France gathers speed in race to deploy tidal

France’s chances of challenging the UK’s supremacy in tidal power have been boosted through recent signs of government support coupled with a strong industrial presence.

By Jason Deign on Nov 6, 2013

It is telling testimony to France’s nuclear heritage that even tidal reserve estimates get expressed in terms of European Pressurized Reactors (EPRs).

For example, says Virginie Lemière, press officer for the French industrial giant DCNS: “The worldwide tidal energy market represents a total exploitable power of at least 90GW, the equivalent of some 60 EPRs.”

For the industrial concerns working to tap this market, the key is to prove their technology works as quickly as possible.

Any place with a decent resource will do, but Scotland has long been a front-runner in the race to commercialise technology thanks to its impressive Pentland Firth tidal races and first-class European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) test base. French industrial group Alstom has made a major milestone in recent weeks at EMEC where its tidal stream device injected over 100MWh of electricity into the grid. The company said that this is a major milestone in the development of its device which follows the earlier connection of the turbine to the grid and the progressive ramp up to full nominal power of 1MW over recent months.

Recent events have also brought the quest for tidal power commercialisation much closer to home for DCNS. Says Lemière: “The most recent and significant event in the tidal market is the announcement by the French President François Hollande of the launching of the call for expressions of interest for the installation of pilot marine turbine farms off the French coasts.”

Tidal development

Other manufacturers are also moving to take advantage of the potential for tidal development in France.

Kai Schlichtermann, communications manager at Voith Hydro of Germany, says: “Voith Hydro is planning to supply and install three to six turbines at the pilot plant for tidal energy at Raz Blanchard in Lower Normandy from 2016 on.

“The site will be one of the first commercial tidal arrays in the world, with an output of 3 to 6MW. We are testing a 1MW commercial-size turbine at the EMEC under real-life conditions. Turbines this size will be installed at Raz Blanchard.”

There are a couple of reasons why France could be poised to overtake the UK as a leader in commercial tidal power.

The first is that a large portion of the industrial concerns pursuing tidal power are French and so would likely enjoy the kind of benign support their administration is famous for bestowing on its corporate subjects while developing projects on home turf.

Besides DCNS, Alstom recently announced it had teamed up with GDF Suez to respond to the French call for expressions of interest, as well as securing quayside facilities from Cherbourg port operator Ports Normands Associés.

Efficient technology

“We will provide a reliable, environmentally friendly and efficient technology which will help to deliver power at an optimal cost,” pledged Jérôme Pécresse, Alstom's renewable power president, in a press note.

Rob Stevenson, Alstom’s vice president for ocean energy business, adds: “Alstom is working with a number of tidal project developers in France and the UK, in addition to continuing the demonstration of our 1MW turbine at EMEC.

“The announcement of the French call for projects was most welcome.”

A second and perhaps more significant plus for France’s nascent tidal industry is the availability of grid connections.

In Scotland, grid connections to the Pentland Firth have long been recognised as a potential issue, and recent announcements by the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change have done little to dispel concerns.

French tidal reserves, in contrast, are much more accessible from the national power network. And the country has moved more swiftly to prepare links for tidal power.

Underwater cable

Last year, for example, Electricite de France completed an underwater cable that will connect to seabed turbines off Brittany’s coast, putting the utility’s tidal energy farm, powered by DCNS’ OpenHydro turbines, on schedule for power production in 2014.

With all that, French tidal power still faces some potential hurdles. One is that the price being offered for tidal-produced electricity in France, €173 per megawatt-hour, is about half of the rate proposed in the UK. Lemière of DCNS does not see this being a problem, however.

“In France the price being offered is lower than in the UK,” Lemière accepts, “but the tidal pilot farm projects will also be supported through subsidies. Both support mechanisms will help French industrials and utilities to reach the price announced in the call for expression of interest.”

A further wrinkle is what might happen if France attempts to exploit the important tidal potential around the Channel Islands.

“A lot of the reserves are on the Alderney side and there is no way to get that back to France or the UK, nor are there trans-national agreements able to deal with it,” observes Christopher Longmore, managing director of the Marine Renewable Energy portal.

For now, though, French tidal players have plenty to keep them busy right on their doorstep. And it is clear from the language used that they are already looking at tidal in the same fond terms usually reserved for their nuclear industry.

“The Raz Blanchard, near Cherbourg, is the French location with the greatest potential for harnessing the power of tidal currents,” Lemière says. “This potential amounts to more than 3GW… the equivalent of two EPRs.”

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