By Michel Rose
PARIS (Reuters) - France's much-delayed energy transition bill passed a key hurdle on Tuesday after a clear majority of the lower house of parliament adopted a text that skirts the key nuclear issue but includes simplification measures likely to boost renewables.
A cap on French nuclear power production at the current level, approved last week, was the main point of contention in the bill defended by Energy Minister Segolene Royal.
In a key victory for Royal, President Francois Hollande's ex-partner and his fourth energy minister in three years, Green party MPs who quit government last March also supported the bill. It now moves to the Senate, before a final vote in the spring.
But beyond the nuclear cap, the text proposes a significant cut in red tape for onshore wind, biogas and small hydropower production by streamlining the authorization process along the lines of a trial held in seven regions.
"This new dynamic is very clearly going to help us catch up on our neighbors, since countries where renewables are booming are also those with a single authorization system," Damien Mathon, managing director of French renewable energy lobby SER, told Reuters.
French renewables output has lagged that of neighbors such as Germany or Spain in recent years, with industry experts blaming the complex administrative system, uncertain legal framework and endless legal challenges by anti-windpower protestors among the public.
Under the new system, legal challenges will be allowed only in the two months after the granting of an authorization, down from six months.
France had 8,592 MW of onshore wind installations and 5,095 MW of photovoltaic at June 30, which accounted for 3.8 percent and 1 percent of French energy consumption respectively in the first half of the year.
That compares with more than 35,000 MW of installed onshore wind power capacity and nearly 37,000 MW of solar in Germany.
The law also paves the way for a new subsidy system for renewable energy more in line with European Union directives that will gradually move away from the current feed-in tariff system that guaranteed a fixed selling price, adopting instead a system with a market price element.
This new system, scheduled to come into force before 2016, should help to ensure that renewable energy producers have an incentive to produce when wholesale power prices are high and carry out maintenance during off-peak times, helping avoid overcapacity.
On less technical issues, the law also forbids retailers to make non-recyclable plastic bags available in shops from 2016, bans plastic kitchenware from 2020 and introduces sanctions against "planned obsolescence" - the intentional limiting of a product's lifespan.
(Additional reporting by Emile Picy; Editing by David Goodman)