France moves into third place in Europe

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In less than four years, France has seen an eight-fold increase in installed wind capacity and has set itself an ambitious target for 2020. But a recent court ruling on fixed purchase prices and a powerful anti-wind lobby could slow things down

Installed wind capacity in mainland France has reached 3262 MW, propelling the country into third place in the European rankings, up from sixth since January. It now lies only behind Germany and Spain, having overtaken Denmark, Italy and the UK this year. For a country that had just 400 MW turning at the start of 2005 -- and has struggled to get its market structure right -- the rapid progress is quite an achievement. More than 1000 MW could be added this year, and again next year, according to the Renewable Energy Syndicate (SER), a trade association. If nobody throws a spanner in the works, that is. In recent months, France's small but vociferous, and increasingly sophisticated, anti-wind lobby has been hard at it, drumming up a storm.

The year started positively enough, with work continuing on the first draft law stemming from the Grenelle de l'Environnement, a national summit to formulate environment policy, which was presented to the government in April. Most importantly, the draft sets out a revised renewable energy target for France, requiring 25,000 MW of installed wind capacity by 2020, of which 6000 MW will be offshore. While there is no denying the target is ambitious, SER notes that licences have so far been issued for over 4000 MW of wind farms, in addition to those now in operation, and there is at least another 25 GW under development.

Exactly what mechanisms -- regulatory and financial -- will be introduced to ensure France meets its target remains to be seen, though the government proposes better overall planning plus extra research funding to the tune of EUR 1 billion over four years for sustainable development, including green energies. It was hoped the law to enact the needed measures would complete its first reading before the summer recess, but this will now take place next month.

Under attack

So far so good, it would seem. But in August the Conseil d'Etat, France's highest administrative court, ruled that the 2006 decree setting the price at which state utility EDF is obliged to buy wind power must be suspended. The case dates back to 2007, when Vent de Colère and Vent du Bocage, two particularly active opponents of large scale wind power, attacked the decree on the grounds that the fixed purchase price is unnecessarily generous and allows owners to make too much profit at the expense of consumers. The court's decision, based on a fairly fine point of procedure, means that the law now reverts back to the decree of 2001, effectively undermining all subsequent contracts with EDF. A crisis seemed imminent until the government reacted by announcing it would issue a new decree reinstating the prices announced in 2006 and assuring the validity of existing power purchase contracts.

The trouble last month did not stop there. Opponents of large scale wind power have managed to reintroduce a proposal that had been roundly rejected during the Grenelle debates. It calls for wind turbines over 50 metres tall to be classified as industrial plant presenting a serious danger or risk of pollution. As such they would be subject to much stricter regulations.

A single 2 MW turbine would be subject to the same constraints and financial penalties -- or even more severe -- as a conventional power station of 500-1000 MW, say SER, Greenpeace and a host of other environment lobby groups. They point out that wind power is already very closely controlled in France, where developers have to consult 27 different administrations for a single project. The government has yet to make a decision, but if it agrees with the proposal, a new regulation could be introduced by a simple ministerial decree rather than having to go through parliament.

Prior to this, 72 senators, members of the upper house of parliament, had called for permits for all wind turbines over 50 metres to be put to a vote among local residents (Windpower Monthly, May 2008). Although not binding, the vote will add yet another layer to the already lengthy consultation process. On average, the permitting process now takes 13 months in France (up from nine months in 2006), and a third of projects fall by the wayside. If the proposal proceeds into law, it would mean "more public consultation for a single wind turbine than for a nuclear power station, incinerator or rubbish dump," asserts France Nature Environment, a federation of environmental associations.

In June, former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing threw his weight behind the proposal when he formed a steering committee under the auspices of the Fédération Environnement Durable (FED), an anti-wind umbrella group, to "evaluate the implications of wind power development." The committee is calling for greater financial transparency, largely to see to what extent the guaranteed purchase price "leads to manifestly excessive profits for the operating companies."

The onslaught continued in July, when the Institute Montaigne, an independent think-tank, published a briefing paper, Wind Turbines: New Breath or Wind of Folly, arguing that the large scale development of wind power in France was expensive, unnecessary and inappropriate. The institute estimates that it will cost the public an extra EUR 1 billion a year from now to 2020 if France is to meet its target of 25,000 MW, and could reach EUR 2.5 billion a year after 2020.

At this scale, wind power is "not the most appropriate economic solution to limit greenhouse gas emissions in France" the report states. Instead, it calls for a more modest target of 7000-10,000 MW to meet increased electricity demand while waiting for a new tranche of nuclear reactors to come online by 2020, at the latest. After that, any further development of wind power should be based on competitive tenders, rather than the current system of guaranteed purchase prices, which would "put an end to the unjustifiably high profits seen today in the sector."

