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Offshore Wind Turbine Debut Reflects Roadblocks in France’s Climate-Fighting Ambitions

Floatgen turbine at Saint Nazaire's port, France. (VOA / L. Bryant)

The skies were threatening, but that didn’t dampen the speeches and celebrations at this gritty, Brittany port.

“Floatgen, I wish you good wind and fair seas,” French sailor Catherine Chabaud announced to a crowd of dignitaries, before sending a champagne bottle smashing against a wind turbine towering over the dock.

The launch of the $29.5-million pilot a few weeks ago not only represents France’s first floating turbine — capable, its builders say, of powering up to 5,000 homes — but the country’s first, up-and-running foray into offshore wind power.

“The next step is going commercial,” said Bruno Geschier, chief sales and marketing manager for Ideol, the company coordinating the Floatgen project that is supported by a European consortium of businesses and research groups. “Commercial scale means having 50 of those babies, with much larger wind turbines powering hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people.”

That may happen in less than a decade, Geischer predicted — even as the French government plans to cut nuclear power’s massive share of France’s energy mix.

Bruno Geschier, marketing manager for Ideol, one of the companies involved in the Floatgen turbine. (VOA / L. Bryant)
Bruno Geschier, marketing manager for Ideol, one of the companies involved in the Floatgen turbine. (VOA / L. Bryant)

Indeed, Brussels-based industry group WindEurope predicts France is set to become Europe’s second biggest wind energy producer by 2030, after Germany — with wind generating roughly one-quarter of the country’s electricity, compared to just over four percent today.

“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.”

Leadership ambitions

France’s wind potential fits into President Emmanuel Macron’s broader ambition to help lead the battle against climate change. That will be on display Tuesday, when Paris holds an international summit on climate financing — two years after nations cinched a historic emissions-cutting pact in the French capital.

More broadly, most European Union countries are on track to meet 2020 EU targets of 20 percent of energy coming from renewables, the bloc says, even as they consider ratcheting up existing 2030 goals.

But lofty ambitions don’t always match reality. France, for example, counts among several EU members expected to fall short of the 2020 targets.

In November, too, French environment minister Nicolas Hulot scrapped a 2023 deadline for slashing nuclear share of the energy mix from 75 percent to 50 percent, acknowledging the date was unrealistic.

Even powerhouse Germany, which derives one-third of its energy from wind and solar, currently relies on coal for 40 percent of its energy — one ramification of its abandonment of nuclear power.

Still, the Floatgen launch reflects French efforts to transition from regional laggard to future wind power leader as it embarks on a massive energy overhaul.

“I think that the French government understands that it’s not possible in the world today to continue just with nuclear power,” said Greens Party Senator Ronan Dantec. “It’s important for the industry in France, for the future of the electricity market— because nuclear is very expensive— to have this strategy to develop renewable energy.”

Powering the oceans

Today, Floatgen puts France on a shortlist of countries piloting floating wind turbines. 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 ocean winds.

Other countries are ahead. In October, Britain launched the world’s first floating wind farm off the Scottish coast, capable of powering up to 20,000 homes.

“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 reasons, from groups opposing new turbines to a tangle of red tape.

Yet France may soon be catching up. Even in this centralized nation, the shift to renewables is beginning to happen locally, as towns and regions capitalize on dropping prices and the promise of green energy. 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 big 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, predicting Europe’s wind industry will generate more than half-a-million jobs by 2030, more than double today’s numbers.

“We’re talking about blades being produced in Portugal, offshore wind substructures in Poland, gear boxes in Belgium,” he said.

Riot police facing off protester during launch of Floatgen wind turbine in Saint Nazaire, France. (VOA / L. Bryant)
Riot police facing off protester during launch of Floatgen wind turbine in Saint Nazaire, France. (VOA / L. Bryant)

Reality check

Yet Saint-Nazaire also offers a reality check. A few meters from the Floatgen celebrations, a line of riot police faced off against workers protesting economic reforms. The pungent smell of teargas and burning tires hung 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 slowly shutting down.

“The new energies don’t offer reliable jobs,” Pinault added. “They offer precarious, part-time employment.”

Renewable energy advocates disagree.

“Wind energy today already represents thousands of jobs,” said Ideol marketing manager Geischer. “It could represent much more than that, local jobs, but also brainpower.”