Most of the key players in the French renewables industry were gathered in Paris when Prime Minister Lionel Jospin put his government firmly behind wind energy in late May. In a surprise announcement, Jospin raised the national wind power target from 500 MW in the year 2005 to 3000 MW by 2010. Flanked by both his industry and environment ministers, Jospin made it clear that his attendance at "Energy and Sustainable Development: the Role of Renewable Energies" was a sign that the renewables industry is now being taken seriously by France, which has been dependent on nuclear energy seemingly since time immemorial.
The conference, held at the headquarters of UNESCO, was organised by the renewables umbrella group Syndicat des Energies Renouvelables (SER). It was remarkable not only for the quality of speakers (seldom do heads of government attend wind conferences), but also for the mixed composition of its audience. Although well stocked with members of the renewables industry and delegates from green campaigning groups, this was not a mere assembly of the converted. Also present were the "suits" and opinion makers of French energy including members of parliament, mayors, bankers, energy executives, government agencies, industrialists and, not least, the most high-ranking officials of the giant French utility Electricité de France (EDF).
But it wasn't all good news for the renewables lobby. Jospin began by putting the promise he was about to make in context: "At the same time as we reconfirm our commitment to nuclear energy we have redirected our policy towards renewable energies." He also reiterated the official French line that France is not as far behind in its renewable energy policy as it is often accused: "Renewable energies today contribute around 12% of French energy consumption, mainly from hydro-electric." Later in the day, Secretary of State for Industry Christian Pierret was jeered by sections of the audience for what were perceived as similarly complacent remarks.
Beyond EOLE 2005
Jospin underlined the success of the EOLE 2005 program for 400-500 MW of wind. The utility EDF predicts that installed capacity will reach 80-100 MW by the end of this year compared with just 23 MW at the end of 1999. Wind farm developers, however, believe the figure will be closer to 40 MW come December. Installation should increase rapidly until end 2002 when EOLE 2005 projects reach their peak and, if all goes to plan, France will then have a wind capacity of 360 MW.
By that stage the country will have to have embarked on an even more ambitious program to reach its target of a further 2500 MW installed in the years 2005-2010. Officials from EDF, charged with putting renewables policy into practice, were as surprised by the announcement as everyone else. The 3000 MW figure had been no more than a proposal contained in a report on France's response to climate change. Suddenly it was government policy, but with no details of how to achieve it.
EOLE 2005 has been a small scale experimental program, deliberately limited in scope. There are still only around 50 turbines installed in mainland France. The largest wind farm to date is Corbieres-Maritimes, formed by merging the existing Port-la-Nouvelle wind farm with the newly-created Sigean wind farm. But it is only 8.8 MW. Even when the EOLE 2005 projects are complete, wind power in France will be way behind its neighbours Spain and Germany.
EDF has treated EOLE 2005 as a learning exercise rather than an attempt to install large scale wind plant. Before now, EDF has had no reason to leap headlong into wind. France has a strong nuclear power sector contributing up to 80% of its electricity, backed by a large amount of hydro. Around 95% of all electricity produced in the country is already free of CO2. Fossil fuels contribute only 5% of France's electricity needs. The move to renewables is politically rather than economically motivated.
But EDF is also pragmatic in its thinking: "In mainland France we don't believe that wind energy is cost effective right now," says Michel Benard, secretary of EDF's renewable energies committee. "But we do believe that we have to prepare for the future...we expect the cost of wind energy to go steadily down by 20%-30% in the ten years to come and there will be an opposite move for the cost of fossil fuel generation." The new energy tax to be implemented by the Jospin government in 2001 will help to make renewables more competitive.
EDF has so far directly invested in two wind farms in France via its subsidiary Charth -- at Sallélles-Limousis (near Carcassonne) and at Dunkirk. EDF International, meanwhile, is a major stakeholder in the 50.4 MW wind farm being built without subsidy in Morocco (Windpower Monthly, June 2000). "We expect that probably within ten years wind energy on good sites in France is going to be fully economically competitive," says Benard.
Tariff or Tender
The next few months will be crucial as the government decides on a pricing policy for wind. The two sides of the argument have been clearly stated on several occasions. The organisers of the conference, SER, appealed to the government to offer a fixed price for power produced. "We have to accept the evidence that those countries which have decided to promote wind energy through fixed tariffs have obtained better results than those which have chosen calls for tender in the search for lower prices," declared Andre Antolini, chairman of SER. According to SER's figures, 2500 MW of new wind plant went up 1999 in the fixed price regimes of Germany, Denmark and Spain, compared with just 20 MW in the competitive tender systems of the UK, France and Ireland. The tariff, argues SER, should be set to stimulate enough renewables development to combat the greenhouse effect. SER advocates a minimum tariff of FFR 0.45-0.50/kWh (i0.07- 0.08/kWh).
EDF, however, would like to make the next round of wind energy a competition by tender, as was EOLE 2005, which forced the price down to an average FFR 0.33/kWh (i0.05/kWh). "It is going to be a political decision of course," says Benard. "Our position will be 100% call for tenders. The position of the wind lobby will be 100% high fixed tariffs. We can imagine the French government will set a tariff maybe in between." EDF accepts the idea in principle of a tariff applied to southern France, where wind is most profitable, but would still want a call for tenders for northern France where only a higher tariff would make a wind farm pay. But to EDF, to set a tariff as high as FFR 0.50/kWh anywhere in France would be to hand out "windfall profits" for the sake of it.
