefront of energy policy is not something that the incoming government will question: "It was a conclusion by a former government; but it was logical not political."
The net effect of the political upheaval, therefore, seems to be business as before and the French wind energy market has carried on booming. This is yet to be translated into anything tangible, however. A year after the price decree was issued, the French wind total crept only slowly over the 100 MW mark this summer and now stands at 131 MW distributed between 35 wind power plant. But it is widely predicted that France's installed capacity will grow exponentially from now on.
One of the reasons for the slow start is that the "wind rush" has caused an administrative bottleneck. Around 20 GW of grid connection applications had been received by June; but many projects were floundering even in their earliest study stages and it was clear that a new system was needed to separate the hype from the hard reality.
Since September 1, wind farm constructors have only been accepted onto the list for grid connection if they have a receipt to show that they have made a valid application for planning permission. Ill-conceived or problematic projects are thus removed from the official statistics. Even without these projects, it is clear the market is about to grow at a prodigious rate. By the cut-off date of September 1, 750 MW worth of projects which had received or were under consideration for planning permission were on the list grid connection list. By the end of the year it is estimated that projects totalling 1000 MW will have passed the first hurdles. If only half these projects get licensed, says Antolini, 500 MW is still a dramatic change. But as the wind industry in France goes from strength to strength so too, it seems, does the opposition. Over the last twelve months, protesters have organised themselves into a coherent voice and become more conspicuous than in the past. The mass media-sensing a controversy to be exploited-has given them a platform. The focus of such groups as "Vent de Colère" (Wind of Anger) is to save the French landscape from being disfigured by what they see as eyesores and potential generators of noise pollution. They are usually careful not to object to wind power per se. As their leading web site puts it: "NO to wind farms that spoil [the countryside]. YES to wind farms in industrial areas."
Many of the supporters of the no campaign are motivated by NIMBY or NIMSBY (Not in My Secondary-residence Back Yard) sentiments; they are often ill-informed about or not interested in the wider issues. Fears range from the health dangers of "electromagnetic waves" from wind turbines, to being hit by flying blades. There are even reports of landowners who have offered to lease their land to wind farm developers being threatened with violence by their neighbours.
There is a serious issue underlining such outpourings of angst. The public has to be won over to the implementation of wind turbines in the French countryside. The planning process is the most significant cause of delays or disruption of wind farm projects, as recognised by Chirac: "The public will also have to accept wind energy. Many projects are at a standstill for want of proper consultation."
The cautious wind project developer chooses a site with care, takes pains to inform and consult the local community and is prepared to makes changes to the plans. The eight turbines of Roquetaillade wind farm, for instance, were shifted back from the more productive crest of the hill where the developers would have liked to have installed them so as not to be not visible from historic and touristy town of Alet-les-Bains in the valley below.
Some new entrants to the market have shown themselves to be unaware of the debate that is going on. By proposing to create giant wind farms out of much smaller units (each conforming to the 12 MW limit but, when taken together, openly flaunting it) they play into the hands of the opposition who claim that the French countryside is being taken over by stealth. Promoting wind power in France may involve the wind power lobby in disowning "bad" projects as unhelpful to their cause. A law specifically promoting and regulating renewable energy, as proposed by the previous environment minister, Yves Cochet, could help be defining a clearer planning framework.
A more cogent opposition argument is being made by those who question the ethics and economics of, as they see it, providing private companies with risk-free profits at the consumer's expense. A constant thorn in the side of wind energy is the French commission for energy regulation (CRE), which produced a report in February warning that French businesses may have to pay 5% more for their electricity this year to meet the cost of subsidising renewable energy and to provide energy in Corsica and France's overseas territories. CRE's latest estimate is that its last figure was on the conservative side and that the surcharge could double if France is to reach 10,000 MW of wind.
It may be that the new government is waiting to see in which direction public sympathies lie before committing or withdrawing its resources. Will consumers accept the need to pay more for cleaner energy? Will public opinion come out in favour of the countryside campaigners or will the protesters be seen to be isolated and out of touch with the times.
There is good evidence that public opinion is on the side of renewables. In January, the Agency for the Environment and Energy Management (ADEME) published the result of a survey into attitudes towards wind energy in France. Interviews were carried out in the metropolitan areas and amongst people living close to wind farms (operating or under construction) in Aude département, the area with the highest concentration of wind farms. Fully 95% of those questioned were in favour of wind energy. Even in the Aude, where people have been most affected by wind energy, the results were overwhelming: 86% of respondents saw wind energy as having more positive than negative qualities. Consultant Paul Neau has his own interpretation of the survey: "86% is more than Jacques Chirac got in the second round of the presidential elections. France d'en bas is in favour of wind energy."
It may be just a matter of time before the government shows its wind power colours. "There has to be now a big debate about the future of energy in France and it will be an opportunity to clarify the role of renewables in it," says Antolini. "There is not a political decision to make but one to confirm."