Renewable energy

Covid stunts growth in France’s lagging renewable energy sector

While the EU as a whole is making progress on emissions, France is lagging behind on increasing renewables in its energy mix.
While the EU as a whole is making progress on emissions, France is lagging behind on increasing renewables in its energy mix. Patrik Stollarz AFP/File

Renewables have been steadily increasing in France’s electricity mix, but growth in 2020 was not fast enough to meet targets. Among the issues at play is the Covid-19 pandemic, which slowed down the development and installation of new projects.


“The effect of the health crisis and the spring confinement significantly slowed down the development of [renewable energy] projects, notably the phases of construction and connecting to the grid,” Pascal Sokoloff, managing director of the Fnccr, an organisation that works on service networks in 800 cities, and contributed to the yearly report on renewable electricity published this week by the Observatory of renewable energy.

Covid put a lot of financial decisions on hold as well.

“The banking sector, which is very implicated in renewable projects, providing a significant amount of capital, has become more prudent in the context of the crisis,” said Sokoloff.

From October 2019 to September 2020, renewables accounted for 27 percent of France’s electricity consumption, mostly produced via hydroelectric, with a growing portion coming from wind and solar.

Not meeting objectives

Globally renewable energy production has soared during the Covid pandemic, and while the sector is growing in France, it is not currently producing enough electricity to meet objectives set in the national energy plan, which calls for a 20 percent cut in fossil fuel consumption by 2023, and 35 percent by 2028.

Over 70 percent of France’s electricity is currently produced by its 58 nuclear reactors. The plan calls for 14 of them to be closed by 2035, when nuclear should be reduced to 50 percent of the electricity mix.

Renewables are expected to replace nuclear and fossil fuels and increase 50 percent from 2017 levels by 2023, doubling by 2028.

But the report says at the current rate of development, the goals will not be reached: "The health crisis is not the only explanation for these slowdowns". 

Covid blocking solar

Solar energy was developing well in 2018 and 2019, but slowed down in the start of 2020.

The sector needs to triple its production, adding three gigawatts (GW) of production capacity a year in order to get back on track, "a challenge, given its past performance”, says the report.

Part of the slowdown is due to the Covid crisis, since most of France's solar panels are manufactured in China, which shut down a lot of production in February.

The report talks about a “domino effect”, with the lack of delivery of panels affecting construction schedules over the entire year.

This has sparked a move to try to produce solar panels locally, and REC Solar, a Norwegian company, has already announced it will build a factory in Moselle, eastern France.

Wind power facing local pushback

Wind power provided 7.2 percent of France’s national electricity consumption in 2019, but dropped by 17 percent in the first nine months of 2020.

The Covid pandemic can explain the drop, as most wind farms construction projects were halted at the start of May 2020.

Wind turbines in Normandy.
Wind turbines in Normandy. © Mychelle Daniau/AFP

The sector is hoping for a “wind deal” as part of France’s economic recovery package, allowing them to install turbines in areas that have until now been inaccessible, because the major issue for the sector is access to land.

“We must, above all, remove the constraints that block a large part of the French territory and ban or limits wind power development in these zones,” Camille Charpiat, in charge of wind power for the Renewable energy syndicate, said in the report.

Access to land is made more difficult because citizens often protest against wind turbine installations near them, arguing the noise and shadows disturb living and farming.

Reviving the wind sector will require a turn towards more local projects to “better anchor these projects in the specificities of the territories and to allow local actors to derive the maximum benefits from them,” said Pascal Sokoloff.

Local development

“Renewable energy provides the opportunity to provide local value and create jobs equitably across France,” says Jean-Baptiste Lebrun, managing director of Cler, a group of associations, companies and cities engaged in the energy transition.

France’s electricity production system is remains centralised on a few dozen nuclear and natural gas sites.

“This model is destined to change towards a more decentralised one that no longer depends on exterior imports,” Lebrun told RFI, like uranium and oil.

But local development is slowed by policies that focus only on the price of electricity, which pushes renewable energy projects to go big.

“These actors are pushed towards large projects, to benefit from economies of scale, but they have trouble finding buy-in locally,” says Lebrun, adding that the government also puts out calls for proposals nationally, not taking into account the different costs.

“Even though solar power is concentrated in the south of France [where it is sunny], we could produce solar energy in Lille [in the north],” he says, but that would require a different pricing structure from one region to the next.

France is behind on renewable energy production, compared to elsewhere in Europe, because its energy policy is still too anchored in nuclear, which Lebrun says artificially drives down the price of electricity, making it difficult to develop renewables.

“A part of the cost of nuclear is underestimated, like the risk of the waste, and a part of the sector’s expenses are covered by the state and not the market, so it creates a distortion, and gives the impression that renewables are more expensive,” he says, even though everywhere else in the world, they are some of the cheapest sources of energy around.

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