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Green jobs boost for rural France

Farmer and sculptor’s idea inspires new energy projects

Hundreds of community-based energy projects are breathing new life into rural communes across France, creating locally-made renewable energy as well as jobs and the satisfaction of investing locally and well.

Whether it is wind turbines, a solar farm, a methanation or hydroelectric plant, the DIY projects are bringing in money, jobs and new residents. They are also helping to slow down depopulation in their areas.

One such project is France’s first 100% community-owned wind farm, at Béganne near Redon in Brittany. Its finance head David Laurent said: “We have created 16 jobs in a fragile economic zone.

“It’s too much to say we counter depopulation but we created jobs where there were few, brought in workers from outside areas and we help Redon’s economy.”

Marc Mossalgue of the energy advisory group Energie Partagée, which helped the Béganne team raise the €12million it needed, said all such projects boost their areas.

“It helps against depopulation. Not because it brings in new residents so much but because it gives a positive image, changes people’s views and builds a community spirit.

“We carried out a study with [energy agency] Ademe looking at wind farm projects which had councils who got involved and ones without. Those who were involved saw three times as much investment coming in as those who did not, from €5million to €15m. That is all new money into the area.”

Energie Partagée now has 273 projects across France and they all spring from a simple idea in 2003 by sculptor Michel Leclercq and local farmer Jean-Bernard Mabilais who thought of a wind farm financed and run by the community in Pays de Redon.

Their four turbines at Béganne sparked a revolution in 2014 in supplying power for 6,250 people with its 18MWh/year output fed into the EDF grid. Mr Laurent said this is then used locally as ‘little electrons take the shortest path’ and power Béganne’s needs.

About 1,000 locals invested an average of €1,800 in the project and, with help from Energie Partagée, raised €12million. Its success has now inspired projects nearby, at Sévérac-Guenrouët and at Avessac (Loire-Atlantique) and the project group, now called Energies Citoyennes en Pays de Vilaine, is working with them.

Mr Laurent said: “We work to help others locally here, across France and in Europe.

“Our problems are mirrored elsewhere and our answers can help others, whether on funding, regulations or even winning over local opposition.”

He added: “Our history in this area is of working together so it started with local supporters and while there were quite a few people against the project, there are far fewer now and especially so for new projects.

“Even with our local support we could not persuade the banks and we had to go outside France but that has all changed.

“We get unheard-of cooperation from banks who now see real businesses for the future.”

They have been helped by the opening of the finance market since the 2015 energy transition law as France starts to pull back its deficit on leaders Germany and Denmark. It now has over 10,000 wind turbines with maximum power of 13.5GW and 8GW of solar panels.

Energie Partagée’s early expertise makes it a market leader in work on community projects.

Mr Mossalgue said: “Projects we back must be citizen-based, anchored in the community and non-speculative but must also be able to produce energy.

“They include wind, roof and on-ground solar, methanation and hydro and go from as small as a solar site in Aubais, near Nîmes, set up by anti-shale gas activists to power 150 homes.

“They can take up to 10 years to come to life, with wind power taking longer than solar, especially rooftop panels.”

Meanwhile, the first investors at Béganne may, depending on how they vote to spend profits, see the first pay-out on investment next year. Money has so far gone back into development.

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