France has launched its first offshore turbine to curb reliance on nuclear and reach climate goals — France could become Europe's second-largest wind energy producer after Germany. But the transition brings problems.
Offshore wind energy produces more — and more reliable — energy than previously thought, a new study shows.
This amounts to a nearly constant source of energy from offshore wind, the study points out. The wind energy industry sees this as a clear sign for building out offshore capacities, also to carry forward the ongoing transition to renewable energies to reach climate protection goals.
And in the meantime, France is moving forward with building out its offshore wind capacity, having recently launched the Floatgen turbine — a three-year, €25-million ($29-million) pilot supported by a European consortium of businesses and research groups.
The initiative not only represents France's first floating turbine — capable of powering up to 5,000 homes — but the country's first, up-and-running foray into offshore wind power.
Indeed, a recent report by Brussels-based industry group WindEurope predicts France is set to become region's second-biggest wind energy producer by 2030, after Germany — with wind generating roughly one-quarter of the country's electricity, compared to just more than 4 percent today.
But France's adoption of wind power comes with its own challenges.
At the recent inauguration of the Floatgen turbine at the gritty Brittany port, a champagne bottle smashed against the turbine towering over the dock, with a wish of good wind and fair seas. A crowd of dignitaries snacked on hors d'œuvre and drank bubbly — while a line of riot police faced off against angry workers.
Workers protested government economic reforms and the transition to alternative energies, leaving a pungent smell of teargas and burning tires hanging in the air.
"We face an uncertain future," said Mathieu Pinault, a member of the CGT trade union, as he mingled with fellow protesters. His longtime employer, a fuel- and coal-based heating plant, is gradually shutting down.
"The new energies don't offer reliable jobs," Pinault asserted. "They offer precarious, part-time employment."
Renewable energy advocates disagree.
"Wind energy today already represents thousands of jobs," said Bruno Geschier, chief sales and marketing manager for Ideol, the company coordinating the Floatgen project. Although traditional energy sectors have traditionally been big employers, analysts note, "Renewables will also create jobs," said energy expert Fornacciari, "but different jobs in other places."
Upcoming offshore boom
"The next step is going commercial," said Geschier. "Commercial scale means having 50 of those babies, with much larger wind turbines powering hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people."
That is likely to happen in less than a decade, Geschier thinks, as the French government carried out an ambitious plan to drastically cut nuclear power's massive share of France's energy mix from 75 percent today, to 50 percent by 2025.
More broadly, the initiative underscores the nation's transition from regional laggard to future wind-power leader as it embarks on a massive overhaul of its energy mix.
Camouflaged wind farms
"We're no longer talking about doing renewables because it's good for the planet. There's also a very strong economic drive for doing renewables now, because costs have come down extremely fast," said WindEurope's Chief Policy Officer Pierre Tardieu.
"This is true for France of course, but it's also true for Europe as a whole."
As one of the few existing floating turbines in the world, the Saint-Nazaire pilot goes an extra step. The cutting-edge technology depends on cables fixed to the ocean floor, and can be deployed in deeper waters than its fixed-bottom counterparts — taking advantage of often stronger and more stable winds.
Other countries are ahead, however. In October, Britain launched the planet's first floating wind farm off the Scottish coast, capable of powering up to 20,000 homes.
In France, the government of President Emmanuel Macron has another reason to champion the shift to wind and other renewables, as it positions itself to become a global leader in the broader fight against climate change.
But weaning the nation away from nuclear energy will not be easy. While Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot (who is also veteran environmental activist) says the government may shut down as many as 17 of France's 58 nuclear plants by 2025, he has offered no details or clear timeline.
Local governments have also drawn up plans to shift to wind and other renewables, whose prices have dropped dramatically in recent years. That includes the western Pays de la Loire region, where the port city of Saint-Nazaire is located.
"We have everything it takes to make this region into a big area in terms of building wind turbines, both on land and offshore," said Regional Council Vice President Paul Jenneteau, who notes the Floatgen turbine alone created 70 jobs.
"Imagine offshore wind farms here," he added. "Obviously those jobs are going to multiply."
WindEurope's Tardieu agrees, describing a trans-regional industry.
"We're talking about blades being produced in Portugal, offshore wind substructures in Poland, gear boxes in Belgium," he said, predicting Europe's wind industry will generate more than half a million jobs by 2030 — more than double today's numbers.
Yet for all the possible advantages, France has been slow to adopt offshore wind power.
"We're late, let's be honest," acknowledged France's Junior Environment Minister Sebastien Lecornu during the Saint-Nazaire inauguration, as he ticked off a raft of obstacles, from groups opposing new turbines to a tangle of red tape.
"What is still difficult in France is permitting," said Marc Fornacciari, a Paris-based partner for the global law firm Dentons, who specializes in infrastructure and energy.
"You also have a typical French phenomenon, which is the ease in which third parties can challenge projects," he added. "And you can be certain that any project will be challenged in court, which will cause delays and costs."
By mid-afternoon, Saint-Nazaire's celebrations and protests were over. Firemen were out, dousing burning tires with large hoses. Pinault and the other dockworkers were long gone — back to their jobs and homes, to face an uncertain future.