France has been looking to renewable energy sources as an alternative to fossil fuels since the 1970s and the first oil price shocks, for instance by creating the Solar Energy Agency (Comes) which has been supporting ambitious programmes. The Thémis solar plant in southern France opened around the same time, which also saw the foundation of the pioneer photovoltaic company Photowatt. However, decreasing oil prices in the 1980s and reliance on second-generation nuclear power plants then held back growth in the renewable energy sector.
In 2001 France pledged to implement directive 2001/77/CE and to generate 21% electricity from renewables by 2010. But in 2012, according to a report by the French power grid manager RTE on electricity production, the share of renewable energy sources in overall electricity generation had been stagnating to 16.4%, compared to 15% in 1997, used as a base-year in the 2001 directive.
Grenelle Environment, driving force for the development of renewables
In 2007, Grenelle Environment kick-started an ambitious government policy aiming at supporting renewable energy sources. Parallel to the EU climate and energy package and its 20-20-20 targets (20% renewable energy in the overall EU energy consumption, 20% less greenhouse-gas emissions compared to 1990 levels and 20% energy savings by 2020), the French government launched a plan to foster the development of high environmental performance renewables on November 17th, 2008. The main goal is to attain a share of 23% renewables in national energy consumption, that is respectively 27% for electricity consumption, 32% for heating and 10% for transports, which represents a total consumption of 36 Mtoe (tonnes of oil equivalent) covered by renewables.
Are 2020 targets too ambitious?
Reaching the Grenelle’s goals requires 35GW (35 million kilowatts) of renewable-based installed capacity by 2020. According to Franck Chevet, head of the French Directorate General for Energy and Climate, meeting such targets requires a massive endeavour. “In the next ten years our country will have to accomplish huge development efforts similar in scale to the building of our nuclear generating capacity in the 1970s and 1980s”.
France’s umbrella renewable energy industry organization SER is concerned that targets may not be met (White paper on renewable energy sources, 2012): 7 of the 36 Mtoe announced may be missing. Nevertheless, its president Jean-Louis Bal stresses that the Grenelle plan was a breakthrough insofar as it paced up installation from 200 to 1,100 MW a year. However, a yearly 1,500 MW of new installed capacity will be required to meet targets on time. According to Mr Bal, too much red tape on wind energy is responsible, among other factors, for the slow pace of energy transition in France: “the French regulatory framework for wind energy is one of the most complex in Europe. Windmills enter operation 8 years after the choice of location, compared to 4 years in Europe on average
Energy efficiency certificates, a complementary instrument
Besides reaching 20% renewables in overall energy consumption, EU 20-20-20 policy sets a target of 20% more energy efficiency compared to 1990 levels. Since 2005, the French government has been providing incentives for producers to save energy. This scheme originates in article 14 of the Energy Policy Bill (POPE) which created energy efficiency certificates and established compulsory energy saving targets to be met by energy providers (all in all 2,500 companies, ranging from electricity providers such as EDF and GDF to fuel suppliers such as Total, Esso and Shell). They must save energy and supply the state with evidence that they carried out adequate works to that end. They can also encourage their clients to conduct renovation works in order to cut their energy bill and thus be granted an energy efficiency certificate, which entails a financial compensation of 3€ per MW saved.
At the end of the first phase (2006-2009), the initial target of 54TWh savings was successfully met; the second phase (2011-2013) aims for a much more ambitious goal of 345 TWh. Delphine Batho, the French minister of Ecology, wishes to continue on this path and said in February 2013 that the third phase (starting on January 1st 2014) would aim for 690 TWh savings.
In spite of recent fiscal austerity measures which have slowed down the energy transition, France is therefore committed to an assertive policy to cut energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions. Although most experts agree that 2020 targets will be hard to meet, over the last decade France has definitely started to move towards a more diverse energy mix.
For more information
- · SER’s white paper on renewable energy sources
- France’s national action plan on renewable energy sources (ministry of environment)
- Jeremy Rifkin’s energy transition
 multi-party debate in France on environmental issues  French energy efficiency certificates are based on a so-called “cumac” scheme for calculating energy savings achieved through investment