Tuesday, May 03, 2011

In France new thinking is needed about energy

Nuclear energy meets nearly 80 percent ofFrance's electricity demand. Officials there have long boasted about their impeccable safety track record of their nuclear power plants. However, the recent events in Japan have highlighted the fact that it only takes one "accident" to create untold destruction. (GW)

France offshore wind: Nuclear energy giant buffeted by winds of change

Will nuclear energy safety concerns boost France’s offshore wind programme?

By Bonnie Yuill
Wind Energy Update
29 April 2011

In the wake of Japan’s earthquakes and compromised nuclear reactors, French protestors have been calling for a referendum on France’s nuclear programme.

“This is a prime time to phase in additional offshore wind energy in France”, says Jennifer Helgeson, Climatico, France Analyst.

About half of the nuclear reactors in France are older than 25 years and are due for replacement. Public concern sparked by Fukushima and heightened government awareness, is supported by EU climate change commissioner Connie Hedegaard's claim that generating energy from wind turbines at sea is more economical than building new atomic power plants.

Is France poised to follow its German counterpart in replacing ageing nuclear reactors with a rigourous offshore wind energy programme? Two weeks ago, Germany's CDU leader Angela Merkel and Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, set ambitious goals during a meeting with German state governors to install 25 gigawatts of offshore wind energy capacity - the equivalent of 20 nuclear power plants - by 2030.

"As the European country with the largest number of nuclear power plants in operation, France is not keen to experience public backlash in the face of the Fukushima explosions”, says Helgeson. As a direct result of public opposition to France’s nuclear programme it now looks likely that France will shut down its ageing Fessenhiem plant in the Haut-Rhin.

During his recent visit to Japan, French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, also called for new nuclear rules and has proposed a global conference in France this May to this end.

New thinking needed

In the wake of the disaster, the French Nuclear Safety commission reported that it would devote its meeting on March 21, 2011 ‘to initiate thinking about actions to be launched’. But the situation in Japan required more than the legendary French capacity for thought.

By the following day, events forced ASN President Andre-Claude Lacoste to concede "We are clearly in a catastrophe”.

Under the circumstances, it seems almost inevitable that the renewable energies market, which is expected to grow at an annual rate of 6% in Europe and 9% in North America to 2030, according to Anne-Catherine Hehl, spokesperson for EDF, is entering a new phase of its development. This entails the emergence of major global players and the increase in the size and complexity of projects, she says.

French nuclear energy giant Areva and utility GDF Suez clearly see the potential of offshore wind and appear determined to get in on the ground floor of the next big energy market.

Earlier this week French newspaper Les Echos suggested that the two companies are likely to announce a partnership in wind energy in the next few weeks, and will seek to include Vinci, the world's largest construction and concessions group, and Denmark's DONG Energy, in the partnership.

Together, Areva and GDF hope to win a share of France's upcoming tender offer for 3GW of wind power, worth 10 billion euros ($14.53 billion), the report said.

France has superior port facilities, a wealth of engineering expertise and an abundant wind resource. With greater government support, it could become a world leader in offshore wind; currently however, it is the laggard, having set a target of installing only 6GW of offshore wind capacity by 2020 (compared to 33GW in the UK).

Taking the helm?

France is known for nuclear energy; the vast majority of electricity generated in France comes from its 59 nuclear reactors. But it appears that the winds of change are gathering momentum.

"The country has not historically been considered a global leader in renewable energy, but France has taken some bold steps recently to support growth in this industry and by 2020, the French government plans to generate 23% of its electricity from renewable energy sources”, explains Helgeson.

It will not all be plain sailing however.

“There are still several barriers that remain and hinder development of wind energy throughout France,” Helgeson continues. “Some examples include: slow authorisation; inadequate grid connection capacity; and zones in which installations are forbidden.”

But overcoming existing obstacles to wind energy development would pay huge dividends. The Syndicat des Énergies Renouvelables (SER) notes that wind power constitutes one of the most active energy industries and reports that in 2010, additional capacities of 9,259 MW and 35,800 MW were installed in Europe and the world.

After recent events, many wind energy companies are experiencing renewed interest and increased investment.

“It is already having a direct impact on the ability of developers and original equipment manufacturers to raise additional funding,” says Paul de la Gueriviere, CEO of IDEOL. “We have seen an increase in investor interest following the events in Japan, who now realise that clearly there is a market for offshore wind.”

Hehl similarly recognises strong investment potential for the future.

“By increasing its stake in EDF Energies Nouvelles, EDF Group has taken a new step in renewable energies. After ten years of financial and strategic support as a 50% shareholder of EDF Energies Nouvelles, EDF Group has decided to launch a tender offer for all of the capital it does not hold in order to strengthen the position of the Group in the renewable energy sector." Today, EDF Group allocates nearly 40% of its development capex to renewable energies, including 80% through EDF Energies Nouvelles.

But ultimately, will recent events in Japan encourage France to expand its offshore wind programme?

De la Gueriviere is optimistic. “It will have an effect on policy and what is considered to be an acceptable energy mix going forward. More than likely we will see an increase in the number of combined cycle gas turbines and offshore wind turbines, particularly in Japan and France, where there is limited possibility or acceptability for onshore wind.”

To respond to this article, please write to: Bonnie Yuill


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