Europe: Law changes could jeopardise wind

Sector labelled environmental hazard.

A draft law currently going through the French parliament could "put the wind power sector in peril" if it is adopted, warns Didier Lenoir, president of French renewables network Comite de Liaison des Energies Renouvelables.

The most troubling aspect for the industry is the Senate's confirmation that wind turbines will be subject to regulations covering "industries classified for the protection of the environment" (ICPE). This will lump wind in with nuclear power and polluting and possibly dangerous industries and, the wind industry argues, is totally unnecessary. "France already has the strictest regulations on the planet," says Andre Antolini of the Renewable Energy Syndicate.

Last month, the upper house - the Senate - approved the amendments to Grenelle 2, the second law to come from Grenelle de l'Environnement, a national summit to formulate government environmental policy (Windpower Monthly, September 2007). Grenelle 1, passed in August, establishes the broad policy outline, while Grenelle 2 is a "legal tool box" detailing how those policies will be implemented.

Under the policy, France is aiming for 25 GW of wind power by 2020, up from the 4 GW that is installed at present, to help meet its EU and national renewable energy commitments. To that end, the Senate has approved a set of interim targets. These require 4 GW of new wind capacity to be built by 2011, 5 GW from 2012 to 2014 and 5.5 GW from 2015 to 2017 followed by another 6 GW by 2020. But if the lower house, the National Assembly, upholds these Grenelle 2 amendments, the permitting process for wind turbines could become even more draconian. France would then risk failing to meet its wind target and binding EU obligation for renewables to supply 23% of its energy, up from 10.3%, say the industry and environmental organisations.

Classification questions

There are three levels of ICPE classification at present. At the strictest level is the need for specific authorisation and an appeal period for third parties of up to four years. Next is the recently introduced registration process and, finally, a simple declaration. The draft bill does not stipulate the level for wind turbine classification, or if it will depend on the number, their height or rated capacity. These details will be the subject of a ministerial decree at a later date.

If the government puts turbines into the mid-level ICPE category, requiring registration, the regulations could actually be less onerous than at present - in theory, turbines over 50 metres would no longer have to undergo environmental impact studies or public inquiries. The construction permission process could also be quicker as, under ICPE rules, authorities have a year to decide on an application's approval. While this is longer than the current legal limit of five months for wind projects, in practice it usually takes two to three years. Some sceptics, however, believe the ICPE registration will also take much longer.

Meanwhile, under the EU renewable energy directive, member countries are required to streamline their permitting procedures for green power plants, not complicate them. So, if the new law does the opposite, France could be taken to court for violating the directive.

Amid industry concerns that being deemed a potential environmental risk gives completely the wrong message to investors and the public, the Senate did set some boundaries to try to ensure the wind industry in France is not killed off completely.

It approved an amendment fixing the appeal period at two to six months for wind power projects - developers would have two months in which to appeal and third parties six months. While this is longer than the current two months for third-party appeals, it is a huge improvement on the ICPE's standard four-year period and, says Charles Dugue of the French Wind Energy Association, is "something the industry can live with as far as getting finance is concerned". The Senate also decided that the ICPE regulations cannot be applied retrospectively and that new projects will be given a year's grace. Barring further amendments, the regulations will come into effect on January 1, 2011.

Risk to development zones

The prospect of ICPE classification is not the only potentially bad news for the wind sector. The Senate also modified the procedure for establishing a wind power development zone (known as a ZDE). At present, the departmental authorities must take into account the potential generating capacity of the site, grid connections and the "protection of the countryside, historic monuments and other outstanding and protected sites" when deciding whether or not to create a ZDE. If the Grenelle 2 law is passed, they will also have to bear in mind "public safety, biodiversity and sites of archeological heritage". The amendment was introduced to block certain projects and will "certainly" mean fewer ZDEs are created, claims Dugue. Arnaud Gossement of France Nature Environment (FNE), a federation of environmental associations, agrees. "By multiplying the legal constraints weighing on the sector, it will soon be easier to build a nuclear power station than erect a wind turbine," he says.

It could be worse, however. Senators supporting wind power managed to block the most potentially damaging amendments. These included requirements for ZDEs to be at least 100 MW in size; turbines to be sited at least 10 kilometres (or more, if justified) away from the coastline, classified sites and historic monuments; and for geothermal and biomass generation to be given priority over wind power "in order to preserve the landscape and natural heritage".

That is not to say that further changes can be ruled out - the Assembly, now considering the revised draft of the law, has previously been more opposed to wind power than the Senate. "Anything can happen, but probably not for the better," says Dugue.

After the Assembly review, the draft is then expected to go to an inter-parliamentary committee to decide on the final version, before being passed early next year.