The subject of wind turbines in rural France has suddenly become one of the hottest issues ahead of Sunday’s first round of regional elections.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National, has called for a moratorium on their construction, while RN regional election candidates are busy decrying the “destruction’ of France’s natural heritage” – and going so far as to demand that some turbines be dismantled.
They’re not the only ones from the right of the French political spectrum arguing a similar theme.
Xavier Bertrand has made it one of his main arguments as he seeks re-election to the presidency of the Hauts-de-France regional council. Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, of Debout la France, and a number of Republicains – including Occitanie regional election hopeful Aurélien Pradié – have all rallied to the same anti-wind turbine cause.
And TV historian Stéphane Bern recently waded in, launching a tirade against “the anarchic multiplication of wind turbines, … [this] religion of progress, which through dogmatism and ideology is disfiguring our landscapes, destroying natural sites and polluting our environment”.
Why the new dislike of wind farms?
It’s not new. It’s the same pan-political, class-crossing issue it has always been.
“From bourgeois people to far-left militants, anarchists, fishermen and rich landowners, opposition against wind power has become much more eclectic,” wrote Le Figaro three years ago.
“What do these opponents have against wind power? There’s the fact that it is ugly, its proximity to people’s houses and historical monuments, the noise, the ‘blinding’ lights and the risk of corruption and conflict of interest on the part of politicians involved.”
And we reported back in 2013 on fears that the French landscape ‘will be ruined by wind farms’.
Traditionally, opposition to wind power in France has come mainly from local activists and residents – who argue wind turbines would ruin the landscape, decrease the value of their homes or damage their health – as well as pro-nuclear groups, who don’t want the competition.
It is also argued that they are inefficient, don’t operate all the time and kill animals.
So why are wind turbines in the news now?
It’s come to national attention again because it’s regional election time, and some politicians are backing it to be a vote-winner in a ballot that does not usually attract a lot of voter interest.
Is it a vote winner?
Certain politicians clearly think so. But opinion polls – the most recent published in January this year – suggest more than three-quarters (76 percent) of French people are in favour of wind power, a figure that has barely changed since 2018, despite an increase in the number of wind turbines. Support rises to 91 percent among 18-34 year olds.
Equally, those who said they had a ‘very unfavorable’ opinion had not changed, and was holding at six percent.
Bet none of those surveyed live near a wind farm
Not so fast. The same poll – actually a twin poll of those who live near to and those who live further away from an existing wind farm – showed support was just as strong (still 76 percent) among residents of towns within 5km of the turbines.
It also found that 68 percent of those asked would be happy to see a new wind farm built near their homes.
That said, the same poll, even though it was generally favourable, found just over two in five people (41 percent) believed that the impact of windfalls on the French landscape to be ‘minimal’.
And that 76 percent figure is a little down on a 2018 survey, which found that 80 percent of people living close to a wind farm had a favourable opinion of turbines.
This decline in support, if it continues, could become an increasing issue as the number of wind turbines in France rises over the next few years.
What’s the view on other forms of renewable energy?
Back to the poll – 79 percent of those surveyed said that wind power should play an important role in France’s energy mix. This is less than solar (92 percent), hydroelectricity (87 percent), and geothermal power (84 percent) – but more than biomass (73 percent) and nuclear (58 percent).
Okay, then, how important is wind power generation in France?
It’s not the biggest. Today, wind power generates less than nine percent of France’s electricity. The government has pledged to double wind energy capacity by 2028 in order to meet commitments on greenhouse gas reduction. An increase in land and offshore turbines will be necessary to meet that promise.
In comparison, wind power supplies 27 percent of Germany’s electricity, 22 percent of Spain’s, 48 percent of Denmark’s, 20.1 percent of Greece’s, and 38 percent in Ireland. The European Union average is 15 percent.
The bulk of France’s electricity (71.3 percent) comes from nuclear plants. Hydro-electric power accounts for 15 percent of France’s electricity output.
After the Fukushima disaster in March 2011, the then-government pledged to cut France’s dependence on nuclear power to 50 percent by 2025. That deadline keeps being pushed back.
Where are these turbines?
French wind farms generate some 18,000 megawatts of power annually.
The regional breakdown of wind turbine figures is as follows, with three regions making up 65 percent of the total number of turbines:
Centre-Val de Loire: 335
Pays de la Loire: 215
What does the government say?
“The consensus on wind power is clearly weakening,” President Emmanuel Macron said in January 2020, during a round table on the theme of ecology in our territories in Pau. “More and more people […] think that the landscape is degraded.”
But the government is still pushing ahead with plans to increase the number of turbines and increase electricity generation mix. The target is 38,000 megawatts of installed capacity by 2028. To hit that target, France would need to install 600 new turbines a year. In 2020, 417 new turbines were installed.
Why is installation so slow?
Planning permission is slow and subject to legal challenges from opponents that drag out the process.
Plans for some 26 further sites are being held up by protests that have gone on for at least three months – while the France Energie Eolienne association, which promotes wind power in France, said that 47 percent of the country – mostly military land, or areas covered by military radar – is currently out of bounds to wind power.
“There is a lot of work going on right now with the government to relax these standards and allow for a more harmonised deployment of wind turbines across the territory,” an FEE spokesperson said.
Environment Minister Barbara Pompili has been handed the double-edged task of mapping out the most suitable areas for new wind farms – with an eye on a more equitable distribution of turbines across the country.
Her report is not expected until at least six months after the June elections – by which time it is likely to have cooled down as a hot topic.