France, the future giant of green business

It’s a little green quiz that wakes up an overheated planet. Which company just won the mega contract for the third tranche of the future largest solar power plant in the world in Dubai? EDF Energies Nouvelles. Who inaugurated one of the most powerful hydroelectric power plants in the world, in Jirau, Brazil? French Engie. Who will build California’s giant solar photovoltaic power plant, which will soon be able to power 255,000 homes? Another Frenchman, Total. Who produced the most electric cars in Europe last year? Renault-. Surprise, surprise: everywhere on the energy transition and green companies front, the tricolor groups are laying banners in the wind. So far that France is now one of the top five exporters of green technologies.

Excellent news: For once, our manufacturers are well positioned in an emerging field. Even better news: all indications are that their position will strengthen in the coming years. First, because, unlike Donald Trump – who, to the chagrin of his industrialists, threw away renewables with the bathwater of the Paris Agreement – ​​Emmanuel Macron seems determined to play the tricolor green calling card, if one dares to write. He plans to spend as much as $15 billion on it over his five-year term, nearly a third of his $50 billion investment plan.

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Large groups and ultramodern SMEs

And then because our country is fortunate enough to benefit from an ecosystem that is perfectly calibrated to bring about the development of these advanced industries. Surrounded by powerful traditional energy groups, endowed with significant resources and eager to push themselves into renewables, is attracting a galaxy of SMEs and innovative start-ups that few countries can be proud of (and in which you might want to consider investing, by the way. ). All this little world unites, finances itself, conducts joint research and gradually places its pawns on the planet.

Total was one of the first to participate in the race by signing a €900 million check in April 2011 for the purchase of US-based SunPower, the world’s number 2 in solar photovoltaics. Five years later, the multinational confirmed its ambitions in electricity by purchasing Saft, one of the world’s leading battery specialists, for 950 million euros. Not enough to turn the oil group into a beautiful green giant? Undoubtedly, because electricity still only weighs 1 to 2% of turnover. But thanks to these investments, Total is able to win mega contracts all over the world. Subsidiary SunPower is building power plants in California (Solar Star, as we’ve seen), but also in Latin America, South Africa, Europe and even as far as the United Arab Emirates, where it has commissioned an installation of 250,000 parabolic panels.

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Engie is no exception. “The group has made a real strategic shift, analyzes Jacques Percebois, director of the Center for Research in Energy Economics and Law (Creden) at the University of Montpellier. It has started selling billions of assets, mainly in coal, and has renounced nuclear projects to refocus on distribution networks, services, smart grids, it has also pledged to switch to renewable energy sources.Sometimes everything goes very fast.

In April 2015, Isabelle Kocher, the CEO, met Thierry Lepercq, the founder of Solairedirect, a builder of photovoltaic power plants on four continents, at a conference. The two leaders discover a common vision for the future of competitive solar. Three months later, Engie bought Solairedirect for 200 million euros and Kocher fired Lepercq on the group’s executive committee as deputy general manager in charge of research, technology and innovation. Its mission: to invent competitive business models in “carbon-free, decentralized and digitized” energies. For example, he says his group could offer renewable electricity within a few months at 40 euros per megawatt hour over twenty-five years, “which no one can do with nuclear or gas in the long run”.

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Promising start-ups on all fronts

With his troops, his role is also to detect start-ups that can change the situation. For example, the group entered the capital of Symbio FCell, a fuel cell manufacturer that already runs hundreds of electric vehicles on hydrogen. The technology used was developed in collaboration with laboratories CEA, the best in the world in the field of hydrogen, says Lepercq. Engie is today considering much more ambitious investments in electricity storage and smart grids. Air Liquide, Total and EDF are also working to master hydrogen, identified as the most promising vector of the energy transition. As for Alstom, it has just achieved a world first by running a train powered by a hydrogen-powered fuel cell, which it hopes to launch in Germany from 2019.

>> To read also – Hydrogen: the fuel of tomorrow?

Start-ups are also trying to establish themselves in this sector, such as Sylfen, highly specialized in electricity storage, Atawey, Pragma and even McPhy Energy. The French are on all fronts. This applies to BlaBlaCar or Drivy on the transport side, Sigfox in the Internet of Things, Sunpartner, which offers “smart windows” with Vinci, Adionics in water desalination, ranked in Global Cleantech 100, etc. All sectors together, the renewable energy and energy efficiency, which numbered 400,000 employees in France in 2010, should number 550,000 in 2020 and up to 950,000 in 2050, according to Ademe. That is a job gain per year equal to Total’s French workforce.

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Heavy competition from the Chinese

The outlook is encouraging, but the battle is far from being won. Because the tricolor groups have to compete against the Chinese King Kong, more agile and powerful every day. So to win in solar, its champions have sparked a devastating prize war. Despite its advanced technology, Total subsidiary SunPower had to cut thousands of jobs at its photovoltaic cell plants in the Philippines.

Fortunately, “value creation has been transferred to the technical side, i.e. the design and operation of power plants, with the module panels becoming a quasi-commodity,” explains Richard Loyen, deputy general of Enerplan, the solar union. profs. And the French are masters at putting together these gigantic puzzles that are increasingly efficient solar production units. Fortunately indeed, because six of the world’s top ten photovoltaic cell manufacturers are now Chinese. In wind energy they are four out of ten. And that hyper-competition will become even stronger, according to Thierry Lepercq: “Beijing is pulling out all the stops to support its industrial champions, and wants to push itself into new strategic areas such as that of smart electricity grids,” he assures.

As a result, some here dream of creating some sort of solar-powered Airbus to invent highly efficient panels and settle their scores with the Chinese. “In France and Germany, we have high-quality R&D centers, equipment manufacturers and manufacturers. These forces should be united in a European consortium,” recommends Jean-Louis Bal, President of the Renewable Energies Syndicate. Others believe that the masses are said to be wrong and that it would be better to try and create a battery super champion. And in particular in the reconditioning of hundreds of thousands of used batteries of electric cars, which tomorrow could be used to store renewable energy at home. The market promises to be huge. Renault is, as we said, the European champion of electric vehicles, PSA wants to catch up, the Germans are hard at work. The current should flow between all these actors.

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Our green SMEs and start-ups can be good investments

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