French utility Engie and developer Neoen are planning to invest about €1 billion ($1.2 billion) to build a 1-gigawatt solar-powered, low-carbon energy park in France, comfortably breaking records for Europe's largest solar project and incorporating green hydrogen production to supply transportation and energy needs. 

The Horizeo project in western France’s Nouvelle-Aquitaine region will also include the development of a data center that will use power generated by the project. Engie said that remaining power not used by the green hydrogen electrolyzer or data center would be contracted out via power-purchase agreements, with no plans to take advantage of France’s renewable tendering programs.

“This is a real break with the current economic model of renewable energies in France,” Gwenaëlle Avice-Huet, deputy CEO of Engie in charge of renewables, said in a statement. “We are also committed to carrying out an exemplary project in terms of the environmental and societal approach. The upcoming public debate will allow enrich and feed all the components of the project."

Part of the solar array will also be used for agriculture. The region is heavily forested, and any land cleared for the 1,000-hectare project will need to be offset, with interest, by tree-planting efforts elsewhere. 

The plans are to be debated with the local community of Saucats. The municipality is named as a project partner along with RTE, France’s transmission system operator.

Supersizing European solar

The Horizeo project will join sites in UAE and Qatar as a member of the 1-Gigawatt Club. Egypt and India both have gigawatt-scale solar parks housing multiple projects on land cleared and grid-connected for plug-and-play development.

As subsidies for solar have dwindled, project sizes have trended upward. Neoen’s 300-megawatt Cestas project, also in France, was completed in 2015, nearly tripling the size of the country’s largest solar plant at the time. Germany’s largest solar project is 187 MW.

Spain’s recent unsubsidized solar resurgence has seen a raft of much larger sites being used as economies of scale and investor appetite tip the scales. Iberdrola’s 500 MW Núñez de Balboa project is up and running, and the utility is in the early construction stages of the 590 MW Francisco Pizarro plant.

Horizeo’s storage pairing exemplifies another growing trend for European projects. The U.K. has never topped 100 MW for a standalone solar project. Three are waiting in the planning queue, all to be co-located with energy storage. The largest, an EDF co-development, is targeting a maximum capacity of 500 MW.

France continues to stake hydrogen leadership claim

Numerous European governments are vying for leadership in the emerging hydrogen economy. The U.K. and the Netherlands have large legacy oil and gas infrastructure to lean on and oil majors BP and Shell banging the drum, plus major offshore wind resources to develop. Belgium’s major refining and chemical industry is making a claim as well. But Germany has established itself as the front-runner with aggressive domestic targets and utility RWE developing dozens of early-stage hydrogen projects.

Not to be left out in the cold, France is also strongly committed to green hydrogen. The country launched its National Hydrogen Council on Monday, including roles for four government ministers with responsibility for finance, environment, industry and innovation. They are joined by executives from a who's who of French industry including EDF, Total, Airbus, Air Liquide and Alstom.

France's national hydrogen strategy calls for investing €2 billion by 2022 and €7 billion by 2030, by which time it hopes to have an electrolyzer capacity of 6.5 GW. The three priorities are research and development, decarbonizing industry and developing hydrogen-powered heavy transport.  

Engie, like many European utilities, is in the middle of a pivot toward renewables. Last summer it increased its annual renewable deployment target from 3 GW per year to 4 GW. To fund the acceleration, the company said in a statement, it will “consider opportunities to divest non-core businesses and minority stakes in order to increase financial flexibility to fund investments in renewables and infrastructure assets.”

The firm replaced Isobel Kocher as CEO with Catherine MacGregor assuming duties from January 1, 2021. Her two priorities are to accelerate the company’s renewable energy deployment and its energy infrastructure business, which includes heating and cooling networks.