Practicalities rather than politics were the order of the day at this year's national wind power conference in France, held mid-November in Amiens. Unlike previous conferences, when the overriding concern was the lack of strong political support for wind power in France, discussions at Amiens focused on the details of the new wind power development zones (ZDEs), financing and legal matters. Not that everything is hunky-dory on the political front, but with the 2005 energy law and new renewables targets now in place, the situation is at least more stable, enabling the industry to roll up its sleeves and get down to work.
The results are certainly impressive, as Michèle Pappalardo, president of Agence de l'Environnement et de la Maitrise de Energie (ADEME), the national energy agency which organised the conference, made clear in her opening speech. Total installed wind capacity in France has reached 1368 MW and is set to double for the second year in a row, probably hitting 1500 MW around the end of 2006. A study by the Renewable Energy Syndicate (SER) indicates that projects totalling nearly 20,000 MW were under various stages of development last May. This means that France could reach 10,000 MW installed capacity by 2010 says SER "if existing obstacles are removed and no new ones arise."
It is generally accepted, however, that 5000-7000 MW is a more realistic figure, with 10,000 MW unlikely before 2013. While this represents rapid progress in France, it is still a long way behind the government's latest renewables targets announced in July citing 13,500 MW of wind power by 2010. But at least the government recognises wind power's central role in meeting those targets, SER's André Antolini told delegates, quoting from the government's July announcement: "Up until 2015, France has no alternative to wind power to produce a significant amount of electricity from renewables."
One of the main planks of the government's 2005 energy law is the introduction of ZDEs. From July 14, 2007, only wind plant built within a ZDE will be eligible for the fixed premium purchase price at which French national utility EDF guarantees to buy output. Zones are proposed by communes, the local district authorities, which specify what size limits, if any, apply to wind projects. The prefects, the state-appointed officials heading up the regional départements, then decide whether to approve the ZDE or not, based on its potential generating capacity, grid connection and the "protection of the countryside, historic monuments and other outstanding and protected sites." Once the ZDE is approved, developers can apply for siting permits in the normal way.
With only a few months to go to the July deadline, one of the liveliest round-table debates at the conference focused on how ZDEs will work in practice. Many speakers agreed that ZDEs were a positive force in as far as they "give control back to local officials," as ADEME's Jean-Louis Bal put it, and ensure proper consultation. Establishing a ZDE will take time but when working well it will lead to better projects in which "all stakeholders create a shared vision," argued one speaker from the floor.
There are still lots of unknowns, however, despite a government circular issued to prefects in June last year clarifying how they should handle applications. Among other things, it is uncertain to what extent developers can assist communes in setting up a ZDE, whether prefects will be able to reach a decision within the six month deadline and what happens if they do not.
The industry fears that departmental authorities will be overwhelmed by the number of applications, as they were a few years ago with siting permits. A similar bottleneck could also form at grid operator RTE, which must include ZDEs in its plans even though there is no guarantee a wind plant will ever be permitted or built. As a result some developers argued that the rate of development will fall while the new mechanism beds down. "The problem is that the ZDE adds more layers of rules," lamented Jean-Marc Armitano of developer EOLE-RES.
One issue that is certainly slowing down development is the possible interference of turbines on radar systems. In 2005 the defence forces, civil aviation authorities and meteorological service recommended that no turbines be installed within 30 kilometres of a radar as a precautionary measure pending further investigations (Windpower Monthly, April 2006). SER estimates that projects totalling over 2000 MW are blocked as a result.
Bruno Espinosa of the Agence National des Fréquences (ANFR), which oversees the usage of frequencies, explained to delegates that some progress has been made, with the "threshold" reduced to 20 kilometres and in some cases even further. On the other hand, ANFR considers the current legal exclusion zone should be increased from two kilometres to five kilometres. The problem is the "grey area" from five to 20 kilometres which needs to be studied on a case by case basis said Espinosa. He advised developers to talk to radar operators at an early stage, though several speakers reported how difficult it is to get access to those in charge of the various administrations.
"There is a risk, but what is an acceptable risk?" asked an impassioned Jean-Yves Grandidier of the French Wind Energy Association (FEE), a question echoed by many industry members. "Does it justify throwing up a huge umbrella just in case?"
