EDF Energies Nouvelles (EDF EN), half-owned by the state utility EDF, has teamed up with American solar panel manufacturer First Solar to invest over €90 million to build a plant with an initial annual capacity of more than 100 Megawatt Peak (MWp).
EDF EN will finance half of the capital expenses and start-up costs, for which it will get the entire output for the first ten years. The plant is projected to employ more than 300 people when running at full capacity in the latter part of 2011.
The construction and operation of the plant represents the first venture into the French market by First Solar, which has operations in Germany, the US and Malaysia. It cited the French government's long-term commitments to a favourable policy and regulatory frameworks to promote solar markets as a key factor in its decision to invest in the country.
Indeed, the investment plan comes as the Grenelle Environnement, President Nicolas Sarkozy's initiative, identified in the past few years the promotion of renewables, including solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and hydraulic, as policy priorities for sustainable development.
"This investment represents a veritable turning point for the photovoltaic industry and confirms that France is more than ever in a position to play a leading role globally," said French Sustainable Development Minister Jean-Louis Borloo.
Playing catch-up with Germany
France has prioritised nuclear heavily in its energy strategy and is now looking to complement this with renewables. As it has lost the battle over wind to Germany, Denmark and Spain, it is seeking to catch up with with its neighbours on solar power.
At the end of last year, France pledged to multiply its solar power use by 400 in the coming 12 years. This is part of a larger plan to double the share of energy from renewables to 23% by 2020 to meet its EU obligations.
Sarkozy has been eyeing a "Mediterranean Solar Plan" as part of the Union for the Mediterranean launched last summer (EurActiv 14/07/08). The idea is to boost the use of photovoltaic electricity in Mediterranean countries with Tunisia-Italy and Turkey-Greece interconnections.
But the most ambitious cooperation on solar electricity between North Africa and Europe was nevertheless launched by a consortium of mainly German firms last week (EurActiv 22/07/09). Backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Desertec project intends to bring solar thermal power produced in the Sahara desert to Europe via a high-voltage cable.
The French photovolatic market remains modest compared to that of Germany, which is the largest in the world. It is, however, a growing market, and is expected to rival Germany, Spain and Italy with the new incentives in place.