What Future for the French Industry in Renewable Energy?

Last month, the French producer of photovoltaic panels Photowatt was at the centre of media’s attention. Mishandled by the global decrease of photovoltaic panels’ costs, the bankruptcy proceedings of the company came along with the presidential campaign and its debates concerning the revival of the French industry. Beyond the case study of Photowatt though, is there a real potential in France for the development of an industry in renewable energies?

It is often pointed out that the industrial inertia caused by the French nuclear system is one of the major causes for the backwardness in the field of renewables compared to its beloved neighbour Germany, which can proudly count on world-known companies in building wind power plants and solar panels. The Nuclear problem is real, but it should be completed with a more accurate analysis: being quite new, most of renewable technologies are still in on the path of industrial development. These technologies can thus be classified according to emerging, developing and mature markets.

The mature market for renewables covers the technologies which can already be produced at competitive costs responding to growing demand. It encompasses hydropower and solid biomass, but also onshore wind power, first generations of biofuels and solar panels. Having been quite late in developing public policies to support these technologies, France will be barely able to fill the gap that has been dug by German, American and Chinese industries, except for first generation biofuels.

The developing market includes technologies that development is taking off, such as second generation biofuels and solar panel, geothermal, electricity produced out of biomass and offshore wind power.  The French position is in that respect quite heterogeneous: being one of the world leader in 2nd generation biofuels, the gap between France and other countries have already widen up in the field of 2nd generation solar panels and biomass-electricity, despite a huge natural potential in the latter field for being one of the most effective crops producer in the world.  Although Germany and Denmark can rely on their expertise in onshore wind power, the specificity of offshore power generation has left the door open for new actors in the wind energy market, mainly the United Kingdom and France which has launched five calls for tender earlier this year in order to develop offshore wind power plants along the French shores.

Investing in emerging market for renewables could be the way for France to release its potential. These emerging technologies have in common to be new and costly, but they could become competitive with the sharp rise of global energy costs.  Having already developed solid knowledge in first and second biofuels generations, France could be the most credible competitor to the United States in developing “third generation” algae biofuels. This field could be merged with the emerging marine energies, using the force of tides, waves, ocean thermal energy and osmotic power (energetic properties of salt). Because they have a strong potential for development, France could benefit from its natural and industrial advantage to find in these technologies the path to world leading positions in renewable energies.


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