Offshore wind in France – The state of the industry

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The last major economy in Europe that is not a member of the offshore wind club is due to knock on the clubhouse door this year. France will be joining the club with a huge 3GW enrolment fee. This month, to be precise, 11 January 2012, was the deadline for the tenders to be submitted to the Commission of Energy Regulation from the companies wanting to be part of this exclusive club. In April this year, after 3 months of waiting, we will know which companies and alliances have got their calculations and expectations in line with President Sarkozy’s government’s ideas. 

The Grenelle de l’environnement, a round table environmental forum, was ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy bringing together the 5 interested parties to define his government’s policies on ecological, environmental and sustainable development issues for the five years of his presidency. The members of this committee included representatives from the government, business, unions, non-governmental organisations and local authorities. With the first presidency term almost at an end their work, defining the offshore wind industry, is just beginning. Their target is to meet 23% renewable energy by 2020 in electrical consumption, though not all of it from offshore wind.

Five development zones

The five wind farms proposed by the committee stretch from the North East, Le Treport near Dieppe, Fecamp, Courseulles sur Mer, along the English Channel, perhaps I should call it la Manche in this article, to Saint Brieuc off Brittany, the largest of the areas planned, and then finally around Ouessant, (Ushant – pour les Anglais) to the mouth of the Loire river at Saint Nazaire.

The maximum planned output from these individual wind farms ranges from 750MW at Le Treport and Saint Nazaire, to 500MW at the remaining three areas. When in full production the 3GW from 500 to 600 wind turbines is sufficient for 1.75% of the French population’s energy needs.

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A second 3GW round of licenses will be announced in the future. It is intended that offshore wind and other maritime energy will eventually produce 3.5% of the electricity consumption to power 4.5 million households. Of this 3.5% target, 6GW will be coming from 1,200 wind turbines planned to be in operation by 2020.

National pride

This is a huge step from zero to 3GW in one attempt. The French have been learning from the industry in the other European countries who have been active for several years and started with wind farms producing under 60MW. This has enabled them to jump to plans for inaugural farms producing ten times that amount. They have not just been sitting back, looking and learning for the last 10 to 15 years though. Through their world leading energy companies they have been involved in the offshore wind farms of other countries.

France has companies in the construction and equipment sector, such as Alstom, Technip and Areva. Some of these giant energy concerns have jumped into the sector by buying existing companies, sometimes rescuing or salvaging a company that needed a large investment to survive, or be resuscitated. The purchase of this experience and knowledge, as well as their existing markets, boosted their entry into the industry.

French companies have also got the experience as operators. GDF SUEZ has recognised knowledge and experience in the offshore wind energy field thanks to over ten years’ experience in almost 30 projects of this kind elsewhere in Europe.

EDF is also expected to have a strong input with tenders in four of the planned areas, combining with DONG, the Danish operator with more experience in the industry than any other company world-wide. This gives DONG the “Frenchness” which is almost a prerequisite for tendering here, and gives EDF access to a vast amount of knowledge and experience.

With targets also beyond the current round of tenders, Nass & Wind are looking even further offshore, in deep water, to floating wind farm installations as well as joining in the mêlée for the 5 wind farms in the first round.

When talking to these companies you don’t get the impression that they feel that France is a late entry into the industry, It is more that France is in the centre of the European industry, geographically, between the conditions found in the North Sea and the English Channel and the Atlantic coast conditions, and they have taken time to think about their coastal conditions and organise the industry accordingly.

Bright future

Looking into the future, Frédéric Hendrick, the VP Wind Offshore for Alstom, told Offshore WIND that after the first 2 rounds of 3GW licenses there will be more licensing in the future “but probably not so big as these 3GW licenses, and probably with floating turbines in deeper waters”. One thing he is sure about is that France will be developing other forms of marine energy, namely tidal and wave. Commenting on the costs of energy in general and wind energy in particular, Mr Hendrick said, “you must not think of what the price is today but think what the price will be in 10 years to come. Offshore wind will be more competitive and costs will come down, whereas other forms of energy costs will not.” In a cautionary tone he added, “The days of cheap energy globally are behind us.” Is this a reason why France has waited so long, perhaps?

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The French government has seen that there are prospects that can possibly help to balance the subsidising of this industry. President Sarkozy has stated that there are 17,000 jobs already expected in 2012, which is a growth of 7,000 since 2010, and this will increase to a total of 20,000 jobs by 2015. He continued saying that the French will “bring out a national chain to build the means of production of offshore wind energy projects and also for export”. The investment needed to realise this will include “a package of €100m to be spent on the development of this sector”.

There is, however, a negative aspect to the enormous leap into la Manche. The subsidies being offered to the companies are not receiving overall support. The Federation of Environmental Sustainability accuses Paris of playing with the consumers’ money, which is “immoral and socially dangerous”. Public opinion to the aesthetic impact is also split. There is some opposition to wind turbines being placed within sight of historic areas such as the Normandy Landing beaches. But overall the public is seen to be overwhelmingly in favour of the development of renewable energy.

Local content

A big disappointment for the companies is that although they have overall control from Paris, the actual manufacturing, operations and engineering take place outside of France, such as the subsidiaries of Alstom with the Spanish Ecotecnia, and Areva with the German Multibrid. In the end, the French manufacturers only account for 5% market share in their own territory.

There is change planned though. Recent announcements made concerning the manufacturing facilities show that steps are being taken to correct the balance in favour of the head offices in France. These include Alstom’s new Haliade 150-6MW offshore wind turbine facility in the port areas of Saint-Nazaire and Cherbourg, and Areva with the 60 acre (24.28 Hectares) site at Le Havre, in the Haute-Normandie region of North Western France.

Dick Hill