Government acts to streamline planning -- Sudden slowdown in France

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A marked decline in the permitting rate for wind power projects has been revealed in France. The number of wind farm construction licences granted fell in 2008 to just 600 MW, with only 150 MW authorised and in the queue for grid connection in the final quarter. France has 4.3 GW of licensed projects lined up for construction, but needs to build some 2 GW a year to meet its European and national targets of around 25 GW by 2020. About 3.4 GW is operating today.

What caused the slowdown is not yet clear, although Charles Dugué of the French Wind Energy Association suggests likely reasons include continued uncertainty over the regulatory framework and France's increasingly high-profile anti-wind lobby. The two factors are closely related as there is growing concern in France about too many small projects scattered over the landscape. The current system of wind power development zones (ZDEs) was meant to encourage the grouping of installations in one area. In practice, however, each ZDE is ending up with one project only. "Planning has been defective and needs to be tackled," says André Antolini of the Renewable Energy Syndicate. Dugué agrees.

A government circular issued in February may help. It clarifies how the new "climate, air and energy" plans should be drawn up by regional authorities. They are to identify areas where wind power plant can be built and establish "quantitative and qualitative targets" for development. The industry has been calling for such plans for years. The problem now is that they will have to retroactively take account of wind plant already online, the existence of ZDEs, various plans already compiled by the more organised départements and regions and similar plans introduced for offshore wind. At the end of it all, the hope is that the potential identified for each region will add up somewhere close to -- or greater than -- France's target of 19 GW of onshore capacity by 2020.

In the circular, environment and energy minister Jean-Louis Borloo sets a deadline of September 15 for regional prefects to produce a first draft of their respective plans, with a view to finalising the documents by the end of the year. Each prefect must reach as wide a consensus as possible by holding broad consultations with local authorities, environmental groups, the wind industry, grid and radar operators and others.

The circular also specifies that the plans should take into account "the wind power potential, grid capacity, environmental and landscape issues, national heritage, housing, technical and industrial constraints, flight paths and radar." They must give the preferred capacity, configuration and density of installations, and a target for each area.

While the industry wants the plans in place as soon as possible, it is anxious that they are well designed and have lasting value. Already there are indications that prefects in certain départements are not issuing permits while they wait for the plans. Borloo has told them that the regulatory changes "must not lead to a slowdown in development" and calls on them to "conduct the authorisation process diligently, without waiting for the plans to be in place."

Meantime, some developers say they have put projects on hold in case they fall outside the areas identified as being "preferable" for wind power. In the long run, however, most agree the regional plans should be a benefit. "Once in place, they should speed up the pace of development, as happened in other countries," Dugué believes.

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