The French Government have set a target of 10% of electricity consumption from wind turbines by 2020, but with growing opposition to the plans there are many who are sceptical the target will be achieved.
In comparison with some of its European partners, France has been slow to adopt a programme of renewable energy, in large measure no doubt because of the self-confident swagger it has been able to adopt from meeting 80% of its electricity needs from nuclear power.
French Government politicians are never slow to remind their European counterparts that the presence of nuclear power on their soil means France has one of the lowest CO2 emission rates in the industrialised world.
The slow progress is also an inevitable consequence of the bureaucratic inertia that pervades the governmental system in France, with each project requiring a gestation period of around 4 years before it becomes operational. Nevertheless, under pressure from the European Union, which has set targets across the EU for alternative energy, and from environmental groups in France wanting to see a more positive national response to climate change, the Government needs to be seen to be flying the green flag. As a result, in the last couple of years, there has been a significant expansion of the wind farm programme, to the extent that current pace of French investment is greater than that of other European countries. At the end of 2005 France had only a few hundred wind turbines, generating 407 megawatt (MW) of electricity. By the end of 2007 there were over 1900 turbines, generating 2.5 megawatt of electricity, on around 341 wind farms. The plans are that this should increase to 3500 turbines by 2010, to generate 15MW of electricity, and to 8000 turbines, and 25MW of power by 2030. Approximately 15% of the turbines are will be implanted in the sea, with the remainder on the mainland. Germany is currently the largest producer in Europe of electricity from wind power, at 18,428MW, whilst Spain generates 15,000MW, and Denmark 3,122MW. The UK has 1966 wind turbines generating 2.4MW of power, with the vast majority of them located in Scotland.
All new wind farms in France require planning consent, as part of which applicants are required to undertake an environmental impact study. The project is also subject to a public enquiry. The final decision is taken by the local préfet, not the local council. Whilst in 2006 around 500 planning applications were submitted, this figure nearly doubled last year. One third of the projects were refused consent, mainly on grounds of protection of the landscape. The largest rate of refusal is occurring in Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, where there are particular environmental sensitivities. Local authorities seeking to install wind turbines must create a zone de développement de l’éolien (ZDE), which defines the geographical limits of the farm, and the parameters of any turbine development that can take place. Only if the wind turbines are located within such zones are EDF, the electricity supplier, obliged to buy the electricity produced from them. The following table shows the number of installed and approved farms in each region of France. The table shows the position as at September 07, the latest date for which official regional statistics are available. As is evident from the figures above, many of those in the 'Approved' column are now in place. Wind turbine power in some regions is non-existent, although in some cases projects have been approved, but have yet to be realised. There are no current plans for wind farms in either Aquitaine or the Ile de France. Although the former has excellent winds along its coastline for wind turbines, it is a protected area. Neither does the number of wind farms in a region necessarily correlate with the amount of power they produce. Whilst Languedoc has the largest number of installed and approved wind farms, in fact, the regions with the biggest punch are Picardie (631MW), Centre (626MW) and Brittany (573MW).
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The sudden spurt of activity over the past two years has produced a surge in opposition from locals protest groups. A national organisation has now been formed to combat the plans, with around 200 local groups affiliated to it. The opposition has been spurred on by an influential article in Le Figaro magazine earlier this year, which argued that wind turbines were expensive, inefficient and unnecessary. Notable recent protest campaigns have taken place in Bourg-Dun (Seine-Maritime), Pleyber-Christ (Finistère), Roches-sur-Grane (Drôme), and in Ardèche, Hérault, and Haute-Loire. Sometimes these campaigns have been accompanied by legal action, as was the case recently in the Pas de Calais, where a local court overruled a planning consent for 70 wind turbines in the commune of Fruges. Not surprisingly, underlying all the publicly stated concerns (environment, health, and noise) there is anxiety about the impact of the turbines on property values. Such as been the unpopularity of some proposals that a group of 72 Senators in the French Upper House recently tabled a motion for a change in the law, requiring that a local referendum be carried out before new wind farms are approved. One of the chief concerns of the parliamentarians and protest groups alike is the lack of transparency in the development of the projects. Whilst a public inquiry is necessary before a project can be finally approved, French public planning inquiries are rarely a model of participatory democracy. National planning policy guidelines also favour the development of wind power.
Likewise many projects are being proposed, not by the communes themselves, but by inter-communal organisations with planning powers, whose primary role is that of economic development. For them, not only are wind farms a source of economic development, but also a new and important source of regular income, through the local business rates that are payable on each installation. Local councils receive around €6000 per year, per megawatt of power produced by a wind farm, so it is not difficult to see how even a modest new wind farm could transform the financial fortunes of an impoverished rural commune. The local département receive a similar amount, and the regional level of government also receive a slice of the cake. The local councils are not the only ones who benefit from the creation of a new wind farm. The farmer on whose land they are installed can expect to receive up to €2500 per year for each turbine on their land. The companies themselves are guaranteed a financial return from the elevated price that EDF, the State electricity provider, is obliged to pay for power received from a wind turbine. It is not surprising, therefore, that some very powerful private industrial companies are now involved in wind turbine developments. Thus, the French multinationational Suez recently paid €640m for a 50% stake in Compagnie du Vent, a company with a current turnover of only €11m, but a key player in the construction and installation of wind turbines in France. We very much doubt they paid that much because they wanted to demonstrate their commitment to tackling climate change! Local préfets have needed to respond to the growing protests with calming noises, and there is growing pressure on local authorities to restrict the dispersion of wind farms, by focussing development on a few large wind farms with powerful turbines.