While France waits for the government to confirm a new pricing system for wind energy that is expected to give an unprecedented boost to development of small wind power stations over the next ten years, the French renewables industry has been meeting in the city of Lyon to set out its stall, close deals and divide up the forthcoming spoils. The first event of its kind in France, the Renewable Energies Exhibition was organised in association with the Environment Agency (ADEME) and the renewables umbrella group Syndicat des Energies Renouvelables (SER).
The event attracted 74 exhibitors, including regional environment agencies, renewable pressure groups and a dozen firms specialising in wind energy. Foreign wind turbine manufacturers hoping for a large stake in France -- Ostwind, Nordex, Dewind of Germany and Danish companies Vestas and Bonus -- were clearly in evidence at the exhibition in late February/early March, but some important players in the French wind energy, notably the utility EDF and the developer and operator Cabinet Germa -- were conspicuous by their absence.
That the exhibition was held at all is evidence of a mood of unstoppable optimism that has gripped the French renewable energy sector since Prime Minister Lionel Jospin publicly committed his government to the cause at a speech in Paris last spring (Windpower Monthly, July 2000 ). Subsequent egotiations between the government and market players continued until a new fixed tariff pricing system for wind plant up to 12 MW in size was announced at the end of last year. Now all that is left is for the government to enshrine the agreed system in a decree expected to be published in April.
Everyone involved in wind in France expects this decree to clear the way for a huge expansion in French wind energy from an almost standing start at the end of 1999 to a planned 5000 MW minimum by 2010 (the ideal target being 10,000 MW). But some voices advise caution before celebrating: the small print of the decree will need to be read carefully. "We're hopeful, but the agreement is not yet carved in stone. The devil is in the detail," warns André Antolini of SIIF-Energies, president of SER and a recently appointed vice-president of the European Wind Energy Association.
The decree will set out the terms of the agreement worked out between the government and the renewables industry (part of a national "energy efficiency plan") by which the utility EDF will be obliged to buy power from wind farms with rated capacities under 12 MW at a tariff of FFR 0.55/kWh (EUR 0.08/kWh) for the first five years, and FFR 0.20-0.55/kWh (EUR 0.03-0.08/kWh) for the subsequent ten years, the amount varying according to the productivity of the site.
From competition to fixed price
The introduction of the fixed tariff system means that EOLE 2005, the government's support program for renewables based on competitive bidding for premium priced contracts, has been effectively abandoned. But many of the projects approved under it will go ahead anyway and now qualify for the more generous new tariff. EOLE 2005 was a mixed success. Only 50 MW was built between the launch of the program in 1997 and December 2000, when the tariff system was announced.
The new variable pricing system, says Antolini, will spread out development, not concentrate it in high wind speed areas. "We wanted a variable tariff so that wind farms in more or less windy areas would benefit equally," Antolini says. The best sites, with wind farms on them generating 3000-4000 kWh a year per installed kW capacity, will get the minimum rate of FFR 0.20/kWh after the first five years -- and the poorer sites (2000 kWh/kW/year) will effectively be topped up to FFR 0.55. "It's better for everyone in the wind industry: it's clear that if we don't spread all over the country this industry will not take off." France's islands, including Corsica, will benefit from a slightly higher tariff.
The pricing system for wind farms larger than 12 MW remains to be discussed and is expected to be announced before the end of the year. The government wants a call for tenders to compete for power purchase contracts. SER, however, does not want to go back to a purely competitive bidding system and prefers a "beauty contest" in which a fixed price is rewarded to projects which are proven to be reliable and meet environmental standards and local requirements.
Spreading projects around the country may be desirable but it has potential problems. With an almost negligible installed capacity of 100 MW, France has not yet had a not-in-my-backyard ("NIMBY") backlash and all players in the French wind industry are keen to avoid local protests as the search for new sites goes on. Each region is currently being assessed for the amount of renewable energy it will be able to supply to meet the national target in the hope that a fair distribution of renewable plant will appeal to local politicians. Antolini hints that a national public relations campaign will be necessary as the expansion program gets into gear. "The 10,000 MW figure has something frightening about it. Even 5000 MW is a big figure. It sounds as if France will be covered by wind turbines."
Who gets to benefit?
There may also be a reaction on the part of French electricity consumers. Under the terms of a new law on electricity passed in February 2000 they are going to have to foot the bill for an expansion in renewable energy. If French consumers are to pay more for cleaner energy they may well ask whether French industry (and jobs) will benefit from the government's new policy. So far, France has produced only one large scale wind turbine manufacturer, Jeumont Industrie, an electrical firm with interests in nuclear power as well as wind. It won EOLE 2005 contracts for erection of 111 of its turbines, equal to a capacity of 83 MW. The only other significant wind turbine manufacturer in France is Vergnet, which has chosen to specialise in small turbines. Many of these are operating in France's islands in the West Indies.
But if France has not yet produced many of its own turbines it has been good at producing components for the European wind industry. Rollix (part of the Defontaine group) has been a world leader in bearings for yaw and rotor rotation and for blade pitching for 15 years. Its 40,000 bearings have been exported to 40 countries from its production plant in Saint-Herblain, on the outskirts of Nantes, where it has a full scale wind turbine rotor test bench. Other major French component manufacturers include SEMA (turbine towers), Leroy Somer (generators) and Sime Industrie (disc brakes).
There is little doubt that the French wind industry is poised at last to take off. But the intense activity should be set against the realities. At the start of 2001, France still had only 80 MW installed. Even if that represents more than a 200% increase year on year, with another 150 MW worth of projects due to be built this year it will still take consistent political will and a huge investment over the next ten to 15 years even to achieve the more modest 5000 MW target.