Saturday, January 07, 2012

France Powers into 2012

by Expat Focus columnist, Stephanie Dagg

As well as being eternally associated with croissants, wine, frogs’ legs and berets, say “France” and a lot of people immediately think “nuclear energy”. And rightly so. France is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity, to the tune of 3 billion euros worth each year, as well as providing 75% of its own power from that source. Apparently, because of the nuclear element, France has Europe’s lowest cost electricity, but it doesn’t always seem like that from our end! Power prices seem to rise wincingly fast these days. Sensibly France hasn’t suffered from the anti-nuclear knee-jerk reactions of other European countries in the wake of the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi disaster, and is firmly sticking with its nuclear programme.
So where does the other quarter of France’s electricity come from? Until 2005, it came pretty much equally from hydroelectricity and thermique à flamme i.e. oil, coal or gas-fired power stations, but now the latter is falling back and a significant contribution is coming from éoliennes - wind turbines. And that’s set to rise.

That wonderful-sounding word, éolienne, comes from the name of the Greco-Roman wind god, Aeolos. It has an elegant feel to it, and it has to be said that wind turbines are graceful structures. Now, I can say that because we can see one from our garden, and very soon we’ll be able to see a couple more. I’m not waxing lyrical about something I know nothing about or which is at a comfortably long distance away from me. No NIMBYism here. A parc éolien of nine wind turbines is in the course of being constructed close to Boussac. Seven are in our neighbouring commune of Bussière St Georges, which starts on the other side of the hedge that runs along our top field. The other two are in St Marien, where our youngest son goes to school.

I’ve been watching the éoliennes literally rising from the ground these last few months, and it’s been fascinating. From large holes in the ground, to stumps, and finally to the finished item soaring 150m into the sky.

They have a huge environmental impact. Huge. They totally dominate the landscape. On the whole, Boussaquins have taken it well, which is highly commendable since the last big thing to be built in the town was the castle, whic was finished in the fifteenth century! Actually, that’s not quite true. The first half of the twentieth century saw the construction of châteaux d’eau (water towers) on an enthusiastic scale in the surrounding area. We have three within fairly close range of us and in different styles. Two are bouchons de champagne (champagne corks) and one is a chanterelle (a type of mushroom). We do a lot of medium-distance cycling as a family and we use the water towers as landmarks.

Around the same time as the water towers were mushrooming, electricity lines were going up in rural France. These have a high visual impact on the countryside too. The law of 2 Août 1923 set out how the state would help fund rural electrification so the next twenty years saw wooden poles and wire appearing everywhere. There’s an interesting discussion in...

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