* France to run first offshore wind farms from 2015
* Bidding consortiums have handed offers to regulator CRE
* First phase for 3 GW, to double to 6 GW by 2020
* Project seen as opportunity to create new French industry
By Caroline Jacobs and Benjamin Mallet
PARIS, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Three consortiums of mainly French groups are bidding to build France’s first offshore wind parks in a massive project to lessen the country’s reliance on nuclear power and establish it as a leading player in the booming market for wind energy.
GDF Suez, EDF unit EDF Energies Nouvelles and Spain’s Iberdrola are eyeing slices of five wind parks with as many as 600 turbines and 3 gigawatts (GW) of capacity in a 10 billion-euro ($12.8 billion) first phase off the Normandy and Brittany coasts.
At stake is the chance to develop French clout and expertise and close the gap with other European countries as demand soars for offshore wind farms in Europe. The industry could also take off in emerging markets such as China.
France’s contribution to offshore wind power is limited to Areva Wind’s 5-megawatt (MW) M5000 turbines being used in the North Sea. French engineering company Alstom hopes to launch a rival 6-MW turbine - know as the Haliade - in 2014.
Alstom is part of the group led by EDF Energies Nouvelles, which is betting on the Haliade turbine, which with a diameter of 153 metres - roughly half the height of the Eiffel tower - is the world’s largest offshore wind turbine.
“When you look at the European market, there is space for many more than two new French turbines,” said Philippe Kavafyan, vice president of Areva Wind in France, a unit of French nuclear group Areva.
France has lagged behind in developing a market for solar energy as well as onshore wind turbines, compared with countries like Germany, Spain or Denmark.
Even with its new offshore wind project it has a lot of catching up to do, according to the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) report published in November.
The report showed that total installed offshore wind capacity in Europe in 2020 would be 40 GW, compared with less than 3 GW at the end of 2010. Britain already has current and planned projects for 47 GW with Germany on 31 GW.
The EWEA estimates that between 2021 and 2030, the offshore market for wind turbines annually could grow from 7.8 GW to 13.7 GW in 2030.
France launched the tender last July under plans to meet 23 percent of energy demand from renewable sources by 2020.
A second phase, for which the tender opens in April before French presidential elections, would double capacity to 6 GW by 2020 and lift total investment to 20 billion euros.
“Obtaining a critical mass to develop abroad is hard when there’s no domestic market,” EDF Energies Nouvelles Chief Executive David Corchia said.
France’s goal of doubling capacity by 2020 would lay the basis for the industry to grow, Corchia said.
But the euro zone crisis could raise questions about the timing of such investments.
Areva Wind’s Kavafyan said that whereas typically in the past loans would be shouldered by groups of around 10 banks, that figure had risen to 25-30.
“There is still a lot of appetite despite the economic situation,” Corchia said, adding that many banks had expressed interest in projects due to start construction in 2016-18.
EDF Energies is bidding for four out of five parks in the first phase in a consortium with Denmark’s Dong Energy , a leading developer of offshore wind parks.
Areva Wind is eyeing all five as part of one consortium led by Spain’s largest power utility, Iberdrola, and another led by French utility GDF Suez.
GDF will make four bids, including one with German engineering group Siemens.
Areva and Alstom said they plan to build factories creating thousands of jobs if they win two or three of the five offers, and ultimately hope they can export to the UK, the biggest offshore wind market .
PricewaterhouseCoopers analyst Alexis Chauffert-Yvart said the European market for offshore wind power could reach 40 GW by 2020, up from an estimated 3 GW in 2010.
“If France misses this boat, it would have an impact on the possibilities of taking part in the development of marine renewable energy technologies, which is an important market,” he said. “So this is an important phase.” ($1 = 0.7826 euros) (Additional reporting by Elena Berton, Editing by James Regan and David Cowell)