France aims to overcome local discontent in wind farm push

Emmanuel Macron has inaugurated France’s first offshore wind farm, after revealing measures aimed at increasing local support for renewable energy projects

The Ailes des Crêtes wind farm is part-owned by local children
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The inauguration of France’s first offshore wind farm at Saint-Nazaire in September was long overdue, say climate activists who point out that France lags behind its neighbours when it comes to wind turbines.

In 2021, wind covered 8% of France’s electricity demand, compared to 23% in Germany and 22% in the UK, according to WindEurope.

The Saint-Nazaire site, over which discussions began back in 2008, is part of a push to change that, with the government aiming for 50 offshore wind farms by 2050.

Read more: President Macron opens France’s first offshore wind farm

France ranked 17th in the EU

France ranked 17th in the EU in 2020 for its share of energy needs met by renewables. This is often explained by bureaucratic hurdles and trouble winning the support of communities.

A draft bill aiming to accelerate the development of renewable energy projects has been presented to ministers and includes measures to reduce local opposition.

It would allow people who live close to renewable energy sites, particularly wind turbines, to get a discount on their electricity bills.

Renewable energy remains a divisive issue

Renewable energy remains a divisive issue. At the last election, Marine Le Pen pledged to put a stop to wind farm projects and even to begin dismantling existing wind farms.

Read more: Le Pen: Is her plan to ban all French wind farms realistic?

A law passed in February, dubbed 3DS, gave local councils the power to define areas where wind farms are “subject to conditions” if, for example, wind turbines would be “detrimental to the preservation of nature and landscapes”.

In certain areas, though, politicians and citizens are united behind wind energy. The Ailes des Crêtes initiative in Ardennes inaugurated three wind turbines in 2016, thanks in part to €1.8million of citizen investment.

546 investors, 270 on behalf of children

There are 546 investors, including parents acting on behalf of 270 children. The minimum investment was €5,000, or €100 for children.

Today, the turbines produce enough electricity to power 1,600 homes.

Becoming shareholders allowed investors to take out loans to fund the project. Once most of those loans are paid off, investors will begin to receive dividends. This could happen “within the next three or four years”, according to Marcel Létissier, president of the strategy committee.

“We have lots of investors who are anti-nuclear activists, and others who want to re-appropriate energy production,” Mr Létissier said. The decision to include children in the ownership model was only partly symbolic.

“We want to give them a clean planet. It also allows us to gather them together when we have meetings and promote green energy.

“We play games with them, and help them to understand the advantages of producing energy differently.”

‘Very little opposition’

Mr Létissier said there was “very little opposition” when the project was launched. The Communauté de communes des Crêtes Préardennaises invested, as did the Champagne-Ardenne region, and there was a significant effort to promote the wind farm.

Today, however, discontent is growing with more developments planned.

Read more: French mayors must be consulted but cannot veto wind farm plans

“I understand. Where we are in the department, I think we have reached a certain saturation point. There are areas where you will see turbines for 50km in all directions, especially at night, when they are lit up in red.”

Part of the acceptance might have been down to the project’s scale: three turbines, just under 100m tall, whereas many others are 150m or taller.

“There are other developers who want to install turbines next to ours, and people could say they were happy to have three, but more is too many.”

Mr Létissier is not convinced that the plan to offer locals reduced energy prices will be effective.

“Having spoken to protesters, I don’t think their main goal is to have cheap energy.” he said.

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