Less than 100 MW was installed over the past 12 months (compared with 60 MW the previous year) bringing the total to just 240 MW. This is nowhere near fast enough to meet the official target of 6000 MW by January 2007 and 10,000 MW by 2010. "If the current trend continues," laments André Antolini of the Syndicate for Renewable Energy (SER), "we need 150 years to reach that target." But he points out that the "first couple of hundred megawatts are always the most difficult."
What has become obvious in France over the last year is that it takes more than a subsidised price to kick-start a national wind industry. Under the terms of a decree passed in 2001, the owner of a wind farm under 12 MW earns EUR 0.0838/kWh for the first five years of operation. Over the subsequent ten years, the tariff varies according to the productivity of the site, between a low of EUR 0.0305/kWh for plant producing an average of more than 3600 kWh/kW during the initial period and a high of EUR 0.0838/kWh for plant producing 2000 kWh/kW, or less. The system applies only to the first 1500 MW installed.
The 12 MW cap has never been popular among developers -- and some have avoided it by building adjacent projects -- but otherwise they see the system as favourable to the industry. If it has not produced the expected results it is, they say, because of delays in the planning system and in providing connections to the grid. They are pressing the government to appoint a dedicated regulation committee to promote a co-ordinated policy on wind energy -- and in particular to break up the national target into regional objectives.
The government has finally acted on the planning problem. Last autumn three ministers put their signatures to a circular sent to France's regional "prefects" telling them how to respond to an application to build a wind farm. The next few months will show how many prefects have digested the circular's message. Wind consultant Paul Neau is sceptical, pointing out that prefects are not paying attention to France's European commitments but applying a single, catch-all objection to wind projects: protection of the landscape.
Bottlenecks for connection to the grid are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The French grid is designed for centralised production, but it is estimated it can absorb at least 6000-8000 MW of wind before the need for major upgrades. The company responsible for managing the grid, RTE, has been criticised for its sluggishness. Head of development at RTE, Jean Verseille, is anxious not to take the blame. Projects "do not necessarily take into account the connection time required," he says. According to Verseille, RTE is dealing with applications for connection of 14,000 MW of wind plant, reduced from an earlier 20,000 MW. "A project only goes on to the waiting list now when it has a high probability of going ahead, that is, once it has received planning permission," he says.
The coming year will see the liberalisation of the French electricity market and may also see the part-privatisation of the near-monopolistic state utility Electricité de France. EDF's attitude to wind energy is an important part of the puzzle; the company has yet to declare an unambiguous position. While it owns 50% of renewables developer SIIF-Energies, most of its production comes from nuclear energy. "In the long term (2030), wind energy will undoubtedly be able to play a significant part in the electricity mix of the group," says EDF's Gérard Menjon. "Being an intermittent source of energy, however, it is unlikely that it will be given a dominant role." He also says the price will have to "decrease substantially."
The various obstacles have not prevented the overseas wind industry from continuing to arrive in France in force. So far, project developers have had to be content with what have inevitably been relatively small projects. Germany's Plambeck recently announced permits to built its first two wind farms (10 MW each) through the French company Ventura, the subsidiary it 80% owns. ABO Wind has been given planning permission for a wind farm at Teterchen, near the German border.
Almost all the wind turbines installed in France so far have been imported. Nordex claims the largest market share "for the third year running" having installed 36% of new capacity. It says it has a stake in 38% of the market so far. French industry is yet to get a firm toe-hold in its own market, although the direct-drive turbine manufacturer Jeumont installed 18 more of its J48 model (rated 750kW) during 2003.
The two calls for tender will put new heart into the French wind industry and no one doubts that there will be progress this year. Whether this will be the long-heralded annus mirabilis or another year which promises much but delivers only delay is anyone's guess.