The national utility in France, Electricité de France, has a near monopoly on distribution, transmission and production. It is opposed to large scale introduction of renewable energy, though it has tolerated a handful of smaller projects. Its policy is dominated by a huge overproduction from the 56 existing nuclear plants. Potential wind farm developers face massive obstacles and a chaotic market. At present grid operators are obliged to buy all independently produced power for tariffs mounting to only one-fourth of UK levels and changes may be underway for the worse. But local governments are beginning to explore alternative solutions to making use of their regional energy resources. The two most active wind developers in France have succeeded in getting some projects off the ground. Projects in remote areas without a grid are most likely to go ahead. Meantime, French industry supplies wind turbine components, but an all-French wind turbine is still a long way off.

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With thousands of kilometres of shoreline, the largest land area in western Europe, and islands large and small, France should be a major market for wind power -- not one of the smallest. "With a fair price for our power, the accessible potential exceeds thousands of megawatts -- and that's only taking into account sites with winds over 7 m/s," says Jean-Michel Germa, one of the two most active wind plant developers in the country.

Germa built the first -- and so far the only -- wind farm in France. Four Vestas V39 500 kW turbines were installed last year at Port-la-Nouvelle, near the very southern tip of France. Construction of a second wind farm by Germa's rival in the north, Espace Energie Developpment (EED), is due to start at the port of Dunkirk before the end of the year. Backed by the regional authority and the European Union, EED is putting up nine 300 kW WindMaster machines from Belgium.

Germa's joint venture company, Tramontana, earned FRF 2 million ($400,000) last year from its Port-la-Nouvelle wind plant, 20% more than expected. Now he hopes to build a bigger plant in Brittany, of over 10 MW, with the help of local support and through an alliance with the mighty national utility, EdF (Electricité de France). EdF has a near monopoly on distribution, transmission and production of electricity and has long been an enemy of anything renewable in France. EdF's policies are dominated by its huge over capacity, due to construction in the seventies and eighties of 56 nuclear plants. The situation is slowly changing, though, with some general recognition by EdF that a little wind development would help win some much needed export credibility.

Fierce opposition from nuclear

But would-be wind developers in France face a chaotic market. Take the example of a project proposed for a near perfect site near Cherbourg in Normandy. Even EdF was willing to invest in it. But shaking a wind project before the eyes of Cogema, the industrial arm of the French Commission of Atomic Energy and owner of a plutonium plant in nearby La Hague, had the same effect as waving a red flag under a bull's nose. Even EdF was surprised by the fierce lobby Cogema mounted against wind power. "This project never got off the ground, though we would have financed it," said Jean-Pierre Benqué, a director at EdF responsible for financing renewable projects, to French renewables journal, Systeme Solaire.

The institutional situation for wind remains bleak. The grid operator is required by law to buy all independently generated power, but this is a mixed blessing, with tariffs calculated mainly on a short term marginal price averaging about FRF 0.29/kWh. "This is half the European average, and one fourth of UK levels," remarks Liliane Battais, executive director at CLER, a gathering of professionals and lobbyists for renewable energies. The tariffs are even set at the same rate throughout the country, as is the price of electricity in France. This democratic principle of levelling out the cost of electricity production prevents even the windiest sites, where the cost of supplying electricity is high, from being developed. Most French overseas territories fall into this category, but the tariff for wind power is just not high enough.

Although rates of pay for electricity are controlled by regulators inside the Ministry of Industry, the near-monopoly of EdF on all calculations could now even result in them being decreased. In particular, the use of loopholes for independent peak power buy-back to the grid allows huge investments in diesel generators by giant investors Generale des Eaux and Lyonnaise des Eaux. They use this diesel power for no more than a few hundred hours during winter months. This angers EdF and its regulators, who retaliated against the independent power industry by announcing a 1.25% yearly decrease in purchase rates after 1996. Independent wind power producers are now among the innocent victims of this battle of the diesel and nuclear generators.

As if that were not enough, a proposal by the industry ministry -- intended to rescue renewables from the situation -- is more likely to make matters worse. The ministry has suggested that the grid be relieved of its obligation to buy independent power and instead the utility should be required to pay higher rates for wind power. But this was tacked to a condition requiring the operation of back-up diesel generators at wind sites to ensure a steady supply of power, thus doubling the necessary investment and doing away with wind's environmental benefits in one stroke. It also reveals a shocking lack of knowledge among French regulators on the ins and outs of integrating different energy technologies into a modern power system.

The French energy agency, ADEME, used to have huge funds and stamina in the early eighties. Now it lacks both and is more interested in its other fields: waste management, air pollution and energy conservation. Recently an ADEME executive was heard publicly doubting that wind has any future in France. After the failure during the seventies of a large two-bladed wind turbine on Ouessant island -- the mast designed by the Atomic Energy Commission collapsed for lack of a strain calculation -- wind money was then directed to aerospace firms and laboratories far from the commercial world. A coherent national strategy has been wanting ever since.

