small green projects take on big energy – DW – 08/08/2023

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With its tranquil, tree-lined main square surrounded by a school, gym, refectory and the town hall, Le Sequestre appears to be much like any other French town. But the commune of 2,000 people near Toulouse in southwestern France is at the forefront of a revolution taking energy off the grid.

Last year, local authorities inaugurated a 250 kilowatt peak (kWp) solar energy park in an abandoned quarry on the edge of town that produces and distributes enough electricity for about 250 residents all living within a 2-kilometer (1-mile) radius.

“The solar park is empowering us in many ways,” Gerard Poujade, mayor of Le Séquestre, told DW. “It’s powering our lights with green energy, but it’s also giving us the power to be resilient and independent.”

A picture of Le Sequestre's mayor Gerard Poujade
Le Sequestre’s mayor Gerard Poujade cherishes the new energy freedom from the towns solar parkImage: Peter Yeung/DW

Local green energy projects challenge big players

Le Sequestre’s hyperlocal solar park is the first project of its kind in France. And it’s what the European Commission promotes as “collective self-consumption” — linking consumers and producers in the same area — in an effort to sustainably transform the EU’s energy system while ensuring local communities reap the benefits.

The €240,000 ($264,00) project was funded by Enercoop, a French cooperative launched in 2005 that provides 100% renewable energy all around the country through a vast network of small-scale producers. The company, which recorded a turnover of €134 million in 2021, has 61,000 cooperative members and 100,000 customers.

An aerial picture of the solar park in Le Sequestre
Le Sequestre’s solar park is part of Enercoop’s network of about 450 producers of solar, wind, hydraulic and biomass energyImage: Peter Yeung/DW

Enercoop positions itself as an alternative to the profit-seeking conglomerates — who often burn fossil and nuclear fuels to produce electricity — that dominate the market. In an interview with DW, Loic Blanc, coordinator of the Midi-Pyrenees region, said Enercoop wants to “fundamentally change our relationship with energy”

“This isn’t about money. It’s about the future of the planet,” he said.

Homemade energy could be key to net zero goals

Global energy authorities agree that significant changes in the sector will be required in the coming years. The International Energy Agency projects that investments in renewable energy need to triple by 2030 to $4 trillion (€3.63 trillion) to put the world on track for net zero goals. The intergovernmental body has said resilient supply chains could help ward off energy “security threats” in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In 2021, 26% of electricity consumed in France was renewable compared with 45% in Germany. But the aim is to increase the renewable share to 40% by 2040. Independent, localized and citizen-led initiatives like that of Enercoop will therefore be key, according to advocates.

his picture taken in Flamanville, northwestern France shows the construction site of the European Pressurised Reactor project (EPR)
France has so far relied heavily on its nuclear reactors for electricity and neglected decentralized projects for green power Image: Getty Images/AFP/C. Triballeau

A 2016 study by Dutch research consultancy CE Delf estimated that by 2050 half of all EU households — around 113 million — could produce energy, either individually or through a collective.

“This transition to decentralised clean energy will also help lessen the burden on the large central power networks at peak demand,” said Dirk Vansintjan, president of REScoop, a federation of 2,200 citizen energy cooperatives across Europe.

Success hangs on local support

Yet experts warn the success of a green energy transition relies on community buy-in. “There’s a huge amount of investment in renewable energy, but often it’s top-down,” said Rikard Warlenius, a lecturer at the University of Gothenburg who has studied grassroots energy initiatives. “To be successful, locals must benefit and be involved,” he told DW.

Enercoop, which offers contracts of up to 30 years to give producers stability, works with regional companies such as Courant Naturel to install solar panels, with the aim of boosting local economies. At the same time, about 5% of the company’s electricity — it distributed 642 gigawatt hours in 2021 — is currently sold at production cost, rather than the more expensive market price. And it aims to increase that share to 40% by 2030.

“It’s a democratic model,” said Martine Le Lostec, mayor of the village of Saint-Quirc and a member of the cooperative. “It is about achieving the greater good,” he told DW.

A picture of Martine Le Lostec
The town of Saint-Quirc has joined Enercoop’s nationwide network on the inititative of mayor Martine Le LostecImage: Peter Yeung/DW

Le Sequestre pays €0.08 per kWh of electricity compared with the €0.11 per kWh it previously paid French state provider EDF, meaning it was able to cut its overall bill by nearly 10% in 2022. It plans to double the number of solar panels by next year.

“It’s very easy and there are areas all over the country where we could do this,” said Mayor Poujade. “If everyone was like this, we would be less dependent on gas from Russia and Qatar, and oil from Saudi Arabia. The only issue is all the paperwork.”

EU sends mixed message with bureauratic hurdles 

In 2018 and 2019, the EU passed directives promoting so-called “citizens and renewable energy communities,” but critics say considerable costs and bureaucratic hurdles are keeping these initiatives from getting off the ground. 

“It’s still not an easy ride for small-scale producers,” said Gonçalo Pinto Mendes, a researcher at Finland’s Lappeenranta University of Technology and investigator on the European Commission’s GReen Energy Transition Actions (GRETA) project.

EU to allow financial aid for green industries

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Enercoop, despite its success, has not been without struggles. In 2021, although its producers made enough electricity to cover 108% of customer needs, it was only able to account for 80% of demand at peak times. Faced with sky-high market prices, it was forced to use a government protocol known as ARENH that allows competitors to buy nuclear energy — a controversial topic for some — from EDF at cost price.

In response, in autumn 2021 Enercoop temporarily stopped taking on new customers as it struggled to provide enough energy. But now the cooperative is back in business, and in February it announced a further €14.5 million investment to build more solar plants and wind farms in its mission to give power back to the people.

“We’re building resilience,” added Blanc. “And we’re building self-sufficiency.”

Edited by: Kristie Pladson

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