The forecasts at the start of 2000 were no more than mildly optimistic. With just three small wind farms built under EOLE 2005, the renewable energies program launched in 1996 by state utility Electricité de France (EDF), expectations of a boom were not much in sight. Nonetheless the aim of the program is 500 MW of wind power by 2005 -- and by January 1, 2001, EOLE contracts amounting to 325 MW had been awarded.
Events took an unexpected lurch forward at a renewables conference in Paris at the end of May, when prime minister Lionel Jospin increased France's target to 3000 MW by 2010. But he also reiterated his support for nuclear power, the backbone of the French electricity industry and much trumpeted by politicians as a non-greenhouse gas emitter.
Following Jospin's announcement, the details of France's great leap in wind energy had to be worked out. Would it happen through competitive tendering for premium price contracts -- an extension of EOLE 2005 as EDF and the electricity regulator Jean Syrota (a former nuclear mogul) would have liked -- or would a fixed wind tariff be introduced to kick start the market, as the wind power lobby was calling for? It would be a political decision.
The next step was a long-awaited report on renewables by a commission chaired by the Green MP, Yves Cochet, vice-president of the Assemblée Nationale. Cochet reported in September recommending that France should aim to get 21% of its electricity from renewables by 2010. To achieve this it should adopt a premium tariff price support system as used in Germany and Spain, even if such market intervention is frowned on by the EU's competition watchdogs. An initial judgement by the European Court of Justice in October, saying that the German system did not amount to state aid and thus did not come under EU state aid rules, gave France confidence enough to take this route.
Behind the scenes, negotiations were going on between the industry ministry, utility EDF, the Agency for the Environment and Energy Management (ADEME) and producers of wind energy, especially the French wind energy association (FEE). As if to round off 2000 perfectly, at a wind energy conference in Narbonne before Christmas, it was announced that France would indeed adopt a renewable energy feed-in tariff (REFIT) for wind power to run for 15 years. Under France's new energy efficiency plan, the wind power tariff is FFR 0.55/kWh (i0.08/kWh) for the first five years of a wind station's life, which will be reduced to FFR 0.20-0.55/kWh according to the productivity of the site to be measured by some as yet unspecified standard.
5000 MW target
The national target for wind power was simultaneously upped by the energy efficiency plan to 5000 MW by 2010. By that year France aims to be producing 21% of its electricity from renewables, as Cochet proposed, lessening its heavy reliance on nuclear power.
A change in the national mood was confirmed by a vote last month in the national assembly, on February 6, when deputies unanimously agreed to designate the struggle against climate change a "national priority." Although a symbolic gesture rather than a binding obligation, it is an indication that the French political class wants to believe that it has given global warning more importance than any other European country. The renewable energy umbrella group Syndicat des Energies Renouvelables (SER) considers 10,000 MW to be a feasible medium term objective for France but for the time being developers are content with the existing 5000 MW target.
One question yet to be answered is how far French industry will go in manufacturing its own turbines. France has two manufacturers at present. Vergnet, which specialises in smaller turbines, especially models for use in the tropics that can easily be disassembled before a hurricane strikes; it has just announced a new 220 kW model. And Jeumont Industrie, a subsidiary of nuclear giant Framatome. It will be supplying around 130 of its J48 750kW turbines to new French wind farms and is tentatively thinking about exports too. With only these two manufacturers, most turbines installed in France, or due to be installed, are of foreign make.
The major wind plant developers in France include Jean-Michel Germa's La Compagnie du Vent and Espace Eolien Development (EED). Emerging as another leading player is Eole-Res, an Anglo-French partnership of Eole Technologie and the UK's largest wind energy developer, Renewable Energy Systems. Eole-RES was set up in 1998 to build and operate wind farms in France and other Francophone countries and so far has won 80 MW worth of EOLE 2005 contracts. The utility EDF also has a direct stake in several wind farms through its subsidiary, Charth.