Citizen activists tackle ‘harmful’ solar energy vegetation in France’s Provence area | EUROtoday

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Citizen activists in southeastern France’s Alpes-de-Hautes-Provence area have been campaigning for 2 years towards the rising variety of solar energy parks in a protected pure space across the Lure mountain. The native authorities, and the parks’ traders, declare the vegetation are “essential” initiatives within the combat towards local weather change, and in step with the ambitions of the European Green Deal. But the activists declare these initiatives are “destructive” for biodiversity and the panorama. 

A number of hundred metres above the commune of Cruis, within the Alpes-de-Hautes-Provence area, Sylvie Bitterlin, a 62-year-old actress, stands in entrance of the safety fence of a brand-new photo voltaic farm.

“Look, they’ve destroyed everything,” she says.

On the 17-hectare website, the garrigue or scrubland of Provence has been changed by a number of thousand photo voltaic panels.

In Cruis, the photovoltaic power plant, operated by Boralex, was scheduled to begin operating this summer.
In Cruis, the photovoltaic energy plant, operated by Boralex, was scheduled to start working this summer time. © Cyrielle Cabot, FRANCE 24

The challenge has been below development for a number of months and is almost completed. According to the operator, Boralex, a Canadian renewable vitality firm, the positioning will generate 14.9 megawatt-peak hours of electrical energy, sufficient to energy a neighborhood of 12,000 residents.

Boralex’s managing director, Jean-Christophe Paupe, claims the park makes “an indispensable contribution … at a time when France is lagging behind in the development of renewable energies”.

But because the challenge nears completion, Bitterlin makes no secret of her frustration and anger.

Since 2019, she and about twenty different members of the native residents group Elzéard, Lure en résistance have been combating tooth and nail to stop the plant from going forward.

They say the photo voltaic park, partly put in in an space categorised as a “biosphere reserve” by UNESCO, will endanger a number of protected species and their habitat.

Alexanor butterfly and ocellated lizard

“We’re told that Provence has poor soil, that there’s nothing in it. But this is totally false. We have medicinal plants, thyme, rosemary, orchids … These are fantastic plants, home to protected species. It’s all about life,” says Bitterlin, who has turn into the motion’s spokeswoman.

La centrale photovoltaïque de Cruis s'étend sur 17 hectares dans le montagne de la Lure, en partie classée réserve de biosphère par l'Unesco.
The photovoltaic energy plant on the commune of Cruis in southeastern France covers 17 hectares, together with areas which have been designated as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO. © Cyrielle Cabot, FRANCE 24

“Before, this landscape stretched all the way to the top of the mountain,” she says, towards the backdrop of the picture-postcard setting of the 1,826-metre-high Montagne de Lure.  “What destruction! What a disaster! Where’s the ecology when we raze forests and destroy biodiversity to produce energy?”

According to Pierrot Pantel of the Association Nationale pour la Biodiversité (ANB), who took up the case on behalf of the Elzéard collective, 88 animal species have been recorded within the space.

These embody a number of protected species of birds, butterflies such because the Alexanor, with its yellow and black wings, and lizards such because the ocellated lizard – the biggest in Europe. “Many animals will have fled their habitat or will have died during the construction work,” he says.

Boralex insists that the challenge, formally launched in 2009, is the results of “more than five years of environmental and landscape studies, in partnership with the French government”, and that “everything possible has been done” to guard biodiversity.

“Initially, the park was designed to cover several dozen hectares, but its size was reduced to take account of this issue,” explains Paupe.

“And we have put in place a whole series of measures to preserve species: we have adapted our work periods, set up biodiversity corridors, restored habitats,” he says.

But opponents of the photo voltaic farm decry these measures as insufficient and say they’re simply “smoke and mirrors”.

In an space recognized for its biodiversity, just a few “ecological corridors” gained’t compensate for the injury brought on by constructing the positioning, they are saying.

In Cruis, Boralex has put in place a number of so-called “compensatory” measures to try and preserve biodiversity during the installation of the solar park.
In Cruis, Boralex has put in place a variety of so-called “compensatory” measures to try to protect biodiversity through the set up of the photo voltaic park. © Cyrielle Cabot, FRANCE 24

‘An instance of what must be carried out within the EU’

Paupe says that the farm “aligns perfectly with French and European ambitions for energy transition” and is “essential in the fight against global warming”.

“What’s more dangerous for biodiversity: climate disruption or photovoltaic panels?” he quips.

