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Hollande Victory Signals Shift in France's Renewable Energy Policy

A natural disaster sparked the re-emergence of Japan as a ripe renewable energy market. Now, a political shakeup could have similar effects 6,000 miles away in France.

That’s the initial indication as the world works to gauge the fallout from a massive swing in political direction as Socialist François Hollande unseated Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy for the French presidency. The math is pretty simple on this one. Sarkozy has been a staunch supporter of nuclear power, which is reponsible for more than 75 percent of the country’s electricity. He’s also been mostly against expanding government programs to grow the green economy. President-elect Hollande, meanwhile, is an avid backer of renewable energy and he has stated publicly that he wants to reduce France’s dependence on nuclear power to 50 percent by 2025.

The likely shift in national energy strategy comes as many of the country’s neighbors scale back their commitment to renewables as part of deep cuts in spending. The photovoltaic industries in Germany, Italy and the U.K. are still assessing the impacts of recent cuts in their respective Feed-in tariffs.

France’s reconsideration of its renewables future has an awful lot to do with the recent struggles of Japan. The March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis shifted Japan’s future policy toward solar, wind, biomass and geothermal. It forced the same change in Germany, which like France and Japan, relied heavily on nuclear power. And Italy, which had considered re-committing itself to nuclear energy, shut the door quickly after Fukushima.

Now, France stands alone among leading nations that get a majority of their power from nuclear energy. But there’s a growing chorus of residents who want energy policy to go in a different direction. From a strictly financial perspective, France has built much of its economy on the back of its nuclear base. With 58 reactors and a nuclear capacity of 63 gigawatts (GW), the country is the world’s largest exporter of electricity, mostly to neighboring Italy and Switzerland. It also remains a technological leader in everything from reactor design to the growing use of recycled nuclear fuel.

So, there will be considerable economic interests that will defend the nuclear industry’s standing in France, making a shift to renewables a long and nonlinear process. But if it’s true that France will move to retire its aging nuclear plants rather than extend their lives as Sarkozy promised, then the question is which renewable energy is best poised to fill the gap.

On the surface, 2011 was a year in which France joined the solar elite. The nation represented the world’s fifth largest market with 1.5 GW of new installations, pushing its cumulative capacity to 2.5 GW. But according to the European Photovoltaic Industry Association, the number was somewhat misleading.

“France saw 1.5 GW of new systems connected last year, mainly a result of installations done in 2010. Only less than 10 percent of this capacity was installed during 2011. The new legal framework allows systems of up to 100 kW only to benefit from a remunerative FiT level, while larger projects had to wait until the summer to apply for several types of call-for-tender schemes. The new support framework aims to limit the annual market size to 500 MW.

The extremely long grid connection process in France can take up to 18 months. The important FiT cuts and long grid connection lead times explain why new installations were at a poor level during 2011, while grid connections reached a record high of 1.5 GW in 2011.”

According to the European Wind Energy Association, France scaled back its wind energy investments in 2011. In 2010, the country installed 1,396 MW of wind capacity, but that annual figure dropped to 830 MW in 2011 for a cumulative capacity of 6,800 MW. Even with the recent growth, France’s installed wind power contributes just 2.8 percent of the electricity consumed in the country. The nation remains a nonplayer in the offshore wind industry, which is gaining traction to the north. The country does have one offshore wind farm under construction and several wind farm areas have been proposed, so the potential for growth is there.

While the political situation may still be cloudy in France, it looks like the solar and wind industries could benefit from this shift in government. The question is how can this investment be pulled off in light of the broader move toward smaller government across much of the European Union.

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