Harvesting the Wind: Community Wind Farms in France

Locally generated, community oriented, wind energy is gaining popularity in France - thanks to a farmer and an artist

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Bégawatts is pioneering community based energy production in France
Bégawatts is pioneering community based energy production in FranceCredit: Bégawatts
Heidi Ellison, Sparknews
Heidi Ellison, Sparknews

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One day an artist and a farmer in Brittany had the idea of generating electricity locally. In 2002 they started knocking on neighborhood doors. The response Michel Leclercq and Jean-Bernard Mabilais got was quasi-unanimous: “Are you crazy?”

Perhaps, but 12 years and 12 million euros later, the two Frenchmen realized their dream. The citizens’ project, called Bégawatts, was the germ of a citizen-led nationwide renewable energy movement piloted by an association called Energie Partagée (Shared Energy).

Wind turbine Credit: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

Bégawatts, located amid rolling hills covered with fields and forests outside the village of Béganne, between Rennes and Nantes, is a wind farm with four turbines. It became operational in 2014 and now produces enough electricity to supply 6,250 households annually.

While the locals still get their energy from utility companies, they have the satisfaction of knowing they are contributing to the production of renewable power and will eventually gain returns on their investment.

People thought the idea crazy at first, but more and more joined, Leclerq says. They got so involved that the truck driver delivering the first turbine was moved to tears by the warm welcome he received from the crowd.

Energie Partagée now has two arms: Energie Partagée Association, based in Paris, provides advice and assistance to 270 citizens’ clean-energy projects all over France. Energie Partagée Investments, just outside Lyon, raises funds and finances selected renewable-energy projects.

“The projects we support must be citizen-based, non-speculative and have strong local roots,” said Marc Mossalgue, communications director for Energie Partagée. “They must prove that they can generate electricity, be totally transparent and democratic, and keep transparent accounts."

Energie Partagée Investments’ entry-level investment is only 100 euros to ensure that it remains open to all, with an expected return of 4 percent over a 10-year period. So far, 15.5 million euros have been raised and 11 million euros invested in 46 projects, producing energy through wind, solar, hydraulics and biomass.

One investor, Robert Rochaud, 63, of Poitiers, France, gave shares to his grandchildren. “I’m worried about their future,” he said. “If they ask me later what I contributed, I can look them in the eye.”

Bégawatts is the first wind farm in France built and managed by citizens. One of the beauties of this project is that the persistence of its founders and the lessons they learned as they dealt with myriad difficulties in realizing it – raising money (banks were initially unwilling to provide loans), dealing with legal and regulatory requirements, technical issues – were put to use to benefit other citizens’ projects. What at first seemed a wildly impossible idea, especially in a country where energy provision had long been controlled by the monolithic state-owned Electricité de France (EDF), became practicable, thus inspiring other such projects.

Military resistance

Though citizen participation in renewable energy initiatives is well established in Germany and Denmark, “Energie Partagée is a pioneer in France,” said Andreas Rüdinger, an independent consultant and researcher with the Institut du Développement Durable et des Relations Internationales. Although things are improving, citizens’ projects are still at a disadvantage in France because of complicated regulations and resistance from the military to wind farms. “If we are going to construct a new model for energy production, we need the means to succeed.”

To fund Bégawatts, the initial 3 million euros came from a variety of sources: about 1,000 private investors, the Energie Partagée investment fund, local communities, and others.

Finally the banks finally came on board, lending the project 9.3 million euros. The Bégawatts project is operated mostly by volunteers, though one paid employee helps advise the locals on how to reduce their energy needs.

The electricity produced is sold to EDF under a 15-year contract with a guaranteed rate adjusted for inflation. Proceeds are used to pay off the bank loan.

There’s another advantage to citizens being in control. Since wind farms are not always well-received by local residents, who might object to the sound they make or the possible harm to wildlife, Bégawatts remains open to dialogue with neighbors and accommodates their requests – something that would be unlikely with a commercial wind farm operator. To ensure that wildlife is protected, a count is kept of dead bats found under the turbines. Another particularly French concern was the potential annoyance of hearing the turbines while having an evening aperitif in the garden. The solution: the association shuts one turbine off at cocktail hour.

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