This post first appeared on The Community Power Report
by Mümtaz Derya Tarhan
As part of The Community Power Report’s ‘Community Power in the Global Community’ series, we continue to provide insight into a new country’s community-owned renewables sectors every month.
We started off our series with Belgium and Netherlands. Now, we are stopping in France, for which interviewed three individuals that have a great deal of practical and historic knowledge on France’s renewable energy and community power sectors:
- Pierre Jourdain is the Coordinator of Eolien Citoyen, the pioneering wind energy co-operative in France.
- Marc Mossalgue is the Coordinator of Energie Partagée, a national investment platform that connects community-owned renewable energy projects with investors.
- Maëlle Guillou is with Enercoop, a co-operatively owned 100% green energy supplier.
France has a world-renown legacy as a leader in the nuclear industry. Some 60 nuclear plants provide them second place around the world for installed capacity (only behind United States), and almost an 80% nuclear share in electricity generation.
Especially in a country with such high dependence on nuclear energy, renewable energy makes too much environmental and economic sense for the nuclear industry to ignore. ”Renewable energy is a major threat to France’s strong nuclear industry, because it will help people begin realizing that it is cheaper to produce clean energy!” says Pierre Jourdain.
And he has a point; nuclear energy comes with a lot of high anticipated and unanticipated maintenance and replacement costs, while renewable energy is becoming more and more affordable by the day and is easier and cheaper to maintain. Here’s a CleanTechnica article about a study done by negaWatt, a French think tank, demonstrating that France can go 100% renewables by phasing out its inefficient and costly nuclear power generation.
As a result, the renewable energy sector in France has to row against one of the strongest tides in the world. And if that is so, it needs the support of the most powerful entity in the country: the citizens!
While citizen support and engagement seems to be indispensable for the proliferation of renewable energy in France, it is no easy task. All our interviewees pointed out that the concept of community-owned renewables is new to France, and it has to struggle against a lot of cultural and legal barriers.
Pierre Jourdain says that most citizens view energy as a national issue rather than a local and personal one: ”We just plug in, consume, and believe that electricity is none of our business!”, he notes. Maëlle Guillou points out that this comes as no surprise in a country with such a strong history of centralized nuclear energy generation, and for long years where the only actor in the energy supplying business was EDF (Électricité de France).
On top of the cultural barriers, France never implemented a specific policy geared towards supporting community-owned renewable energy generation. Although a feed-in-tariff (FIT) scheme was introduced in 2001, it proved to be very difficult for community-owned projects to benefit from it. The scheme launched with very attractive rates -especially for solar energy, which caused a so-called ‘boom’, only to be followed by a ‘bust’ due to government’s reduction in these rates. As community-owned projects take much longer to develop compared to traditional ownership models, they could not fully benefit from these tariffs while they were much more attractive.
Community-owned energy projects in France also face severe legal barriers in raising capital. Maëlle Guillou points out that if a renewable energy co-operative were to call for investment through a public offering in order to sell shares to more than 120 investors and/or if the amount of total investment were to exceed 100,000 Euros, it would need to receive authorization from the AMF (Autorité des Marchés Financiers), a national regulatory body. It goes without saying that the authorization process costs renewable energy co-operatives large amounts of much needed time and capital.
As a result, as Pierre Jourdain tells us, there only exist 10 to 15 small-scale community rooftop solar projects across the entire country. Meanwhile, there is yet to be an operational community-owned wind energy facility in France.
Challenging The Status-Quo
Although odds may seem stacked against community power in France, there do exist citizen-initiated projects that aim to transform the country’s energy future to one where citizens take ownership of their electricity generation and consumption.
On the generation front, the Eolien Citoyen (translates into Citizen Windmill) initiative is aiming to become the first co-operatively owned wind project in the country. They are developing two wind farms of four turbines each.
Pierre Jourdain told us that Eolien Citoyen began their journey 10 years ago; while they initially thought that it would take them 3 years! First challenge was to obtain planning authorization, which required them to conduct feasibility studies and obtain authorizations from 20 different government bodies; all costly activities that required an initial investment of 300,000 Euros and long volunteer hours from the project team.
