Citizen-led energy drives on !
According to a recent survey by Opinion Way on behalf of Enercoop, 42% of French people are ready to participate or invest in a citizen-led project in favour of renewably-sourced energy. The emergence of more and more citizen energy communities, a concept many French people are as yet unaware of, has the potential to be a huge motor in the energy transition as well as a creator of local value. Here’s an update on these initiatives from Noémie Zambeaux, Mission Leader and facilitator of stakeholder networks at Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Energy Environnement.
Noémie Zambeaux, Mission Leader and facilitator of stakeholder networks at Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Energy Environnement
What exactly are citizen-led energy projects?
It’s quite simple. Under their own enterprise, local citizens, often volunteers, initiate a project for advancing renewables in their district. They then invite townspeople, local authorities, local businesses and other stakeholders to raise venture capital for the project, ensuring local investors reap the financial benefits while providing active input to project-related decisions. In a photovoltaics project, for instance, they would decide what type of panels to install, where to install them, and who shall be the main contractor. They also choose and manage the value recovery model (sale per an obligation-to-purchase scheme, bidding on Energy Regulation Commission tenders, OTC trading, own use, public service concession for heating mains, etc.). In electricity projects, they collaborate with the area’s transport grid operator and manager.
It’s an excellent means of putting local savings to good use and profiting the district. Moreover, this initiative enhances the acceptability of projects as citizens themselves are the stakeholders.
How did citizen-led energy begin?
Unlike other European countries who have much more experience in the matter, France has been involved for only twenty years or so (investor protection regulations prevented the mobilization of citizens’ savings). The first citizen-led energy initiatives only really emerged for the first time in the Rhône-Alpes region. At the time, renewable energy production projects that added little to the local economy and were even detrimental to the local landscape were on the rise. That’s when Energie Partagée (shared energy) was incorporated as a nonprofit investment fund and obtained accreditation from the Financial Markets Authority to mobilize citizen savings and fund several pioneer projects.
Alongside this, thanks to EU and Regional Council funding, Rhônalpenergie-Environnement* and the region’s nature parks imagined and developed a new renewable energy production model based on local authority and citizen participation. This model sets out to foster projects that take account of transversal district issues like landscape integration, create value for local stakeholders, and are initiated under shared governance with the citizens. This new model, embodied by the nonprofit Centrales Villageoises, a member of Energie Partagée, soon gathered momentum in the national schema. At the agency, we now coordinate the AURACLE network, comprising citizen projects, which may follow the same logic as Centrales Villageoises (in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes) or be based on some other citizen model.
*Now called Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Énergie Environnement
What profile do developed projects have?
The initiatives cover renewable-based electricity projects as well as heating projects: photovoltaics, wind power, water power, anaerobic digestion, wood energy, direct solar heating. This includes several collective own-use projects like the Quint valley project in the Alps foothills. The citizens define the level to which the project is deployed. They must determine an optimum scale in order to reach a viable volume and financial equilibrium while making sense inside the area. Projects are usually developed on the scale of a local district, often covering several municipalities.
Although industrialists view these projects as lacking great interest due to the small scale and low yield, they can nonetheless become associated with or acquire shares in them. They then follow a joint development model whose objective is to make the projects into something bigger with the input of skills from these developers, leading to the implementation of higher power projects.
The projects aren’t frozen in time but enjoy ongoing deployment. A photovoltaics project can for example be expanded by adding new panels, new sites, new buildings. Projects can also encompass other renewables, for example wood-fired boiler plants or hydro-electric installations.
How and with what do they operate?
You’d be amazed at the skills that exist in our regions! Retired energy engineers, entrepreneurs, or accountants join projects at their own behest. And such skills are by no means difficult to find, which is surprising but at the same time uplifting! The Energie Partagée and Centrales Villageoises networks have also set up partnerships to deal with potential roadblocks like insurance or backing from banks.
As an example, MAIF insurers have a specific offering that takes account of project requirements and covers risks adequately without going overboard. The role of the aforementioned networks is to assist and advise volunteers and project sponsors alike on the legal, technical, and administrative aspects of the project package, as well as to keep things moving at a steady pace so the project does not run out of steam.
What does the future hold?
Citizen-led energy is a scarcely known concept among the French, yet in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region 65 projects have been initiated in 10 years, involving over 6000 citizens and more than 90 local authority shareholders. The biggest projects involve 400 citizens.
The impetus is there! It is driven by two main regions, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes and Occitanie. With the support of these regions, word of mouth acts efficiently from one region to the next, enabling the movement to gather pace. But the main issue remains that of external communication: we must organize the promotion of citizen-led energy nationwide. Other European countries are way ahead of us here and we must make up the lost ground.
On a final note, certain collective enterprises plan on extending their action to eco-renovation work. This is already a thing in the Netherlands and Denmark. It means entering as a third-party investor in the insulation of schools, dwellings, public buildings, etc. The collective enterprise advances the funds and is paid back from the savings made. There are plenty of fine projects to assist!