“We have butterflies, bees, and bats. The wetlands are being preserved, and in the autumn and winter, streams cut across the land.” When Marc Chiron gazes around at the woods, fields and meadows and talks about the local biodiversity around the photovoltaic plant northwest of Nancy, the project leader of France’s largest solar park doesn’t shy away from poetic comparisons.

“Like the waves of the sea” is how the engineer enthusiastically describes the blue shimmer of modules lapping over the bucolic hills of the Department of Meurthe-et-Moselle. Here, next to the municipality of Rozièrs-en-Haye, on the grounds of former NATO airbase 136, seemingly endless lines of solar panels stream out – 1.5 million of them to be precise. France’s utility giant, Electricité de France (EDF), praises the facility run by its “EDF EN” subsidiary, responsible for new energies, as an example of “environmental excellence in the heart of Lorraine”.

Bumper profits

The profits expected are, admittedly, also excellent: what the enterprise (85 per cent state-owned), has spread over 367 acres, demonstrates its commitment to a “future technology”, and is overwhelmingly the fruit of generous public largesse.

A practical side-effect: the world’s second largest electricity producer, a traditional champion of nuclear power, which operates 58 nuclear power plants in France, is, with its photovoltaic system of 115 megawatts, daubing itself with a green veneer.

Especially since France, when it comes to renewable energy, is lagging behind the pack. Water, wind and sun at the moment provide around 13 per cent of the net electricity in France. “The ups and downs with the feed-in tariff, lengthy approval procedures and on-again, off-again political backing have so far draped a wet blanket over France’s locational advantages”, writes political scientist Stefan Aykut in an article in Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik (German Society for Foreign Policy). Nuclear power giants EDF and Areva continue to dominate the market.

A ‘bank-teller’s open window’

To catch up at last with the top green electricity producers, France launched an ambitious development programme in 2007. This continues today. President François Hollande’s goal of cutting the share of energy provided by nuclear power to 50 per cent by 2025 ensures that energy producers take an interest in developing green electricity – with government subsidies, of course.

Is the mania for pushing and promoting restricted to the Federal Republic? Not at all. Paris is pushing the expansion of solar energy hard with extremely lucrative feed-in tariffs – for the benefit of the industry, and at the expense of the taxpayer. Three years ago the country’s highest financial authority, the General Finance Inspectorate (IGF), railed against the inflated purchase prices: in the photovoltaic sector alone, government subsidies for electricity rose from €1.1m in 2007 to €795m in 2011. The Auditor General’s Office condemned the system of compulsory purchases of solar power. The companies had helped themselves to the subsidies, it declared, as if they were reaching into a “bank-teller’s open window”.

In January 2011, the government slammed on the brakes, imposed a three-month freeze on construction, and fixed new tariffs. The consequence? As happened in Germany, the solar power shake-up has seen the market for solar systems collapse with dozens of medium-sized companies being pushed out of the market, and Bosch closing its solar collector factory in Lyon.

A deal exploited by everyone involved

In Toul, solar park operators anticipated the new regulations. Just before the feed-in tariffs were capped, in 2011 “EDF EN” locked down a purchase price of 31.4 cents per kilowatt hour – about twice the top rates now customary – for the next 22 years. On top of that, the region even offered a bonus of 18 per cent, as the solar park was sited in Lorraine, an area of France that is not exactly blessed with sunshine. “An essential ace-in-the-hole to secure profitability”, commented daily newspaper Le Figaro.

The crisis-struck region is celebrating the project as a godsend. Local industry will benefit from the work to build a plant for photovoltaic modules, originally planned by “EDF EN” jointly with US supplier First Solar, and there will be a welcome rate of maintenance contracts. The solar panels, as the “Made in Malaysia” note on the import panels suggests come primarily from Asia. Head of maintenance Sebastian Martini, who together with 20 colleagues is responsible for monitoring the modules and substations, is happy to have landed a secure job: “I have a job from now until I retire.”