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France Powers into 2012

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, which 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 the 1934 Annales de géographie of the unwiseness of lignes électrique à l’haute tension (high tension electric wires) in Limousin, which is subject to violent thunderstorms. Those discussions continue several times a year in our house every time a thunderstorm causes a power cut.

The nine very conspicuous éoliennes have been a huge investment of nearly 20 million euros. Between them they will supply anything between 17,000 and 23,000 households, according to reports I’ve seen. (I worry slightly about the 6,000 houses that may or may not get electricity from them. Presumably they’ll get it from somewhere else!) They also have a financial impact. This is France, remember, so there’s bound to be taxes involved somewhere.

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The promotor, NGE Energie, will have to pay a contribution économique territoriale of €7 per kilowatt of energy produced by the turbines which comes to around €113,400, of which the département will get 30% and the local communities 70%. NGE is also having to pay €200,000 to compensate for environmental effects e.g. disturbance to local residents, including wildlife. The main concerns are about noise and it’s very noticeable how many houses close to the éoliennes are now à vendre (for sale). And this is despite the fact that there was general public support for the wind turbine project when it was first announced.

But they’re here now, so we’re all going to have to learn to live with them. Our little corner of France certainly has a very new look going into 2012.

I’m Stephanie Dagg, author, editor, fishery owner, alpaca and llama farmer – oh yes, and mum and wife too. We live in the rural heart of France in Creuse, an area famous for its hazlenut cake and extremely elderly population. We’re truly Europeans having lived in England and Ireland before coming here. I blog about our daily life as expats with all its pleasures and perplexities, and fun and frustrations at www.bloginfrance.com. You’ll find my many and mostly free ebooks here on my Smashwords page www.smashwords.com/profile/view/SJDagg.

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