Having obtained their first authorization in 2010, it then came to raising the capital required to turn these projects into reality: 11 million Euros per project. Eolien Citoyen managed to obtain financing from a bank, but was still short 3 million Euros, which had to be raised from the community. Pierre Jourdain notes that they had no tools to raise that amount of money due to the legal constraint that required them to obtain a national authorization: ”That’s why we took part in the establishment of a national fund called Energie Partagée”.
Energie Partagée (translates into Shared Energy) was established in 2010 through the efforts of different organizations and businesses in the renewable energy and sustainable financing sectors. These recognized the need to act in solidarity in order to overcome financial and legal constraints in the way of community-owned energy in France.
Today, Energie Partagée serves France’s community power sector in two fronts: First, it serves as a national investment platform where community projects from across the country can sign up to find investors. Thereby, this national fund streamlines the development process for these projects, and helps them overcome the financial and temporal constraints caused by various permitting requirements. Secondly, it raises awareness among the citizenry and political bodies regarding the potential of community-owned energy in France.
Through Energie Partagée, 700 members were recruited to bring money in the Eolien Citoyen project. Pierre Jourdain talks about this process as an arduous but very fruitful one: ”It took several months and around 100 meetings to discuss the technical, financial, legal matters of the project. But it was truly local and worth it. We gathered the money and contracted with a supplier”. Currently, Eolien Citoyen is waiting on the result of the Feed-in Tariff appeal and to resolve some final technical matters with EDF.
On the other front of the citizens’ energy battle, Enercoop, a co-operatively owned 100% green energy supplier, is working to give citizens control over their electricity consumption. Enercoop is today the largest supplier of green electricity in France with 9,000 members, 15,000 clients and more than 80 producers of green energy. As a citizen-initiated and led organization, Enercoop achieved such success despite not being able to compete on a level playing ground against EDF, the historical electricity supplier owned 87% by the state. (Visit this link to find out more)
Tides Are Turning
Overcoming the lack of citizen awareness, interest and engagement in energy matters is exactly what the above-mentioned organizations are doing. They are providing platforms for knowledge and experience-sharing, streamlining arduous processes, lobbying the government for removing barriers in the sector’s way.
Marc Mossalgue from Energie Partagee anticipates good things to happen in the future: ”Hope for the community power movement today is very high. And there exists a huge opportunity for us to make our movement grow, because citizens are getting on board and want to help us make it grow.” He praises community power to address many of the pressing environmental, economic and social issues of our day such as energy security, climate change, environmental destruction, and unemployment. He adds: ”Local is becoming more important day by day in today’s economies; and community power provides us an opportunity to revive local economies”
Pierre Jourdain from Eolien Citoyen says he is observing a citizen interest that is growing by the day. This interest led them to establish Taranis Network, a platform for experience and knowledge-sharing between community-owned energy groups in Brittany.
Mr. Jourdain also notes that although the new Hollande government initiated a ‘Transition Energétique’ (Energy Transition) debate and is more friendly towards renewable energy compared to previous ones, community ownership of this transition is still neglected: ”We have to lobby, we have to educate citizens and politicians. Because people just do not know how beneficial this is!”
Maëlle Guillou also agrees that more and more citizens are taking part in their production and consumption of electricity through local projects, but she argues that significant changes in government policy are required to bring France’s community power sector to the level of other pioneering European countries such as Germany and Denmark. Suggested changes include setting up financial and fiscal incentives geared towards community-owned energy initiatives and simplifying the rules of raising capital for these projects.
Perhaps the most important role of existing community power actors in France is to serve as an inspiration and encouragement to other community groups across the country. While Enercoop is challenging a state-owned and historically dominant utility, Eolien Citoyen is very close to proving that a dedicated group of citizens can turn dreams into reality even in a very unfriendly environment.
”What’s most important is to show all citizens of France that community-owned renewable energy projects are feasible, and that you are not alone if you decide to undertake one as a community; there is help out there”, says Marc Mossalgue.