"We have to know what the French government really wants and how it intends to do it," said Benard. "Once we know we can go very quickly."
The Cochet report
What the government decides will hinge on the conclusion of a report by a commission set up by the previous government and chaired by Yves Cochet, vice-president of the Assemblee Nationale, which is due to report over the summer. Cochet's remarks closing the first session of the SER conference were listened to with intense interest. "There is an urgent need for France to develop renewable energies -- or be left behind," he said. "France is already making an effort but it is not enough. We have to be ambitious."
Jospin's policy statement together with the views of Cochet seem to confirm the impression that France is about to make a greater leap forward. After the UK, France is estimated by SER to have the best wind resources in Europe and the renewables group considers 10,000 MW installed to be a feasible medium-term objective. But political will is not everything and there are potential obstacles.
France is acutely aware that it could easily develop a NIMBY problem similar to that which has slowed progress in neighbouring Britain. Benard stresses that EDF has deliberately chosen to make slow but sure progress up to now. It has taken time to consult local communities and nature conservancy agencies, especially the environment ministry and its regional departments. Although all EOLE 2005 projects have cleared planning permission there is no room for complacency. "Wind farms should shape our landscape of tomorrow without marring it," suggested Jospin. "It is a question of education and democracy: we must all be convincing." Unlike Spain and Germany, where there is space enough to spare in windswept scenery where no one minds seeing wind turbines, France's windiest spots are also some of its most scenic and most likely to attract tourists -- the département of Aude being a prime example.
French wind developers are at pains to stress that France does not have exactly the same NIMBY problem as Britain. In France the opponents of wind farms are the mostly articulate 10% of city dwellers who own a second home in the countryside and who are vociferous in their objections to anything which threatens their weekend rural idyll. The French NIMSBY (not in my second-home back yard) effect is not likely to be as disruptive to wind as the countryside campaigners across the English Channel because France has two statuary advantages over Britain. The planning process in France is, as renewable energies consultant Antoine Bonduelle explains, "less democratic but works better."
The first advantage that France has is that the préfet of each département gives final planning permission, not the local mayor, and the préfet is appointed by central government. Political will is now in favour of wind and permission will be given by the préfets, except where there are exceptional environmental issues such as migrating birds to contend with. Only on rare occasions will there need to be a planning inquiry.
The second advantage is that French law offers a sweetener to the local mayor. He (or she) may not have the final say over where a wind farm is sited, but they know that the community will receive a percentage of any investment made within its boundaries in the form of a tax. This can amount to a sizeable financial injection into a small community of 500 or even less which is suffering from the process of rural depopulation. And this is not to mention the jobs that will be created.
The environment minister, Dominique Voynet, was applauded at the conference for her rousing speech which called for local politicians to be proactive in their use of the planning regulations to ensure the sensible siting of wind farms.
The only place where planning procedures are likely to break down is Corsica, which is scheduled to get a dozen new wind farms from the EOLE 2005 program. A few Corsican mayors are notoriously keener on developing their beaches for tourism than they are on protecting their island's environment. There is already some entrenched civic opposition to the préfet's plans for wind energy. A 5-10% failure rate for EOLE 2005 projects is being allowed for, largely to cover Corsican stalemates (but also possible bankruptcies on the mainland).
Corsica and France's other island territories (especially Guadeloupe and Martinique) play an important part in the renewables industry. These territories are considered an integral part of France, but for geographical reasons they cannot be connected to their grid. EDF has always been keen to install renewable energy sources in these places, where they are considered to be an economic alternative to diesel generation, even at today's prices. These places have proved a valuable training ground for the French renewable industry. Several of the prime movers in French renewables today cut their teeth overseas.
Corsica and the overseas territories aside, on a larger scale the regions into which French départements are grouped can also play a vital part in promoting renewables. This is clearly demonstrated by the case of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, which doesn't have the strongest wind speeds in the country, but which has become one of the prime areas for wind development.
EDF estimates that there are enough sites with strong wind readings where local communities will accept wind farms and the NIMSBYs can be placated to reach the 3000 MW target. But that may be the effective limit in mainland France. In the years after 2005 France will have to start installing large capacity offshore. The first French offshore project at Breedt in the north-western Nord-Pas-de-Calais region is expected to be completed in late 2001 or early 2002.
With all this renewables activity, it is still not known how far French industry will go in developing its own wind turbines. Components have been made in France for some time, but only two French wind turbines are on the market. The company set up by Marc Vergnet successfully supplies the overseas départements with small, lightweight turbines and is working on a new 200 kW model. The only company making utility scale wind turbines is Jeumont Industrie, part of the Framatome group, better known for its involvement in France's nuclear energy industry.
By the end of the summer, France's renewable energy policy should have a clear shape. If all the signs have been read correctly and all forecasts are confirmed, the political will of the Jospin government and its high profile during its six month stint as the presidency of the EU, together with a sensible pricing regime, should give French wind energy the boost it has long been waiting for.