France’s Push for Renewable Energy

France’s solar-powered road may have hit a dead end, but the country remains determined to meet renewable energy targets for 2020 and 2050.

France is relying on a combination of solar and wind power to achieve its renewable energy goals.

In 2016, France unveiled a kilometer of road paved with solar panels, claiming it would generate enough electricity to fuel around the 5,000 homes of Tourouvre-au-Perche, a town in Normandy. The long-term goal was to build 1,000 kilometers of solar road that would one day power 5 million homes. The project cost more than 5 million euros and was considered a failure. Nicknamed “Wattway”, the road proved to be too expensive and inefficient.

Built by construction group Colas, the road consisted of 2,800 photovoltaic panels covered in a resin containing silicon that was meant to protect the technology from traffic, including 18-wheeler cargo trucks. Meanwhile, the Normandy region – with an average of only 44 days of strong sunlight per year – was in and of itself a surprising location for this pilot project.

The road didn’t last. Even at the start, solar panels routinely came loose or broke altogether. By May 2018, more than 90 meters had to be destroyed. It was clear the road simply couldn’t withstand routine traffic, cracking under the weight of vehicles and forcing drivers to slow their driving to 70 kilometres an hour to try to reduce highway damage. Nor could it stand up to inclement weather. Sections of solar panels were ruined by thunderstorms, or film from pollution, which made the panels less able to generate power. In a report from Global Construction Review, the highest amount of energy generated from the roadway only achieved half the slated goal of around 150,000 kilowatt hours, before falling to 78,000 in 2018, until finally plummeting to 38,000 in early 2019.

The vice president of the Network for Energy Transition, Marc Jedliczka, stated “The technical and economic elements of the project were not sufficiently understood. It is a total absurdity to innovate at the expense of solutions that already exist and are much more profitable, such as photovoltaics on roofs.”

Although Normandy’s road project may have failed, solar power is still on the agenda. Smaller stretches of solar-paneled roads, like 3, 6, or 9-metre bits of road could generate enough power for a camera, bus shelter lighting, or electric bicycle charging station. And putting solar panels above car parks, floating on water surfaces, in landfill sites, or on the unused land perimeters of airports are all cost-efficient ways to implement current solar technology.

Renewable Energy Projects

France predicts a four-fold increase in their solar power capacity by 2028. Élisabeth Borne, Minister of Ecology, has said they “want to make solar energy one of the pillars of the French electricity system…with these new periods, we are giving ourselves the means of our ambition, since they will increase the installed capacity of more than 20 percent”.

Beginning this October and set to be completed in June 2020, France is prepared to launch a bidding process for rights to build solar power projects, totaling an energy capacity of two gigawatts. The government will initiate two tenders – one for bidders who want to work ground-based projects, and another for those who want to work on roofing projects. Altogether, this initiative would add another 20 percent to France’s existing solar capacity.

US-based solar panel manufacturer SunPower is in close alliance with its majority shareholder, French energy giant Total, and has won as much as one-third of France’s solar power tenders – an industry worth billions. Using SunPower, Total is diversifying its energy sources, allowing it additional development opportunity.

Total has also dived into wind power, scooping up Vents d’Oc,  who is mostly focused on onshore wind. Wind power has been part of the French renewable energy agenda since 2015, with an energy initiative that seeks 40 percent of the country’s energy mix derived from renewable energy by 2030.

In addition to wind and solar energy, France is also looking into biogas. Capstone Turbine Corporation announced in August that it has secured a 400 kW microturbine sale to power a biogas-to-energy project. The microturbine package will operate on renewable biogas from the methane generated from agricultural green waste, cow manure, and pig manure. The methane will then be used to produce electricity to be put back into the electrical grid.

French gas and power group Engie expects that half of its new renewable energy projects from 2019 to 2021 will come from power purchase agreements (PPAs) with companies or municipalities, thanks to decreased costs and more awarded government projects. Power will need to be available around the clock, and energy producers will want to store renewable power in addition to having a range of resources – if they are to handle demand and reduce energy loss – all the while remaining environmentally friendly.

The Energy and Climate draft bill plans to drastically reduce emissions by 2050. Copyright: Frederic Legrand – COMEO /

French President Emmanuel Macron is facing pushback for not living up to green promises, as attempts to tax fossil fuels dissolved into the Yellow Vest protests, and renewable energy projects are frequently beset by red tape.

Referencing the environment, Arnaud Gossement, a Paris-based lawyer who works for clean power developers said, “On the one hand, Emmanuel Macron deserves credit for almost all his speeches…On the other hand, most of his actions fall short.”

Gwenaelle Avice-Huet, head of renewables at French utility Engie SA, feels similarly. “There’s been a real effort in recent years to simplify proceedings” for renewable projects, she said. The Energy and Climate draft bill, which plans to drastically reduce carbon emissions by 2050, and the country’s energy road map in general, “are very positive items to quicken renewables in France”.

Global Trends

The EU’s use of renewable energy reached 17.5 percent in 2017, which is on track for the target goal of 20 percent by 2020. Broken down state by state, each EU member has its own goals, ranging from 10 to 49 percent. Eleven countries have surpassed their targets, but others lag behind and will need to make additional efforts to catch up.

Leading the pack are Nordic countries. Sweden, Finland, and Denmark have all exceeded their renewable energy goals. More than half the energy used in Sweden — most of which derives from hydropower and biofuels – has come from renewable resources implemented in 2012. Denmark obtains 43 percent of its electricity from wind power. Meanwhile, Germany attained 15.5 percent of its energy needs – for the most part – from wind power, as it still relies on coal for approximately 37 percent of its energy demand.

With 16.3 percent of its energy deriving from renewable resources, and a 2020 target of 23 percent, France mainly relies on wood, hydropower, and biofuels. More than 70 percent of the country’s energy is derived from nuclear power, but the government is committed to closing fourteen nuclear reactors by 2035, as well as shutting down four – still-active – coal power plants by 2022. However, these changes would only be possible if alternative sources are available to replace the way energy is currently consumed.

Despite the rise in some eurozone countries, global investment in renewable energy has experienced decline. The biggest fall-off was in China, when the country slashed its solar investment subsidies. Meanwhile, the United States’ investment in renewables has also declined.

Fossil fuels remain popular in Asia, where coal is still a chief source of energy. China is the world’s biggest producer and consumer of coal – which accounts for three-fifths of its energy – while India also still relies on many coal-fired plants.

More greenhouse gases were emitted in 2018 than any other year on record, emphasising the crucial importance of renewable energy resource development. However, there may be hope.

A study by the Institute for Transformative Sustainability Research (IASS) shows that Europe has enough solar and wind resources to meet all of its electricity demands. Development would put pressure on land use around metropolitan areas and would require mechanisms for electricity trading between regions and countries, but the results would speak for themselves.

“Our results show how difficult it is, especially in the case of densely populated cities such as Berlin, to meet electricity demand from renewable energy sources”, said the study’s lead author Tim Tröndle, “but the technology is now sufficiently advanced that even this would be feasible if metropolitan areas were to join forces with their surrounding regions. Rural regions and urban areas with extensive rural hinterlands could meet their electricity demand entirely from renewable sources: at the local level, 75 percent of municipalities can access sufficient solar and wind resources to meet their annual electricity demand”.

“Ultimately, it is a balancing act between self-sufficiency and more intensive local land use on the one hand and the acceptance of imports together with greater cooperation with other municipalities, regions and countries in Europe on the other”, said Tröndle.

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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