Indeed, the European Green Deal’s overarching aim is to make the EU the world’s first “local weather impartial bloc” by 2050. 

The EU is therefore aiming to massively accelerate the development of renewable energy in a bid to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, which are the main cause of climate change.

Under the terms of the deal, renewable energies will account for 42.5% of the energy mix by 2030, up from 23% in 2022. France shares this aspiration and passed a law to accelerate the production of renewable energy in March 2023.

But Paupe argues that “this ambition is simply achievable if we conform to develop large-scale initiatives, just like the one at Cruis”, drawing on studies carried out by RTE, France’s electricity transmission company.

“Today, we can’t be satisfied with solar panels on the roofs of houses and in areas that are already industrialised. Of course we need solar panels in these places too. But that won’t be enough.”

Boralex says there were good reasons for selecting the Lure mountain area for the solar park.

“The PACA region has a lot of sunshine and strong photovoltaic potential. However, it currently imports a large proportion of its electricity. The Cruis power plant therefore helps to resolve this paradoxical situation,” he continues. “In short, it’s an example of what needs to be developed across the European Union to move away from fossil fuels. But it will take multiple projects like this one to get there.”

Apart from the arguments put forward by Boralex, projects like this one also provide significant funds for the municipalities concerned.

In Cruis, revenues generated by the solar plant make up 20% of the municipal budget, according to mayor Félix Moroso.

“Over the past two years, it has enabled us to renovate a parking lot, start work on the school and reintroduce aid for disadvantaged groups,” says Moroso, who has been the mayor of the village of 700 inhabitants for 35 years.

“All this at the cost of photovoltaic panels on 1% of our commune”, he adds, expressing annoyance at the actions of the park’s opponents.

But Bitterlin says the project is “not the solution. We’re razing forests to put up photovoltaic panels. We’re caught in a paradox.”

“The very first thing to do is to cut back our consumption. If we actually adopted extra sober existence, would we nonetheless want these enormous energy vegetation in pure environments?”

“The problem with these parks is their giant size. We wouldn’t be against reasonable photovoltaic projects, in line with the needs of the population,” she says. “Unfortunately, we’ve adopted the financial logic of companies and communes that seem to simply want to make money.”

Months of mobilisation

The scenario in Cruis turned notably tense in September 2023 when development started. “We’d spent years attempting to alert and educate the inhabitants, to no avail. So once we noticed the development gear arriving on the mountain to destroy every part, we determined to take motion,” Bitterlin noted.

For weeks, and in all weathers, Bitterlin and the other activists tried almost daily to block the construction site.

“Never in my life did I think I’d ever chain myself to construction machinery, get under its wheels or climb trees to block work,” said Bitterlin, who says she’s never been the rebellious type. “But the cause was too important,” she says.

On October 4, 2023, Bitterlin and fellow activist Claudine Clovis, 72, were arrested by gendarmes as they lay under the wheels of earth-moving machinery.

They were taken into custody and detained overnight. They were eventually found guilty of obstructing traffic in February 2024 by the criminal court in Digne-les-Bains and sentenced to a suspended fine of €1,200 and a three-month suspension of their driving licenses. The two defendants will also jointly pay €5,000 towards Boralex’s legal costs.

Although they have decided to appeal the decision, their arrest put a stop to their campaigning. “We had to keep a low profile and, above all, Boralex stepped up its surveillance,” Bitterlin says. “And, frankly, we were exhausted both physically and morally by those weeks of fighting.”

But the Elzéard group has not given up entirely. Although no one is currently physically blockading the Cruis solar plant, the activists have taken their fight to the courts, with legal assistance from Pantel and ANB.

Over the past four years, the collective – with support from a dozen other environmental groups – has filed three complaints with the Digne public prosecutor for “destruction, alteration and degradation of the habitat of protected animal species” and “undermining the conservation of protected animal species”. According to Pantel, Boralex had in fact begun work on the plant before obtaining all the necessary permits.

A victory in court

In a big win for the activists, on Friday May 31, Boralex and the French government were found to be at fault by the Marseille Administrative Court of Appeal for failing to find an alternative site which would have had less impact on biodiversity.

The administrative judges found in favour of the collective, whose complaint had been dismissed by the court of first instance. The complaint challenged an order issued in 2020 by the Prefect of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, granting Boralex an exemption from the prohibition on destruction, intentional disturbance or degradation of specimens and habitats of protected animal species.

