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In France, Finding Local Green Energy Solutions Proves a Challenge

  • Lisa Bryant

FILE - Workers install solar panels at the Constantine photovoltaic power station in Cestas, near Bordeaux, southwestern France.

FILE - Workers install solar panels at the Constantine photovoltaic power station in Cestas, near Bordeaux, southwestern France.

After turning a 15th century stone mansion in Brittany into a comfortable bed & breakfast, Scotsman Peter Dinwiddie was left with what he calls a “messy” predicament. What to do with a pair of dilapidated buildings on the edge of his property?

Today Dinwiddie, who moved to this bucolic slice of far western France known as the Finistere more than a decade ago, has found the solution. Solar panels glisten from atop a now elegant stone veranda — Dinwiddie’s contribution to a larger energy transition.

“We don’t use the electricity as such,” he said ruefully. “We sell it back into the energy grid, and buy it back at half the price from EDF… which is a bit crazy, really.”

EDF, or Electricite de France, is France’s national power company, which operates the country’s 58 nuclear power plants, although it also has a renewable energy wing. But to install his solar panels, Dinwiddie turned to Quenea, one of dozens of local companies now mushrooming around the area.

As negotiators from 195 nations try to reach a climate deal in Paris, regional and local governments aren’t waiting. Many are forging ahead with their own climate action plans that are sometimes more ambitious than national ones.

“If you look at the delivery and implementation of what comes out of Paris, most will take place at the state, regional or city level,” said Libby Ferguson, state and regions director for UK nonprofit The Climate Group. On a local level, she said, “we’re already seeing some really substantial emissions cuts.”

The most striking examples are taking place in countries like Germany, where regional governments wield considerable power. By contrast France, where power — both in politics and in energy — is still largely centralized, many areas are lagging behind.

Brittany, for example, plans to increase its share of renewables to 34 percent of its electricity production by 2020. But that’s a tall order. Currently, renewables in the Finistere area where Dinwiddie lives only account for about 10 percent of the energy mix, largely in line with the rest of the region.

“The problem is that energy decision-making is not in the hands of local authorities, it’s very difficult to make independent decisions,” said Denez L’Hostis, president of NGO France Nature Environnement, who is based in the Finistere town of Quimper. “Brittany has a very small budget to support renewables, either at sea or on the mainland.”

“What we need is local financing” to move forward, he added. “This is a very big handicap — not only for Brittany, but for other French regions.”

Still, the constraints have not stopped dozens of clean energy groups from setting up in the Finistere. Blue Solutions, owned by family business giant, the Bollore Group, makes electric vehicles that are powering ride-sharing schemes in cities like Paris, London and Indianapolis. Its electric tram is running down the Champs Elysees for the COP21 climate summit.

Other companies specialize in heat pumps and storage batteries, and there are plans to build a giant offshore wind farm. Yet another innovative startup, Compte Epargne CO2, pays consumers for reducing their carbon emissions.

“We’re trying to create a community that says citizens can change things,” said engineer Gauthier Ballan, part of the Brest-based startup.

FILE - The EDF tower of French state-owned power giant Electricite de France (EDF), is seen in the La Defense business district, west of Paris.

FILE - The EDF tower of French state-owned power giant Electricite de France (EDF), is seen in the La Defense business district, west of Paris.

Quenea, based in the Brittany town of Carhaix-Plouger, is not only installing solar systems for residents like Dinwiddie, but also investing in Africa.

“In the first five years it was a desert,” said manager Pascal Quenea, describing the investment climate for renewables in Finistere two decades ago, when he first started. “But we’ve seen a change.”

France’s newly passed energy legislation may help drive the change. Among other things, it aims to cut red tape for renewables, including long waiting periods to get approval for projects. Still, environmentalists say it’s unclear how it will work on the ground and, more crucially, it doesn’t provide the much-needed extra financing for local governments transitioning to green energy.

Still, local officials like Stephane Perron are upbeat about the area’s future.

“I think we’re one of the French departments where renewable energy can really be significant,” said Perron, a councillor for the Finistere department. “And because we’re at the tip of Brittany, far from anywhere else, we’ve always had a capacity for innovation.”

Indeed, location is one of Finistere’s strongest arguments for going green. The department still largely depends on nuclear-based electricity transported from many kilometers away, driving up costs.

But when the tiny Finistere island of Sein launched a drive to become energy self-sufficient within a decade, it reportedly hit a wall with power company EDF, which supplies the fuel now powering the island. The island’s mayor also preferred to work with the electricity company rather than to go it alone.

“On the island, there’s enough wind, solar and energy savings potential to cover residents’ needs,” said resident Patrick Saultier, who heads the initiative, told Agence France-Presse.

While experts say going 100 percent green is probably a good idea for the island, energy independence is neither feasible nor desirable for Finistere as a whole. But, environmentalists like L’Hostis say the area should a much greater say in its energy future.

“The term ‘decentralized’ is not well known in France,” he said. “I think Brittany could be much more autonomous in its energy production for electricity. But it will take time.”

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