In reply, SER published a detailed rebuttal asserting that the institute bases its cost analysis on false hypotheses chosen to "exaggerate the costs and minimise the benefits." These include ignoring the avoided costs of building additional thermal and nuclear plant and overlooking the rise in nuclear and fossil fuel prices. Instead, the institute uses the electricity spot price from June 2006, says SER, when it was just EUR 40/MWh, compared to EUR 66.5/MWh now. The institute also fails to acknowledge likely future price rises: long term contracts price electricity at around EUR 80/MWh in 2011. By taking all the omissions into account and applying the "economic reality of electricity production," SER asserts that 20,000 MW of onshore wind energy would bring a net benefit to France of EUR 1.2 billion a year from 2020.

While all this activity has been at national level, local opposition to individual wind projects continues. In a recent example, German developer Enertrag had permits for projects with a combined capacity of 24 MW withdrawn when two residents objected during the two month appeal period after a permit decision. Construction had already started. The court ruled that the project's bird impact study was inadequate, the public enquiry was not sufficiently rigorous, and the permits had been modified without official approval. Enertrag is now resubmitting revised applications, but had to halt construction work until a decision is made.

Silver lining

Perhaps a silver lining to this barrage of opposition is the birth of a new pro-wind body holding. The aim of Collectivités Locales Eoliennes (Cléo), made up of local officials and professionals, is to provide a counterbalance by defending "a well controlled and planned development of wind power, to ensure the quality of the projects, take part in local debates and build on the experience gathered from existing plant." Public opinion surveys consistently show that the vast majority of French people support wind power, including those living near an installation, despite impressions to the contrary given by media coverage to the anti-wind power faction.

There was also good news in May, when the French agency for environmental and occupational health and safety found no evidence of harmful effects to human health caused by alleged low-frequency noise from wind plant. This was in response to a report by the National Academy of Medicine that claimed turbine noise posed a health risk and recommended a moratorium on building machines over 2.5 MW within 1500 metres of houses.

Some court case outcomes have also been positive for developers. A court in Rennes upheld an appeal by La Compagnie du Vent, a Montpellier-based developer majority owned by utility partnership GDF-Suez, against the decision to refuse three permits for 6 MW in Finistère, Brittany, at Pouldergat, Rosnoën and Lopérec. The judge said the authorities were "mistaken" in considering the site of environmental interest, given the presence already of a high-tension line and transmission pylons.

Despite everything, projects continue to get built, with 674 MW coming online since January. The average project size is also increasing. EDF Energies Nouvelles, the national utility's renewable energy unit, commissioned 50.6 MW at Villesèque in the Aude in July, to be followed before the end of the year by 87 MW at Salles-Curan in the Aveyron. Ostwind International, the French arm of Germany's Ostwind, will complete its 140 MW installation at Fruges, France's biggest wind farm to date, with the last 70 MW scheduled to start turning by the end of the year. Eolfi, another French wind plant developer and operator, is building 41 MW in the Aube, and earlier this year the 63 MW Provencialis project got the green light in the Var.

At the same time, wind projects, portfolios and companies continue to change hands. Among the bigger deals signed so far since the start of this year, Italy's Exerted entered the French market by buying projects totalling 55.2 MW from Luxembourg-based Theta Energy; while Enel-Erelis, owned by Italian company Enel, bought 120 MW from German developer Windkraft Nord; and NEO, a subsidiary of Portugal's national utility Energías de Portugal (EDP), bought 595 MW from local developer Eole 76 and Monaco-based Eurocape.

Still waters

Offshore, activity is markedly less, though a 105 MW pilot project in the English Channel developed by Germany's Enertrag and Prokon Nord is creeping forward. The first seven Multibrid 5 MW turbines are now due to go up in 2009, pending the delivery of the final siting permit, which was expected in August.

Meanwhile, various offshore projects developed by La Compagnie du Vent, Shell, EDF Energies Nouvelles and Eole-RES, the subsidiary of Britain's Renewable Energy Systems, are on hold. But that has not stopped others pitching in, driven in part by the difficulties facing onshore wind in France and by its offshore target of 6000 MW by 2020. Germany's WPD is making progress with its plans for up to 250 MW off Calvados and 300 MW off Fécamp, both on the Channel coast; and hopes to submit a formal application for the Calvados project this autumn. Poweo, France's largest independent electricity and gas supplier, is looking at some ideas, including 150 MW off the north coast of Brittany. Only La Compagnie du Vent and Shell have anything concrete, a project for 102 MW around five kilometres off the Hérault coast near Agde.

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