Ecological impact gets high priority -- First Eole 2005 project

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Ten Vestas 660 kW turbines are being installed at Port-la-Nouvelle in the Aude region, an extension to the wind farm of four turbines already on the site, down from five after the spectacular failure of one of the machines at the end of last year. When complete this month it will be the largest wind farm in France and the first under France's Eole 2005 initiative, launched in 1996 with the aim of installing 500 MW by the year 2005. The electricity produced will be sold to utility Electricitè de France.

The wind farm, on the Mediterranean coast, is being built by La Compagnie du Vent, which won 30% of the power purchase contracts tendered under Eole 2005. Altogether, the company will be undertaking 14 projects totalling 93 MW in three regions of France: Languedoc-Roussillon, Brittany and Corsica.

France's various environment agencies are treating the Port-la-Nouvelle project as a test case for the environmental and social impact of Eole 2005 projects which -- in theory at least -- will massively expand the country's existing wind capacity over a short period of time. Promoters of wind energy are anxious to co-operate in measures to safeguard the environment so as not to alienate the countryside-loving French, as has happened in the UK.

The wind farm stands on the plateau of Garrigue Haute and is visible from the A9 coastal motorway. Three of the turbines are on an area of sensitive grassland which has to be scrupulously protected from the passing of heavy machinery during the construction work. The remaining turbines stand in classic garrigue -- tangled Mediterranean scrub -- which is dominated by three species of low-growing oak, one of them relatively rare in this area.

Port-la-Nouvelle is also on a major avian migration route, but a study of the effect of the first five turbines found that there had been no bird deaths. A second study will be carried out when the new turbines are functioning.

A stipulation for granting planning permission for the extended wind farm was that an environment commission should be set up by the Prefecture of Aude. Several government agencies are also observing the work and advising on it. "Perhaps we are being particularly demanding in this case but only because it is one of the first projects," a representative of the Agence Mediterraneenne pour l'Environnement says.

Together the existing and new turbines will be known as the Parc Eolien des Corbiéres Maritimes. It will not be France's biggest wind farm for long. As soon as it is completed, Compagnie du Vent begins work on two 15.84 MW projects -- at Grande Garrigue, also in Aude, and Pic Aubeill in the adjacent department of Pyrènèes-Orientales -- which will each have 24, 660 kW Vestas turbines.

One crashed

A spontaneous self-destruction of one of the five existing Vestas turbines at Port-la-Nouvelle is still being investigated. The failure occurred in November, only a few days before storms and torrential rains hit the area. The failure was unconnected with the bad weather.

"The storms were no worse than any others," says Pierre Lagandrè, an engineer with La Compagnie du Vent, which operates the wind farm. "The other turbines were okay. Statistically, a turbine should only fall down once every 1400 years."

La Compagnie du Vent has not yet identified the technical failure which caused a blade to eject and the tower to buckle. An expert from an insurance company has been called in and is due to report shortly. The turbine will be replaced with a Vestas 500 kW, identical to the machine which failed and to three of the other turbines on the site. Next to them stands a Vestas 200 kW.

Port-la-Nouvelle was the first wind farm in France to be connected to the national grid.

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