France doesn't have much of a battery storage market. But French companies are building up their credibility in the sector through projects on the country's islands, as well as in other remote communities abroad.

The battery maker Saft, for example, is winning orders for battery packs everywhere from the Arctic Circle to the moon. But one of its most important orders so far this year is a 520-kilowatt-hour, 1-megawatt lithium-ion battery system for the Tokyo Electric Power Company subsidiary Takaoka Toko Co. on Niijima, a Japanese island in the Philippine Sea.

The system, part of a five-year demonstration project, marks Saft’s debut in the Japanese market. It will “highlight the technical challenges (such as expected electric power quality and grid management) that need addressing when renewable energies -- especially wind generation -- are associated with electric power systems,” according to the company.

Saft’s experience with island projects was an important factor in winning the bid. The battery manufacturer won a multi-million-euro energy storage contract for the French island of Réunion over a year ago.

The Bardzour project involved adding a 9-megawatt-hour containerized battery system to a 9-megawatt PV plant built by local developer CorexSolar, with energy management systems from Ingeteam of Spain.

The installation was the largest of 16 projects awarded in 2012 by the French regulator for a total of 50 megawatts of PV production capacity coupled with storage in Corsica and the French overseas departments, Saft said.

It was not Saft’s first foray into island energy storage. In 2008 the company announced a two-year project to test an 11-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery system linked to PV on Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean. The project has since been decommissioned.

Back on Réunion, EDF commissioned a 1-megawatt, 7.2 megawatt-hour sodium-sulfur battery system from the Japanese battery maker NGK in 2009. Most other French island energy storage projects have had a distinctively Gallic flavor, however.

On Corsica, for example, the linear Fresnel CSP plant developer Solar Euromed, of Dijon, is working on France’s largest solar thermal project, the 12-megawatt Alba Nova 1, which should have one hour’s worth of thermal storage when it goes live later this year.

Corsica is also the site of a PV-to-hydrogen test bed, allied to the island’s university and the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission.

The project was developed by Areva, which last year was going big on hydrogen but is now unlikely to be putting much more effort into energy storage after unveiling disastrous financial results last month. Other French energy storage players could easily take its place, however.

Last year, for instance, McPhy Energy unveiled a partnership with French startup Atawey to develop hydrogen storage systems specifically for the remote-site market, including island communities. “Commercial studies are in progress for installations in mountain and island regions of the French territory,” according to McPhy.

An advantage for these companies is that France’s overseas territories have a real need for energy storage. Réunion, for example, was getting almost half of its energy from imported coal in 2012, but aims to get 50 percent from renewables by 2020, and 100 percent by 2030.

In addition, France’s notoriously protectionist industrial policy means French energy storage developers are likely to have unfettered access to these offshore test beds, with little likelihood of competition from outsiders.  

Guy Auger, CEO of the French renewables project management firm Greensolver, believes such markets are where energy storage stands the best bet of getting off the ground in France. “Energy storage is only interesting in remote areas [and] on islands, where you have a closed circuit with a small amount of energy generation,” he said. “France is putting a lot of money in to develop storage on islands. There’s been some really good projects done in Réunion; some have been done in Corsica.”

The business case is much weaker on the mainland. Despite Areva’s problems, France remains deeply committed to nuclear power, and most of its existing continental energy storage is in the form of pumped hydro. That need not be a problem for French technology developers, though. As Saft has shown, the interest in storage on the islands will likely ensure demand continues.