French electricity is transported by the government contractor Réseau de Transport d’Électricité (RTÉ), whose contract specifies that at least 30 per cent of new high-voltage lines must be placed underground. Since 2009, 76 per cent of all 90,000- and 63,000-volt lines have been buried.
Yet the vast majority of France’s 105,000km of power lines remains overhead: only 0.04 per cent is underground.
"All over Europe, overhead lines are ill-accepted," said Sidonie Blanchard, in charge of electricity transport at the French ministry of ecology, energy and sustainable development. "People are worried about marring the landscape or they're afraid of electromagnetic fields."
There is strong opposition to overhead lines, she said. "We find the same opponents in the four corners of France every time a new line is installed. The associations may be small but when they arrive in an area people rally round them."
RTÉ has surpassed its commitment to put 30 per cent of high voltage lines underground, Blanchard said, "because they realise that there's a lot less opposition and things go more quickly."
The problem is cost. “When it’s two or three times higher [to place cables underground], it’s doable. But five or 10 times imposes too high a cost on consumers,” Blanchard said.
The EU commitment to produce 20 per cent of electricity from renewable sources is transforming the French network.
Previously, electricity was centralised in a few nuclear power plants. But because renewable energy is intermittent there must be new, smaller power lines to transport it.