It is a political decision but nothing has happened at the ministerial level, despite the industry minister's offer last June to create a "technical wind power committee" to resolve such questions (Windpower Monthly, July 2006). SER and FEE said they will make the issue a priority in the coming months. Meantime, some developers which have been refused siting permits on the grounds of proximity to a radar have started the long, slow process of contesting the issue in the courts.
Price fine tuning
The new tariffs at which EDF guarantees to buy electricity generated from wind power with effect from January 1, 2007, (Windpower Monthly, September 2006) also came under scrutiny. "Good but not great" was the main consensus, with fears that sites with wind speeds below 6.7 m/s will no longer be viable, particularly as turbine prices continue to rise. If France is to tap into this potential, which it must do to meet its targets, the tariff structure needs to include some form of modulation for different wind speeds, as in Germany, argued Grandidier.
Profitability was another hot topic, following a report by the Commission de Régulation de l'Electricité (CRE) estimating the new tariffs could lead to after-tax profits for developers of 20-40% a year, guaranteed for 15 years, for plant located in medium wind speed sites (Windpower Monthly, October 2006). The majority of speakers during the round-table debate on finance argued that a more reasonable 8-10% is more realistic, based on the whole range of financing strategies rather than CRE's narrow focus on projects paid for from the developer's own funds.
Jean-Luc Daniel of Oseo, which supports and finances small and medium-size businesses, felt 8-10% was "about right" based on the past five years' experience. "It is not exorbitant and justifies the risk", he added, though pointed out real profits will only be known at the end of the 15 year contract with EDF.
Tariffs and profitability were also brought up at a round-table debate on offshore wind. The offshore tariff for projects developed under the fixed purchase price mechanism is set at EUR 0.13/kWh for the first ten years, then varies between EUR 0.03/kWh for plant operating 3900 hours or more and EUR 0.13/kWh for 2800 hours or less over the next ten years. This is acceptable for big, well-sited projects but small and medium-size projects will be difficult at these rates, commented Marc Delacroix of Shell, which is developing 120 MW off Dunkirk in partnership with Total. "We need the authorities to be supportive and to fulfil their obligations in a timely fashion," he said.
Though it is still not clear, it seems likely that projects will have to be built in a maritime ZDE to benefit from the fixed purchase price. A maritime ZDE will probably work in roughly the same way as terrestrial zones, explained Thierry Chrupek of the industry ministry. They will be proposed by the nearest communes and approved by the relevant maritime prefect.
Once plant are up and running, operators will pay an annual business tax, currently set at EUR 12,000 for each megawatt installed. Half the sum will be divided among the communes and the rest paid into a fund for supporting fishing and maritime tourism. The ministries involved are now working on a circular to prefects to clarify the details, Chrupek announced.
According to Anne Lapierre of lawyers Norton Rose, new laws may also be required, for example on how to delimit communal boundaries at sea. But it is important for the government to act quickly, she added, if France is going to meet its offshore target of 1000 MW installed capacity by 2010.
If all goes according to plan, the first offshore turbines to start turning will be at Enertrag's 105 MW Veulettes-sur-Mer project in the English Channel, the only project to be retained under the previous process of competitive tenders for government contracts. Philippe Gouverneur, Director of Enertrag France, told delegates that commissioning would probably take place in 2009.
Just before the conference, French developer La Compagnie du Vent announced it had started the permitting process for a 702 MW installation, also in the English Channel (Windpower monthly, December 2006). In response, a group of local fishermen joined a much rowdier crowd of anti-wind demonstrators outside the conference hall, while a representative from the fishing lobby outlined its concerns to delegates inside.
Apart from the loss of fishing grounds, Gérard Montassine said they fear fish stocks will be reduced and nurseries disturbed and had little faith in artificial reefs. "So little is understood about what goes on under the sea," he said, arguing that we need to reflect if it is necessary to install so many turbines so quickly. "If it is, we will accept it, but we need to know the real impact."
Delegates at the Amiens conference were generally impressed at the high quality of the speakers and debates. Most of the action took place in the hall, but there was also a small low-key exhibition featuring 27 modest stands. Even with no hardware on display, exhibitors and visitors agreed it was worth the trouble, if only as an opportunity to meet customers. Vestas, Nordex, GE, Ecotècnia and Enercon represented the wind turbine manufacturing industry (Gamesa and Siemens being the notable exceptions), while project developers included EOLE-RES, Théolia and Ostwind alongside smaller concerns such as Energieteam and Héolis Energies. Financiers were represented by Energeco Natexis Lease, Crédit Coopératif and Oseo.