SAINT-NAZAIRE/PARIS, France France unveiled on Tuesday a 10 billion euro ($13.6 billion) plan to build its first offshore wind project in a bid to catch up with European neighbors in the development of renewable energy.
France, which produces 74 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants, will build 600 offshore wind turbines with a total capacity of 3,000 megawatts, said President Nicolas Sarkozy, adding they would be built in the western regions of Loire-Atlantique, Brittany and Normandy.
"We are launching this first tender covering five development areas for offshore wind power in order to give the industry's players greater visibility," Sarkozy said.
A delay in the French tender -- initially expected in September -- had led to anxiety among industrial companies, which said they needed the government's commitment in order to build the facilities to manufacture wind power turbines.
Manufacturers of offshore wind turbines include Germany's Siemens and Denmark's Vestas, but there are none in France, where capacity so far is nonexistent.
"We have all the assets to build an industrial sector and even to become the leader in offshore wind power," France's Ecology Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet told Reuters.
"We have everything we need to develop the industrial sector first of all at home before starting to export," she said, adding that France also had favorable port infrastructure.
PricewaterhouseCoopers said in a report last month the country had the means to catch up with the technology.
The project -- one of the world's largest with a power production capacity equivalent to that of three small nuclear reactors -- will create 10,000 jobs, said Sarkozy, adding candidates would be picked at the start of 2012.
France will launch the tender the second quarter of 2011.
French renewable energy lobby SER said it was crucial for the government to favor reliable companies rather than those with the cheapest projects.
"We already have sitting on our shelves 3,000 MW in offshore wind projects in France, which has the potential for a total offshore wind power capacity of around 10,000 MW," Andre Antolini, head of SER, told Reuters.
BRITAIN FAR AHEAD
France aims to build wind power capacity of 25,000 MW by 2020 for an investment of 20 billion euros to meet its goal of generating enough green energy to cover 23 percent of demand.
Wind power currently represents less than 2 percent of France's output capacity, compared with 7 percent in Germany.
Britain, which has nearly 1,700 offshore wind turbines under construction, approved or in the application stage, targets 32,000 MW of offshore wind by 2020 -- enough to meet a quarter of the country's power needs.
Other offshore programs are being developed in Belgian, Danish, Dutch, German, Irish and Swedish waters.
Vestas, Germany's Repower and France's Alstom could figure among the bidders.
French utilities EDF, its wind arm EDF Energies Nouvelles, or rival GDF Suez could submit proposals to operate the wind farms.
One megawatt produced by offshore wind power costs 3.5 million euros, against 1.6 million for one megawatt generated by onshore capacity, the PricewaterhouseCoopers report said.
(Additional reporting by Mathilde Cru and Marie Maitre, editing by Jane Baird and James Jukwey)