The country has Europe's second-best wind resource - after the UK - and a strong potential for growth, driven by a national target of 25GW of installed capacity by 2020. Only 4.57GW was online by 2009. If the government sticks to its commitments, France's wind market will require more than EUR3 billion of investment a year, says the French trade association Renewable Energy Syndicate (SER). At the same time, it could employ around 17,500 people by 2012 (see chart, below), rising to 60,000 by 2020, according to national energy agency Ademe. This compares to roughly 10,000 jobs today.
But the fear is that the benefits of this growth will flow to well-established companies abroad. France boasts only one homegrown manufacturer of industrial-scale turbines - Vergnet, which largely caters to a niche market in developing countries. French industrial giants Alstom and Areva have broken into the sector by buying Ecotecnia and Multibrid respectively, but neither produces turbines on French soil. As a result, those 10,000 jobs sit relatively low in the value chain: 90% in installation and distribution, 7% in maintenance and just 3% in manufacturing, according to official figures.
To create value and jobs at home, France needs to establish a robust domestic supply chain. Some question whether it is too late, at least for onshore wind, given the maturity of the market. The answer is a resounding no, according to Michele Pappalardo, general commissioner for sustainable development in the environment ministry. France has a dense network of subcontractors that are well established internationally and are present throughout the value chain, along with strong skills in the main trades involved in wind turbines, she says. A number of large companies, such as Areva, Alstom and EDF, which are positioning themselves in the market for manufacturing and assembling components, Pappalardo adds.
The seminar was part of an initiative called Windustry, organised by SER, the French Wind Energy Association (FEE), Ademe and consultancy Capgemini. The group identified around 150 highly motivated companies able - and willing - to diversify into wind power, among them players in the aeronautics, automobile and metallurgy industries keen to capture a share of the projected growth. The study reveals "a remarkable hotbed of know-how, skills and solutions for buyers of all types of wind turbine component", according to Pappalardo. Now the idea is to give new impetus to the sector by bringing potential suppliers and turbine manufacturers together.
The most promising area for growth is among French component suppliers. They are present throughout the value chain, from manufacturing blades and brakes to electrical engineering and grid optimisation. Several are already international names, including Rollix Defontaine and Leroy Somer (see box, below).
The picture is less rosy when it comes to manufacturing or assembling turbines. Given the "ferocious" competition in the relatively mature and structured onshore wind power market, it would seem "unrealistic to create European or world champions" in France, the environment ministry states in a discussion paper on the green sector published in October 2009. Nevertheless, the ministry believes there is room for local companies to capture market share in niche areas, such as turbines specially adapted for less windy sites or for tropical climates and cyclone zones.
In this respect, Vergnet is a shining example. The company has the field pretty much to itself with its turbines designed for sites with little or no infrastructure and difficult terrain. It employs around 220 people in its wind division, most of them in France, where it can now produce up to 200 turbines a year. In addition to its nacelle-assembly plant, Vergnet also makes its own blades via its Aerocomposit Occitane subsidiary at Beziers in southern France. To keep up with demand, however, it recently opened discussions with EADS Astrium, a subsidiary of European Aeronautic Defence and Space (EADS), with a view to setting up another blade factory in France.
EADS Astrium is already producing blades in Marmande, near Bordeaux, in association with local company Plastinov, mainly for the replacement market. Building on its experience of high-performance composite materials in the defence and aeronautics industries, EADS' long-term plan is to design and make large blades, especially for offshore use. "It is an area in which we have something to offer," explains Thierry Bonnefond, EADS' wind turbine blades product-line manager. "For example, we have a specialist knowledge regarding the constraints of weight and reliability." EADS is looking at factory locations along the Garonne river, near Bordeaux, from where the blades could be loaded directly onto ships.
In fact, Bordeaux could become a bit of a hub for the wind sector. HZ Holding France, a subsidiary of German industrial investment company HZ Holding, plans to manufacture large bearing rings for wind turbines at a factory currently owned by Ford Motor Company, near Bordeaux. HZ Holding is finding it difficult to secure financing in the current climate, despite government support, but hopes to make an announcement shortly.
Canadian turbine manufacturer AAER had also been planning to establish a nacelle assembly plant in Bordeaux, in a joint venture with local developer and producer Valorem. However, AAER too is suffering from the financial crisis and has withdrawn from the project. Instead, Valorem is now in talks with other potential partners to assemble nacelles in France, focusing on turbines for very low-wind-speed sites.
While most of the top turbine manufacturers have offices and maintenance centres in France, only Germany's Enercon has committed to building production facilities. By the middle of next year it expects to start rolling out up to 75 concrete towers a year from a factory to be built at Longueil-Sainte-Marie, in northern France.
Other firms prefer to subcontract the work to local companies. Vestas, for example, has an exclusive agreement with Ceole, near Dijon, while Repower's towers come from Siag France at Le Creusot in Burgundy. Ceole, established by an industrial boilermaker in 2007, makes 70 steel towers a year and is aiming for 150 in 2011. At the same time, its workforce should grow from 50 to around 140. Siag France, owned by Germany's Schaaf Industrie AG, started making steel towers in 2004, with just 25 employees. It now employs around 100 staff and produces roughly 80 steel towers a year at Le Creusot, with plans to raise that to 100 towers and 150 employees by 2011.
