Celebrating France’s solar energy leadership

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

France's approach to building its renewable energy portfolio is an example for the rest of Europe and the world to follow. [First Solar]

As the world gathers in Bonn for the COP23 climate conference, it is imperative to acknowledge and celebrate success in order to maintain the momentum required for us to collectively reach our climate goals, writes Stefan Degener.

Stefan Degener is managing director of First Solar.

In France, the home of the groundbreaking Paris Agreement and over seven gigawatts of solar, success stories are not hard to find.

The country’s commitment to decarbonisation is evident from its policies, which set goals to cut carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030, and by 75 percent by midcentury. To achieve these targets the country needs to cut up to 10 megatons of carbon dioxide per year, while cutting energy emissions by 96 percent by 2050.

While the goals are ambitious, the country is well equipped to make the progress it needs. For instance, it has evolved an approach to building its renewable energy portfolio that stands out as an example for the rest of Europe, and the world, to emulate.

It has also turned the country into an economically sustainable solar energy market, a label that sets it apart from many other countries.

Since 2011, France has evolved a procurement system, via the Commission de régulation de l’énergie (CRE), that stands apart from every other tender-based model in the world with its emphasis on environmental sustainability, without compromising on cost-competitiveness.

By placing an evaluation premium on projects that use photovoltaic modules with low carbon footprints, this unique system ensures that the country derives maximum value –not just financially, but environmentally – from its solar energy investments.

Consequently, developers who want to win a Power Purchase Agreement in France need to compete on more than just price – they needed to compete on the carbon footprint of their projects.

While many countries encourage a race to the bottom on costs, France has shown that it can procure competitively priced solar without compromising its efforts to decarbonize its energy mix, simply by incentivizing lower carbon solar.

With other countries committed to the Paris Agreement focused on replacing carbon-intensive power generation with renewables, one could argue that France is a step ahead with its emphasis on investing in lower carbon solar.

The other area that France must acknowledge and celebrate is the success of French companies abroad. From Australia to the United States and almost every viable solar market in between, French companies form the cornerstone of a significant European contingent that is advising on, engineering, developing, constructing, and operating solar power assets.

Companies such as Neoen, EREN, and EDF Energies Nouvelles – which made headlines a few weeks ago when it partnered with Masdar Clean Energy to submit a record-breaking bid for a utility-scale solar power plant in Saudi Arabia – have led the charge in the expansion of the European solar industry overseas.

As an enabler of these companies, First Solar is fortunate to have firsthand experience with their capabilities:  we worked with Neoen to successfully bid for a utility-scale project in Zambia.

More recently, EDF Renewable Energy acquired two projects, a total of 179-megawatts, from us in the United States, and we are also supplying the modules for a number of their plants, in the United States and India.

Moreover, First Solar modules will power one of the largest PV hybrid facilities in the world, developed by EREN at a gold mine in Burkina Faso.

The track-record of French service-led companies in international markets underscores an important fact: the export of knowledge and skills, the so-called downstream sector of the solar industry, is big business for Europe.

This service leadership must also be acknowledged and embraced by the government and taken into account in any plans to revitalise the sector.

However, these are laurels that cannot be rested on and there is still work to be done. From streamlining the permitting and licensing process for utility-scale power plants to enabling the growth of corporate renewables, France must continue to stride forward and serve as an example for the rest of Europe, and hopefully the world.

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