Ahen the first French marine wind turbine was shut down in the Atlantic two weeks ago, the whole nation should be witness. In the port of Saint-Nazaire, television reporters board a ship that takes them a few hundred meters from the shipyard. But with the third rotor blade, the demonstration had to be stopped. On this April day, the storm is too strong for the assembly at sea.
Emmanuel Macron promised on election night that his country should become a “great ecological nation”. He wants to create 50 offshore wind farms off the French coast of nearly 6,000 kilometers. By 2030, 17 are expected to be active and producing at least ten gigawatts. This is equivalent to the power of ten nuclear reactors.
Paris had rested on its laurels for too long. This makes France a model student when it comes to CO2emissions, but at the bottom of the class when it comes to expanding renewables. Both will be needed in the future. The EU regularly berates Paris. The country has the longest coastline in Europe, lots of sunshine in the south and has so far remained far below its potential.
More than three decades after the first offshore wind turbines went into operation in Vindeby, Denmark, the French celebrate their unfinished tower off Saint-Nazaire as a historic event. It sounds like a joke, but of the seven French offshore wind farms commissioned in 2011, none are yet operational. Someone says: fortunately. Resistance is great among the population, especially among fishermen.
During the election campaign, the issue turned into a political one. Right-wing populist Le Pen announced that she would stop all projects and dismantle existing parks. Wind turbines are like migrants, she once said, “everyone wants them, but not at home”. She is not alone in this position.
You don’t want to see them in the sea either. The strongest headwind is in Erquy, a small Breton fishing village in the Côtes d’Amor, 3900 inhabitants in winter, 20.000 in summer, located in one of the most beautiful bays in Brittany, the Baie de Saint-Brieuc. There, the Spanish energy group Iberdrola is building a 100 square kilometer park with 62 wind turbines, just 16 kilometers from the coast.
Albert Uderzo, the designer of the Asterix volumes, is said to have found the model for his Gallic village in Erquy and was inspired by the beauty and perhaps also the character of the people. In Erquy it still looks like a picture book. The water is emerald green, the sandstone cliffs are pink. Many prominent politicians have traveled to Erquy in recent months and Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier stopped in Erquy and described the project as a “disaster”. Marine Le Pen came in January and spoke of “crime”.
Alain Coudray is one of the leaders of the rebellion. The head of the Côtes d’Amor fishing association sits behind his desk and twists the skull rings on his fingers. “I am waging a war”, he says, “the wind turbines are destroying the fishing. We are not friendly echoes of Paris, I defend the fishermen”.
Once they set sail with their cutters and attempted to board the “Aulus” drill ship. They lit smoke candles and the photos look like a naval battle has taken place. His colleague Grégory Métayer is hoping for “Mother Nature” because two drill heads have already broken on the hard diorite on the bottom of the bay.
Marc Sevenec, fourth generation fisherman, at the bar and tabac “Le Coursive” directly on the port of Erquy, is drinking his first Ricard grappa early in the morning. “We will have the most expensive electricity in the world in Erquy,” Sevenec says and laughs. But the man in the blue baseball cap doesn’t find it very funny. The “wind factory”, as he calls the offshore park, sells crabs and small fish. The spawning areas were destroyed by the vomited mud.
Sevenec mainly fishes scallops, the bay here has the second largest stock in France. To protect the stump, he is only allowed to take out his cutters twice a week, six months a year. “Erquy is the Gallic village of Asterix and our magic potion is Ricard,” concludes Sevenec, proud to share Le Pen’s birthday. During the election campaign he was even aboard his “Attila”.
Half an hour’s drive from Erquy, Stéphane Alain Riou is sitting in a conference room in Saint-Brieuc, a photo of a beach hangs on the wall and you can see some wind turbines on the horizon of the sea, tiny as matchstick heads protruding out of the water.
He works for Ailes Marines, a subsidiary of the energy giant Iberdrola, and has no easy task: Riou, PhD in marine biology, is expected to make the project attractive to Bretons. He is proud of the park because it is “ecologically exemplary” and a “technical challenge”. Brittany produces almost no electricity. He estimates that the wind farm will supply more than 800,000 households.
However, for an exorbitant price. The state-owned electricity company EDF will buy a megawatt hour for 155 euros, three times the French average price. Ailes Marines justifies this with the “characteristics of the site, one of the most complex in the world”. In 20 years of activity, Iberdrola will bring 4.7 billion in revenue, calculates the online search portal “Mediapart”. With around 2.3 billion in construction costs, this is a sure deal of 2.4 billion on taxpayers’ shoulders. “Mediapart” calls this plunder: “They are privatizing the sea”.
Riou assures that techniques for piercing hard diorite have now been developed. Ten of the 62 foundations are already in place. Numerous biological studies have also been commissioned, including a first in the world, to find out if the scallops are disturbed by the sound of drilling, entrusted to the “Pope of the Scallops”: “The results are excellent, no mortality, no effect on reproduction”.
Henri Labbé, mayor of Erquy, has already taken the Ailes Marines to court five times. He has lost five times. He now risks a 10 thousand euro fine and six months in prison if he blocks the construction site again, he says with a rebellious smile. The socialist of retirement age was initially in favor of the project. He will bring his municipality more than one million euros in compensation each year, “the big prize,” he scoffs.
The wind turbines seemed “far away” to him. But then he did some research and documented how much marine fauna and flora, and especially seabirds, are affected. “Erquy is a laboratory. If things go well here, they will put wind farms overboard everywhere, ”says Labbé.
Environmental activists agree with him. The wind farm managers have requested exemptions for 59 species whose survival cannot be guaranteed. All have been approved, although some are on the endangered species list.
“Pure madness”, says Lamya Essemlali, head of the NGO Sea Shepard, “they sacrifice biodiversity.” Everything was decided at the drawing board, as is often the case in France. The “wind factory” is an “alibi”, says the activist, a “crime against the environment in the name of the environment”.