By Michel Rose
PARIS (Reuters) - France has made up some lost ground against its neighbors with the start to construction of what will be Europe's biggest photovoltaic solar power plant.
Solar power capacity has grown slowly in France compared to Germany, Spain or Italy. It had 5,095 MW of photovoltaic capacity in June, which accounted for only 1 percent of its energy consumption in the first half of the year, and compares with nearly 37,000 MW in Germany.
The new plant at Cestas is a 360 million euro ($450 million) project capable of supplying electricity to a city the size of nearby Bordeaux for a year.
The project is managed by Neoen, a Paris-based company created by Jacques Veyrat, the former head of commodities trading giant Louis Dreyfus.
The 300-megawatt, ground-mounted installation will be connected to the grid in October 2015 and provide electricity for 105 euros per megawatt-hour over 20 years, a price showing solar is becoming increasingly competitive, its developers say.
Xavier Barbaro, Neoen's chief executive, compared it to state-owned utility EDF's Hinkley Point C project in Britain, which will receive a guaranteed power price of 92.5 pounds, or 117 euros per MWh for 35 years.
"We're below the price of new nuclear electricity in Britain. So the parity between nuclear energy which is costing more and solar which continues to drop is happening now, in 2014," Barbaro told Reuters.
"Four or five years ago, nobody thought that would be possible before 2020," he said.
France's slower start has allowed it to avoid the bursting of the solar bubble in Spain, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, which have all implemented retroactive taxes on existing operators of renewable energy installations, provoking a backlash with investors.
This helped convince banks such as Societe Generale to fund Neoen's project and attract investment funds such as KKB, Acofi, and Omnes Capital.
"We had to do a lot of explaining, to investors and the banks to show that these projects were secured," Barbaro said. "But what's appreciable in France is that projects already on track are not called into question."
The solar panels, made by China's Yingli and Trina Solar and Canadian Solar, will be built and operated by a consortium including French groups Eiffage and Schneider Electric.
"Out of a 360 million euro investment, the share going to French companies will be at least 50 percent," Barbaro said.
Over the long term, Neoen aims to install 1,000 MW of capacity by 2017, about half in France and the rest in areas where solar is reaching "grid parity", the price when an energy source does not require subsidies anymore, such as Latin America, Africa and Australia.
Barbaro said an initial public offering (IPO) could be possible around 2018.
"It's something we can envisage, yes. It's not an obligation, we already have solid shareholders capable of supporting us over the long term. But we organize ourselves internally as if we were going for an IPO," he said.
Impala SAS, the holding of former Louis Dreyfus chairman Jacques Veyrat, owns almost 60 percent of Neoen, while French public investment bank Bpifrance owns 15.4 percent and French investment fund Omnes Capital the remaining 25 percent.
(Editing by William Hardy)