France Holds Back the Sun

  • by A.D.McKenzie (paris)
  • Friday, January 28, 2011
  • Inter Press Service

Last month, France imposed a three-month freeze on new solar projects while the government holds deliberations and draws up new rules scheduled to be announced in March.

'The suspension is regrettable, but there has been too much speculation,' France's new Ecology, Transport and Housing Minister Nathalie Kosciusko- Morizet told IPS this week.

Before the freeze, France had seen something of a 'solar rush' in photovoltaic panel installations because the country had the highest payments in Europe for solar-generated electricity that was fed into the national distribution grid.

The government’s policy then was to pay rates higher that what the market called for, in order to encourage the development of alternative energy. But the payments have cost Elecricité de France (EDF), the state-owned electricity provider and one of the world’s largest utility companies, more that one billion euros annually, according to some reports.

'We need to have rules for this sector just as with other sectors,' Kosciusko- Morizet said, following a speech outlining her plans for sustainable development and the environment. Appointed in November, the minister said she wants to put ecology back on the political agenda.

'This is the year of truth, responsibility and justice,' she said.

In a previous address to Parliament, Kosciusko-Morizet said that most of the photovoltaic panels installed in France were made in China with a 'highly questionable carbon footprint' and that the industry should be about creating jobs in France.

A parliamentary report also suggested that farmers had been building special hangars just to install photovoltaic panels to benefit from the high prices; several thousand farmers have signed up to sell the electricity generated by these panels to the distribution grid.

Last year, EDF received an overwhelming number of requests daily from people who wanted to be part of the grid, according to the authorities. The freeze on installations is thus angering many who don’t see the justice in the French government’s handling of the situation, despite similar moves in other European countries.

Environmentalist groups say that the official argument that photovoltaic installations are costing too much is a false one as the money used for renewable energy is passed on to the consumer through a certain tax, the CSPE (Contribution to the Public Electricity Service). This has been raised from 4.5 euros per megawatt-hour to 7.5 euros for 2011.

'The problem began with the long waiting list to get connected to the network,' said Joël Vormus, energy and environment project manager for the Comité de Liaison Energies Renouvelables (CLER) a non-government organisation that groups more than 150 professionals throughout France.

'The government saw that there was a huge list of people who wanted to subscribe to a branch of EDF but this list was completely artificial because people were encouraged to subscribe very early,' he told IPS.

'People were subscribing to the list without having the financial means to install the projects or without analyzing the risks. Some of the people who subscribe later abandon the project for various reasons,' he added.

Vormus said that CLER also realized that 'a huge part of this waiting list was occupied by EDF itself' through its own subsidiary EDF Energies Nouvelles. The stated mission of this subsidiary is to 'produce green energy and develop alternative energies'.

'So one of EDF’s branches was managing the waiting list while another branch was subscribing to it,' Vormus said. 'This could be a conflict of interest.'

Most of France’s electricity is generated by the country’s 58 nuclear plants - a concern to environmentalists who see solar power as a viable alternative. CLER and its partners believe that the suspension of projects will have an adverse impact on the solar-energy industry in the country.

'We’re not for the suspension because it actually kills the industry,' Vormus said. 'You don’t do that to the car industry. You don’t do that the nuclear industry. People are calling us saying ‘we’re going bankrupt’. Still we hope the government uses the time to do things right.'

Some experts say that states are miscalculating the financial impact of photovoltaic energy. While big power plants need to have concentrated power-production sites and also need to maintain strong networks, the benefit of photovoltaic systems is that the electricity is used locally, thus saving money, they say.

In neighbouring Belgium, for instance, homeowners are encouraged to get involved in the solar-power movement, and many ordinary people have installed panels on their roofs. Many report satisfaction with producing their own electricity and seeing their bills from energy company Electrabel reduced.

But governmental 'eco-payments' there, too, have been going down.

Katty, a social worker who lives in Ghent, installed her panels last October with a government-subsidized 8000-euro loan. The rules decree that she could have only enough panels to provide energy for her own consumption. If she produces more, it is given to the grid, not sold. Her eco-subsidy for using solar energy was also decreased to 340 euros from the 450 euros the government offered in 2009.

'The government seems to have changed their mind a bit because now everyone is installing panels,' she told IPS. 'I see lots of panels in my neighbourhood. I don’t think they expected it to be so popular.'

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

Where next?