Besides the component supply chain, the government sees even greater potential in the fledgling offshore market, identifying it as one of six priority sectors in which France could create world leaders. Again, it considers France's best opportunity to lie in developing game-changing technology in niche areas, including floating turbines for deep-water use and machines over 5MW.
Location, location, location
Benefiting from Atlantic and Mediterranean wind regimes, France's resource is again the key factor in its favour; the International Energy Agency estimates potential production at 30TWh a year by 2020. The country also has good port facilities. Vestas chose Dunkerque, in northern France, as its base of operations for the 300MW Thanet project, under construction in England's Thames Estuary. This was partly because Dunkerque is close to the Thanet site, Vestas says, but also because it offered all the necessary facilities and services, including a large area for pre-assembly of the turbines and two wharves for loading and offloading. In addition, Vestas says the local authorities were very open and flexible.
Another port keen to get in on the act is Saint-Nazaire, in western France. STX France, a ship builder owned by Norway's STX Group (50.7%), the French state (33.3%) and Alstom Holding (16%), has responded to a tender call by an unnamed European operator to build a vessel for installing turbines offshore. It also sees other possible openings, such as making bedplates for the turbines.
As with onshore wind, some local companies are already key players in the sector. Nexans, for example, a world leader in cabling, participated in the Horns Rev and Barrow offshore projects, and also supplied and installed the undersea cable for Statoil Hydro's floating turbine off the coast of Norway (Windpower Monthly, September 2009). It has been selected to supply the high-voltage cables that will connect the 1GW London Array offshore plant to the UK grid, although the cables will be manufactured in Norway.
But the government recognises more needs to be done to encourage the emergence of an offshore industrial base firmly rooted in France. In 2005, it set up maritime competitiveness clusters in Brittany and Provence-Cote-d'Azur. These foster links between research institutes and businesses, and support innovative projects, such as the WinFlo and Diwet floating turbines for deep-water sites. WinFlo is being developed by a consortium including French developer Nass&Wind, which hopes to install a demonstration turbine in 2012, probably off the Brittany coast (Windpower Monthly, February 2009). The rival Diwet turbine is the brainchild of Dutch company Blue H, which has established a subsidiary in Brittany to develop a 3.5MW machine in partnership with various research institutes and local companies (Windpower Monthly, November 2008).
By building on initiatives such as these, the government believes France can make up for lost time and carve out a significant market share in the offshore sector and in niche markets onshore. Members of the French wind industry agree, but argue that a vital piece of the jigsaw is still missing: a clear, simple and stable regulatory framework, onshore and offshore, to provide a long-term vision. Work also needs to be done to improve the acceptability of wind turbines among the general public in France, they argue. If not, the country risks seeing jobs and economic growth heading elsewhere.
THE SUM OF ITS PARTS - FRENCH COMPONENT SUPPLIERS SET STANDARDS WORLDWIDE
While France might not host any top-rank turbine manufacturers, it boasts several world-leading component suppliers. One is Rollix Defontaine, which supplies blade and yaw bearings, which allow the blades and nacelle to track the wind, to seven of the world's top-ten turbine manufacturers for onshore and offshore machines. Half of the turbines in the world use Rollix blade and yaw bearings and it supplies nearly 70% of the European market. The bearings are made at its plant in the Vendee, in the west of France, where it employs 1,000 staff. In 2007, it opened a factory in China to serve that local market.
Similarly, Leroy Somer has carved out a global market for its synchronous and asynchronous generators and auxiliary drive systems, which serve to orient the blades and nacelle, among other things. The company has supplied 5,000 generators for wind turbines, representing 6GW of capacity, working with top names such as Denmark's Vestas as well as newcomers in the emerging markets. It recently helped Kenersys, the German subsidiary of India's Kalyani group, design its 2MW and 2.5MW turbines, including an innovative cooling system. The research and development work is done in France, but serial production mostly takes place abroad. The wind market represents more than 20% of Leroy Somer's turnover for generators, a share that has grown continuously over the past decade.
Carbone Lorraine Electrical Applications is among the world's leading manufacturers of carbon brushes, brush holders and slip rings, used to transmit current between static and moving parts of electrical motors and generators. It also makes signal-transfer systems, which transfer data from the rotor blades to the nacelle control system. The group has a target of more than 25% of sales in the energy market by 2012.
In the early 1980s, Stromag France, then known as Sime Industrie, developed electromagnetic disc brakes for wind turbines. Since then, more than 10,000 machines worldwide have been fitted with Stromag brakes, making it one of the market leaders. About 45% of Stromag's turnover is attributable to wind energy.
Areva T&D, owned by French nuclear giant Areva, is one of the top-three players in electricity transmission and distribution. It offers products for connecting onshore and offshore wind stations, from transformers and circuit breakers to network-management systems. Areva says it has helped connect 50% of the plants operating in France. The firm has more than 700 research staff and in 2008 ploughed EUR150 million into research, with the budget set to increase. Areva is working on optimising the network to get more renewable energy on to the lines through real-time monitoring and the development of smart grids.