“It’s a great victory. The site is now considered illegal. Work will have to stop and the site cannot be exploited for the time being,” says Pantel. “It additionally legitimises our actions and the disruption to the positioning – which is vital for the Sylvie Bitterlin and Claudine Clovis trial. Finally, it is academic: this judgment exhibits which you could’t destroy a pure habitat with impunity.”

Anticipating that Boralex will take this judgment to the Conseil d’État, the best court docket of enchantment, Pantel now hopes to achieve a ultimate ruling. “We will then go and demand restoration of the site, recognition of the ecological damage and we’ll try to question the State’s responsibility.”

For its half, nonetheless, Boralex believes that the cancellation of this protected species exemption “does not call into question Boralex’s right to operate the Cruis solar power plant, nor does it call into question our presence on the site or the finishing work on the plant, which is not affected by this protected species exemption”, the corporate instructed AFP.

“This judgment also legitimises our future actions,” says Pantel. Aside from Cruis, some thirty photovoltaic initiatives are at present below manner on the Lure mountain, ultimately masking a thousand hectares, in accordance with Pantel’s estimate.

“And we intend to prevent as many as we can,” provides Bitterlin.

A community of sentinels

One of the activists’ new battlegrounds lies a few kilometres from Cruis, within the commune of Montfort. Some 20 hectares have already been cleared.

In January, development gear levelled the pines and oaks and shortly earth-moving machines will set up a brand new photovoltaic park, operated by Engie Green. It would be the fourth park on this commune of 300 inhabitants.

Véronique and Sylvie inspect the site of a new photovoltaic park in Montfort, in the Luberon region, on May 22, 2024.
Véronique and Sylvie examine the positioning of a brand new photovoltaic park in Montfort, within the Luberon area, on May 22, 2024. © Cyrielle Cabot, FRANCE 24

“We weren’t informed when the work started. We arrived too late to prevent the felling of the trees,” says Bitterlin.

At the end of May, accompanied by her friend Véronique, also an activist, they came to see the progress of the site. “We were worried about seeing earth-moving equipment,” they are saying.

With a tape measure in hand, they walked across the website with one goal in thoughts: to test that Engie Green was complying with all laws. Cut down a protected tree? Destroy the habitat of a protected species? An data panel eliminated? Everything is rigorously examined. But right now, every part appears to be so as.

“We won’t be demonstrating here, and we won’t be obstructing the work. In any case, it’s already too late – once the clearing is done, there’s not much left to defend,” they are saying.

“But we remain vigilant to strict compliance with the rules and are putting our energy into other projects.”

A number of kilometres away, within the commune of Banon, Sophie and Nadine hold watch on the areas affected by different photo voltaic initiatives, together with one led by a Korean firm, QEnergy.

Aged 64 and 72 respectively, the 2 pensioners admit to being “constantly on the lookout”, “tracking down the slightest noise of construction work” to “check that building work isn’t starting”.

“I go walking in the area every day anyway,” explains Sophie. “Here, at certain times of the year, you can hear deer snorting. It’s an incredible natural place. It can’t disappear,” she says.

In her giant backyard with a completely unobstructed view of the encircling countryside, she says she’s happy with having her personal photovoltaic panels, however “only those necessary for her personal electricity consumption”.

From her garden, Sophie can see an area affected by a new photovoltaic park project in Banon, in the Luberon region.
From her backyard, Sophie can see an space affected by a brand new photovoltaic park challenge in Banon, within the Luberon area. © Cyrielle Cabot, France 24

“Do we really need to develop large-scale power plants? Isn’t the solution first and foremost to take stock of our energy use?” she asks, echoing opponents of such initiatives in France.

“It’s really the multiplication of these projects that’s worrying. Are we really going to punch holes in the mountain from all sides?” asks Nadine.

“In addition to biodiversity, we’re also touching on a whole literary heritage, the mountain so dear to Jean Giono!” she warns, referring to the author who drew such inspiration from the Lure mountain. 

The Green Deal was a central function of outgoing EU president Ursula Von der Leyen’s final time period of workplace, and a brand new parliament will likely be shaped after European elections on June 9.

Bitterlin stated she hopes that the difficulty of photo voltaic parks in environmentally delicate areas will likely be taken up by candidates for the brand new EU parliament.

“We’ve succeeded in making Cruis a symbol of our campaign,” she says, including that what issues now’s to stop different environmentally disruptive initiatives from being constructed.

This article has been translated from the unique in French.