Renewable Energies: French Solutions Blooming On The International Market To Boost Transition
As the world faces an accelerated energy crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine, French startups were already busy developing disruptive technologies to expand access to stabilized power from renewable sources.
If China is identified as the front runner in the race for renewable energy solutions, European companies are increasingly well positioned to be leaders in a sector that by now is considered the only future possible. And within Europe, France has shown a knack for developing disruptive renewable technologies, deployed on both on national and international levels.
Launched in 2017 in the wake of the One Planet Summit, the interactive platform savoirfairefrancais-enr.fr maps the French renewables projects developed outside of the country, currently around 200. The census is collected on a voluntary basis and is far from being exhaustive; yet it is a good indication of the strong position of French companies on the international stage.
“We noticed that French expertise and know-how were something sought after, and that many companies, some very young, were playing their card right, winning call for tenders and outdoing other significant players from the Middle East, the U.S. and even Asia,” says Cyril Carabot Secretary General and International Liaison Officer for the French Renewable Energy Trade Association (Syndicat des Énergies Renouvelables – SER), creator of the website in collaboration with the ADEME, the French Agency for Ecological Transition. France has long been a reference in hydroelectric power production but solar, offshore wind and hydrogen are a new playground for startups and more established businesses.
From Brazil to Burkina Faso, relying on local teams to develop the best projects
The independent renewable energy producer Qair is set to achieve 1 GW of installed capacity by the end of 2022. Jean-Marc Bouchet, who founded the company in 2017, had its eyes set on the international market from the beginning. It is now active in 21 countries in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia, and has expanded its activity across multiple renewable sources: onshore and offshore wind — both fixed and floating — solar, hydroelectric, tidal power and green hydrogen.
Alexandre Lambolez, Chief Financial Officer, details the group’s expansion strategy: “Our approach is based on technologic and geographic diversity and what makes it particularly efficient is that we have a ‘multi-local’ vision of the development of renewable energy production ecosystems.”
Based in Paris, Qair relies on local teams, from management to operational, when they create subsidiaries. “The math is simple: locals have a better understanding of their territory and its regulations, better access to market opportunities, and a better network. It is quality over quantity, with the ultimate goal of producing the most relevant energy in the most relevant place to deliver electrons where and when they are needed.”
Qair’s Brazilian subsidiary was developed following this strategy, seeing Qair partnering with long established local management. There, the group will also demonstrate its multi-technology vision through the development of a 1.2 GW offshore wind park that would partially power the 2.2 MW electrolyser of a green hydrogen plant within the Pecem Industrial and Port Complex. The H2 could then be shipped to other markets, such as Europe, where Qair also sees promising opportunities. It recently opened a new subsidiary in Scotland following the awarding of 2 GW of offshore wind capacity.
Lambolez says Europe’s new policies in favor of renewables and boosts in investments “had placed the continent as the second pillar of our geographical strategy, with Latin America.” .
From power to storage, developing access to energy for all
Another French gem operating on a global scale is Entech smart energies, which was selected last year to be part of the French Tech Green20 program regrouping 20 technological French champions of the ecological transition with a solid potential for European or international growth. Created in 2016, the Brittany-based company develops, builds and operates renewable energy production plants — mostly photovoltaic — and storage systems (batteries or hydrogen) that are either connected to the grid or working “off-grid.”
Entech primarily focused on batteries, “which is now the biggest energy storage market after hydroelectricity,” says Christopher Franquet, CEO and co-founder. Storage is indeed a key technology to provide grid stability and fill the intermittency of solar and wind power. To differentiate itself from its competitors, the company added the “smart management” layer to its activity and worked for four years on its software. “It allows us to provide turnkey EPC projects — for Engineering, procurement and construction. It means local partners deal with the building and wiring of the photovoltaic plant and we only have to send an engineer to set up the system. Then we manage from a distance, here in France.”
In less than five years, Entech carried out more than 230 projects around the globe. One of the latest, in partnership with the United Nations, was the biggest hybrid power plant in Haiti, where access to electricity is a real issue for the population regularly plagued by natural disasters. The 500 kW plant integrating storage, photovoltaic and generator now supplies 1,600 homes, without interruption. “By operating ourselves the maintenance and exploitation of our systems, we have a direct view of the efficiency and availability factor of our plants, which are often very good,” Franquet continues. “But the best reward is to know that we have improved the living conditions of populations.”
The next steps: solving acceptability and intermittency of renewable plants
The Secretary General of the French Renewable Energy Trade Association, Qair CFO and Entech CEO all agree on the timeline drawn by the emergency of the energy transition. “The shift is going to intensify over the next decade,” predicts Christopher Franquet.
According to Alexandre Lambolez, offshore wind power and green hydrogen could become the top solutions because they help solve two of the main problems still linked to renewables: acceptability — sea facilities allow for large offshore wind farms to be installed with minimum disturbance onshore — and intermittency. As for Cyril Carabot (SER), “the stake now is having the winning couple renewables-storage becoming so competitive it erases all the remaining arguments in favor of fossil resources.”
The recent energy crisis brought on by the war in Ukraine is also seen as an opportunity to accelerate green innovation and investment in renewables. The global renewable energy market size was valued at US$ 952.16 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach US$ 1,998.03 billion by 2030. There is definitely space for French players, provided backers and investment follow along even further.
“There is a true will to better understand French renewables companies and their needs so we can provide them with the right tools, whether they already exist or not,” Carabot says. On a larger scale, those energy transition leaders also expect European regulations to be on their side. “The EU is full of assets, of project developers and of energy production and management companies,” Lambolez concludes. “It is crucial for the European framework to enable them to grow to reach carbon neutrality and facilitate the export of their solutions.”