In the wake of presidential elections, France’s growing renewables industry could benefit from the appointment of an environmental activist to head energy policy.
Emmanuel Macron, who enjoyed a landslide victory in France’s May 7 elections, has appointed nature documentary maker Nicolas Hulot as Minister of Ecological and Solidarity-Based Transition, in charge of the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Marine Affairs.
Hulot, a former press photographer who rose to fame on the back of environmental documentaries such as Ushuaïa, le magazine de l'Extrême, has been critical of France’s dependence on nuclear energy.
News of his appointment resulted in a seven-point drop in share price for the state-owned utility Électricité de France (EDF), which gets 78 percent of its generation from 58 nuclear reactors across the country.
EDF shares had previously surged on the back of speculation that Macron would push nuclear as part of his government’s energy agenda.
Now “there is a fear of a stricter ecological line given Hulot's history as an environmental campaigner," Andrea Tueni, a markets analyst with Saxo Bank, told Reuters.
This could be a boon for French renewable energy interests, which were already favored by the previous government.
In 2015, France adopted an Energy Transition for Green Growth Act, which sets a target of 40 percent renewable energy in the power mix by 2030, up from less than 17 percent currently. The country is also planning to cut nuclear power’s share of the mix to 50 percent by 2025.
Just before Hulot’s appointment, his predecessor, Segolene Royal, unveiled a slew of renewable energy-related proposals, including a decree for the development of energy self-consumption and orders providing added support for solar power.
Macron swept to power with pledges to build on this progress, promising to launch renewable energy tenders for up to 26 gigawatts of capacity by 2022.
“Macron wants to double France’s solar and wind power capacities, which stood at 6.8 gigawatts and 11.7 gigawatts last year, partly by simplifying authorization processes,” Bloomberg reported.
Industry observers were guardedly optimistic about the outlook for renewable energy in France under the new leadership.
“We would not want to be confident about anything at this stage,” said Michael Brown, director of the distributed energy markets research and consulting company Delta Energy & Environment (Delta-ee).
“It appears there is an energy transition going on in France, and the pace of that transition seems unlikely to slow down. It may even go a bit faster with the Hulot influence. Everyone knows what his background is and what his priorities are," said Brown.
France must still go through a legislative election to pick the 577 members of the National Assembly, the country's lower house of parliament, next month.
The outcome of this remains a big unknown. Macron’s party, En March!, a progressive movement founded just over a year ago, has no current representation in the assembly, and voters will have had little time to weigh its candidates.
Macron has said at least half of his 577 proposed appointees for the assembly will be people with no previous political experience.
If En March! faces an electoral setback, Hulot might have only limited room for sweeping policy moves. That, in turn, might be a major source of frustration for a seasoned campaigner such as Hulot, Brown hinted.
At the time of being appointed, Hulot said on Twitter: “Those who know me know that being a minister is not for me an objective in itself. However, I believe that the political situation opens a new opportunity for action that I cannot ignore.”
But with assembly elections still to come, and the summer break following soon after, it could be September before Hulot has a chance to set policy -- if at all.
“It will depend a lot on the elections early June,” said Josefin Berg, senior analyst for solar demand at IHS Markit. “But we haven't seen any indicators that he seeks to disrupt what the previous government put in place.”