French Minister Rues Solar-Panel Trade Deficit Almost Doubling

France’s solar-panel imports surged last year as developers relied mostly on foreign manufacturers to supply a boom in renewable-energy projects, Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said.

French customs figures show the deficit in favor of solar panel imports widened to 1.5 billion euros ($2.1 billion) in 2010 compared with 800 million euros the previous year, she said at a conference in Paris.

“We can’t be satisfied with this,” Kosciusko-Morizet said. “Our new regulatory framework must be to the benefit of French industry.”

France in December suspended solar-energy projects for three months to study potential subsidy cuts and measures to limit growth in the industry after a boom in installations, supplied mostly from China. The halt applied to projects with a capacity of more than 3 kilowatts, about enough to run a home.

A report on development of solar energy will be submitted to the government Feb. 11 and new rules are to be announced after that, French Industry Minister Eric Besson said today. The regulations will be “stable and lasting,” he said.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon announced the halt to quell what he called a “veritable speculative bubble” in the photovoltaic energy industry and allow the government time to enact a new regulations.

A plan by First Solar Inc. and EDF Energies Nouvelles SA, the renewable arm of Electricite de France SA, for construction of a 120-megawatt solar panel factory in Blanquefort, France, will remain suspended, Robert Gillette, chief executive officer of the U.S. company, said at the conference today.

“In order to attract and retain investors, France needs to provide a stable legislative framework rewarding players who contribute to local job creation,” he said. “We remain hopeful that a compromise will be reached to support a sustainable photovoltaic market in France.”

Kosciusko-Morizet has said one tool France may use is to promote the development of “roof-integrated installations.”

French solar-generation capacity leaped as costs fell while regulated tariffs EDF SA pays for the power have remained relatively high. Capacity is expected to rise to about 2,150 megawatts at the end of 2011 from 200 megawatts in 2009, according to the energy regulator.

“The moratorium was a strong psychological and economic blow to many companies,” Andre Antolini, head of the French renewable industries organization Syndicat des Energies Renouvelables, said at the conference. “Projects that have already been registered should be treated better than those that haven’t.”

The government should give guarantees on feed-in tariffs for renewable energies before investment is decided while French industry should develop a “Made in France” label, he said. Costs of solar energy equipment fell by about two thirds in three years, he added.

“France is not the only country that has had frequent regulatory changes for solar energy,” said Jean-Michel Charpin, a government auditor who is writing the report for the government on the industry. “There is a realization that it’s hard to regulate feed-in tariffs as much is needed.”

“It’s difficult for the government and regulators to keep up with the profitability of the industry,” he told the conference. “What would be good is that in March we get a lasting regulatory framework.”

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