France’s ambitious offshore strategy faces obstacles

"As long as we don't have evidence of a successful French wind farm, it will be difficult to remove the doubts of local actors. [...] Not to mention the fact that we are in marine environments that are already shaken by crises, such as Brexit," said Anne Georgelin, head of the French renewable energies union. [Ian Dyball_Shutterstock]

As the European Commission prepares to publish its offshore renewable energy strategy, France’s wind farm projects – already delayed compared to its European neighbours – face opposition from fishermen already operating in difficult maritime environments because of Brexit. EURACTIV France reports.

Since the European Commission announced the European Green Deal, it has been working on strategies to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Its strategy on offshore renewable energy is due to be unveiled on Wednesday (18 November).

The Commission stressed the need to strengthen the bloc’s offshore activities last March. With its wish to take the lead in its multi-year energy plan published last April, the French government has already started to build several wind farms and launched new calls for tenders from 2024.

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Lagging behind

From Dunkirk to Noirmoutier, the French coastline should welcome seven new offshore projects between 2022 and 2027 with a capacity of 3.5 gigawatts. The building of these wind farms was authorised after the French state made calls for tenders in 2011, 2013 and 2016.

The French industrial branch of offshore wind energy is one of the most competitive.

Of the twelve European factories that produce offshore wind turbines, four are in France, Anne Georgelin, head of the French renewable energies union, points out. “It is a strength and an opportunity that we must use to launch offshore wind farms on French territory. Because we are very late compared to our European neighbours,” she added.

Indeed, despite these calls for tenders, France does not currently have any active wind farms, while the UK has nearly 2,225 wind turbines in operation, accounting for 45% of European installations on its soil, followed by Germany (34%) and Denmark (8%).

Mass condemnations

However, the large-scale size of such offshore wind projects requires long consultations. If after several years, the construction of French wind parks has barely begun, “it is because there were many tensions and differences with certain actors”, says Georgelin, noting that the sector’s relative novelty is also a reason for such tensions.

“As long as we don’t have evidence of a successful French wind farm, it will be difficult to remove the doubts of local actors. Moreover, these are projects that take time. In ten years, the elected representatives, the fishermen have changed… Not to mention the fact that we are in marine environments that are already shaken by crises, such as Brexit,” added Georgelin.

For several months now, the UK and the EU have been at loggerheads over the issue of fisheries. But the risk of a ‘no deal’ Brexit scenario, which would exclude French fishermen from British waters, and the fragility of fish stocks, are not the only arguments that explain the reluctance of these fishermen to support wind farms.

In the department of Côtes d’Armor, opposition to the wind farm project in the Bay of Saint-Brieuc began well before Brexit, as Katherine Pujol, president of the association Gardez les caps, explained: “We set up this association as early as 2011 when the first calls for tenders were launched. Four days before the election of François Hollande, at the very end of Nicolas Sarkozy’s five-year term, authorisation was given to operate the Saint-Brieuc Bay wind farm.”

According to Pujol, this was a “botched” authorisation as no public debate or impact study had taken place at the time. While a debate was finally organised in 2013, impact studies were only carried out from 2015 onwards.

Pre-assembly of the foundations for the wind turbines in the bay of Saint-Brieuc has begun in the Navantia-Windar workshop in the port of Brest.

Fishermen bring case to EU Court

It is hard to reassure fishermen in such a troubled environment, especially as the wind project is expected to be set up close to Natura 2000 classified areas, which are crucial for fish stocks.

Concerned about the environmental consequences that the wind project could have on various fish species, crustaceans or the famous scallops in the Bay of Saint-Brieuc, fishing associations have brought an action before the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

Support is also coming from outside of France, as North Sea fisherman and former president of the Dutch fishermen’s association EMK, Job Schot, has lent his support to his French colleagues.

“The North Sea lends itself particularly well to offshore wind turbines, where they are scattered. It is a relatively shallow sea, which makes it easier to build infrastructure. The situation is different in France, where the seabed is sometimes steep off the coast,” explained Schot.

Setting up wind turbines that go beyond 50 metres deep becomes very complicated, as it forces developers to build installations close to the coast. According to the renewable energy union, French wind farms are on average 11 to 18 km from the coast. A key zone for small-scale fishermen, notes the Dutch fisherman, who is not surprised by the French protests.

In October, a study commissioned by the European Parliament’s fisheries committee indicated that if offshore wind farms are “a key axis of the global transition to a carbon-free electricity generation sector”, conflicts with fishermen were likely to increase “in the North Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Mediterranean” and even “increase considerably in the Atlantic and Celtic Sea regions” after 2025.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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