For more than 60 years, anyone standing on France’s D-day landing beaches has been able to stare out to sea and imagine the bloody launch of the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe.
So when the French government recently confirmed plans to install an array of towering wind turbines in the sea off the Normandy coast, some war veterans were appalled.
“We’ve had calls from Canada, England, the US, saying ‘France cannot do this’,” said Jean-Louis Butré, Paris-based chairman of the European Platform Against Windfarms. “They are upset.”
For Mr Butré, who cheerfully calls himself “the nightmare of the wind turbine industry”, the French project offers fresh ammunition in a battle over wind power that is now facing a new phase of intensity.
Opposition to wind farms is not new in Europe, long the world wind leader with 43 per cent of global generating capacity.
Arguments about the turbines’ threat to passing birds, bats, planes and fish – not to mention human eardrums and scenic views – are well known.
But they are likely to intensify as the European Union strives to meet ambitious renewable energy targets, and countries such as Germany move to phase out nuclear power and double renewable sources of energy.
The 84 gigawatts of installed wind-generating capacity in the EU comes from 70,488 onshore wind turbines, mostly in Germany and Spain, and another 1,132 offshore turbines, according to a European Wind Energy Association report published on Monday.
By 2020, that 84 gW would nearly triple to 230 gW under one scenario in the report.
That does not mean the number of turbines would triple: newer, more advanced models can pump out more power than many existing machines.
But it does suggest thousands more turbines will be built every year. And though it might be less contentious if they were built at sea (away from D-day beaches), financial realities mean most will be on land.
As EWEA chief executive, Christian Kjaer, explains, the costs of building offshore farms and connecting them to the electricity grid makes them 70 to 80 per cent per kilowatt hour more expensive than onshore ones.
Those costs should come down but until they do, onshore developers will continue to grapple with opposition groups and what analyst Eduardo Tabbush of Bloomberg New Energy Finance says is a “notoriously cumbersome” planning process in some countries, especially the UK and France.
“A lot of developers have pretty much given up on onshore wind and decided to focus on offshore in the UK,” he says.
Planning delays in the UK are now “intolerable”, according to RWE Innogy, the renewable energy division of Germany’s RWE utility group, which is still trying to build a relatively small 10-turbine wind farm in Essex after a five-year battle that has gone to the High Court.
Smaller UK developers, such as REG Windpower, have been to court trying to put up just one turbine.
“There does seem to be a hardcore element prepared to go further than people were prepared to go five years ago,” said Fraser McLachlan, chief executive of the GCube renewable energy underwriter.
The number of applications for onshore wind farms in England and Wales last year was the lowest in at least five years, according to figures obtained under freedom of information laws by the Scottish commercial law firm McGrigors.
And the number of onshore projects being refused planning permission has jumped from 29 per cent in 2005 to 48 per cent in 2010.
France has also seen a recent drop-off in permits, says Nicolas Wolff, president of the French Wind Energy Association.
“It’s a real concern,” he said. “About five years ago the anti-wind groups said they wouldn’t accept wind farms onshore. Now the same groups say they’re also against offshore wind farms.”
It’s a problem because they are extremely influential; they do slow down the process.”
Mr Wolff says it already takes about four years to get a wind farm installed in France from the early development stages, double the time required in other European countries.
About 1,000 megawatts of wind power capacity has been installed each year in France for the past three years, he said, but he worries about whether that rate can continue.
And if it cannot, the chances of Europe meeting its renewable energy targets grow more difficult.
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