Filling the vacuum

With no national policy, provincial governments have been showing more and more interest in finding ways of putting their own regional energy resources to use. In particular, the regional authority of Nord-Pas de Calais, near the Belgian border, is paying one third of the FRF 23 million cost of France's second wind farm at Dunkirk. The concrete foundations are to be poured in December for the 2.7 MW project for the harbour area, upwind of Dunkirk's urban development. The project has also been awarded a grant from the EU's Thermie programme to support the development of carbon fibre blades for the turbines, being supplied by French blade company Atout Vent. Until now Atout Vent has largely concentrated on smaller blades. "We will have a local content of over 50% for this first group of nine turbines," says Philippe Bruyerre of EED, which designed the wind plant. Bruyerre will head its management. Other stockholders are EdF, which is paying FRF 1.8 million through its subsidiary CHART, wind manufacturer HMZ WindMaster, which has put up FRF 1 million, and the regional authority, which has an FRF 4 million stake. EdF is also connecting the plant to the grid which amounts to an extra 10% subsidy.

EED and Bruyerre are busy on other fronts, too. The small engineering company has sold a Dutch Lagerwey two-bladed wind turbine to a local textile entrepreneur, Verhaeghe, which is now a prominent supporter of wind. A major mail-order firm near Lille, Les Trois Suisses, has also acquired two, 150 kW Danish Bonus turbines through Bruyerre. The popular mail order company now exhibits wind power along with environment friendly products on sale to the public.

EED and the regional authority of Nord-Pas de Calais have also netted Thermie support for construction of a 1.3 MW German Tacke wind turbine, also at Dunkirk. Tacke's Till Herrnjakobs says the extremely positive attitude of the Dunkirk authorities towards wind power came as a pleasant surprise. The machine will be sited at the port, where average winds, already measured by EED, are 7-8 m/s. Again Atout Vent (ATV) is to supply carbon fibre blades for the 60 metre rotor, the largest carbon fibre blades ever produced for a wind turbine.

ATV's Thierry Maréchal is so convinced of a bright future for his company, with production of hundreds of large blades, that he has invested in new production facilities at Douai, near Lille. The facilities will employ some 50 workers, compared with just 15 now at ATV's current premises near Marseille in the south. The new investment -- in a run down industrial area -- is being supported by both the regional authority and EU funds. ATV has built carbon fibre blades for several wind turbine manufacturers, including Ventis of Germany, Italy's Riva Calzoni, and Lagerwey of the Netherlands. It now produces 250 blades a year and aims to secure a 15% share of the European annual market of 4500 blades. In the US, tests of ATV blades have started with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and wind farm developer SeaWest. ATV hopes to sell its technology for the replacement of blades on hundreds of old Danish Micon 108 turbines. For this market ATV will use a new standard matrix for 10.5 metre blades, production of which will start from early next year.

These projects give hope to Alain Villain, director for energy and environment at the Nord-Pas de Calais regional authority and a supporter of wind power in this industrial area. As well as backing the Dunkirk project, the authority is also supporting wind research and development with FRF 5 million ($1 million) over the next five years. The money will probably be awarded in two or three separate grants. One of these is likely to go to a group which includes the Institut de Mécanique des Fluides ˆ Lille, the local branch of the state military aerospace research agency, ONERA, for structural and aerodynamic research; another grant could go to research on electrical grid coupling by a group which includes large electrical supplier NORELEC, a company with a presence on the French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. The successful outcome of any one of these projects would place a feather in the cap of Marie Blandin, the young president of the region with firmly green political leanings.

Where to now?

France supplies wind turbine components to many manufacturers abroad, notably bearings made in Nantes by Rollix, disc brakes made by Sime of Roissy, and electrical equipment by Telemecanique. But the day still seems a long way off when these companies could contribute to an all-French wind turbine. A public debate on energy supply was officially started in France this month. It could be brought before parliament during the winter by environment minister Michel Barnier, one of the very few government supporters of renewables in France in the last decade. But a huge energy-political inertia in the country -- coupled with a fear of the might of EdF -- makes it likely that the present status-quo will be maintained. The 140,000 people employed by EdF are represented in every local council in the country, making serious change unlikely.

A few niche markets do exist, however, where wind energy is already economic. There are still some remote areas of France not connected to the grid. Local authorities there can just as well invest in wind than in subsidies for extension of the grid. Such remote areas are found in the southern Aude region, near the Mediterranean. Authorities there were recently convinced by Soleole, one of many non-profit groups in favour of wind, that it would be more sensible to equip 30 off-grid sites with small, 2.2 kW wind turbines and solar panels than extend the grid to them.

But this kind of market is small. Marc Vergnet, whose company, Vergnet SA, is the main builder of small and medium sized wind generators in France, is trying to boost sales by supplying wind turbines to areas where grid electricity costs as much as FRF 1.0/kWh ($0.20/kWh) to produce. So far he has not been successful, but public debate on rural development and a shortage of public funds in these area could prove him right in the long run.

Annual spending on grid improvements in rural France currently amounts to a staggering FRF 4 billion. This burden is split between a tax on urban consumers and a levy on local authority budgets. Vergnet hopes to convince these authorities to invest in wind instead. His showcase wind farm on La Désirade, an island in the Caribbean near Guadeloupe, will soon be expanded with 18, 25 kW turbines.

Vergnet, whose annual turnover is now FRF 7 million, is designing a 50 kW unit to widen his market range which starts at 1 kW. Vergnet started in the wind business by acquiring Aerowatt, an ailing French specialist manufacturer of rugged and expensive turbines for remote areas. Instead of despairing about the lack of a decent French market, Vergnet foresees good development for his niche markets. "We might multiply our business by a factor of ten in the near future, with this rate of new projects," he says.

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