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Environment

Green electricity and policies making inroads in ex-coal mining areas of northern France

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The former mine site of Loos-en-Gohelle has been turned into a centre of green innovation RFI/Sarah Elzas

France has long invested in nuclear energy, which makes it difficult for renewables to find funding or supporters. In northern France, with its legacy of coal mines, introducing sustainable policies and green energy is even more of a challenge. But renewable energy businesses and towns have been rethinking how energy is created in France.

“We think we can contribute to a change of mindset with regard to the way we think energy in France,” says Enercoop Emmanuel Soulias, sitting in his office in northern Paris.

Enercoop has been in business since 2005. It buys electricity generated from renewable sources - hydro-power plants, wind farms, solar panels on people’s roofs – and injects the amount used by its customers into the national grid.

It currently has 26,000 customers. Its ambition is 150,000 in five years, which is very few compared to France’s 35 million electricity customers.

But Soulias says that’s not the point. By buying electricity generated from many small sources, the company is moving away from the centralised business model imposed by France’s massive nuclear industry.

Plus, Enercoop is set up as a cooperative, which means clients, like Antoine, are stakeholders.

“I no longer want to subsidise nuclear plants,” he says. He signed up for Enercoop two months ago, and is willing to pay the higher prices it charges for electricity – about 16 per cent more than what is on offer from EDF, the French electric company.

Antoine lives and works in Lille, in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of northern France, which was a major coal-mining region through the 1980s.

“Most people are not interested in renewable energy; the priority is employment in this area of France,” says Guillaume Jourdain, the director of the region's Enercoop branch. A former Greenpeace activist, he started the cooperative in 2010.

Today the branch works with five renewable electricity producers, and recently signed up its thousandth customer. Finding producers is more difficult that finding customers.

“We have great potential with wind energy,” he explains. But it is expensive to set up a wind turbine, and there are many regulations in place, which is daunting for small businesses or individuals.

Solar church

One of the five Enercoop producers in the north is Loos-en-Gohelle, a suburb of Lens, some 25 kilometres southwest of Lille. The town replaced its church roof with solar panels.

City manager Thibault Gheysens says that when it came time to replace the roof of St Vaast, a study showed that installing a photo-voltaic roof would pay for itself.

The town could have sold the electricity to EDF, which would have offered more money. But the mayor decided to go with Enercoop, to support sustainable energy.

The 7,000-person town has been run by Mayor Jean-Francois Caron since 2001. A member of the EELV, the Green party, he has encouraged countless initiatives to turn the town into a showcase of sustainability. (An international delegation lead by French President Francois Hollande is expected to visit the town during the UN Climate Conference in December.)

And yet, the fact that Loos-en-Gohelle has become a green leader is something of a paradox. From the first floor of city hall you can see one of two massive slag heaps, a mound of rubble pulled up from the coal mines.

At 146 meters high, one is the tallest in Europe. During the peak of the coal industry, there were eight slag heaps in town, and nine mines.

“We are living with a post-industrial heritage, which has some consequences,” says Gheysens.

Besides the environmental consequences, there is also the economic impact of shutting down a massive industry: the region lost 200-thousandcoal mining jobs since the late 1980s. Unemployment in Loos-en-Gohelle is at 17 per cent today.

Gheysens says contending with the social impact of the mines is the only way to move forward.

“Before, with the system of the coal mines, you have one engineer who tells you what to do. And if you don’t do it, you could die. And now the system has changed,” he says. People have to be encouraged to make their own decisions, which starts with fully embracing the mining heritage, which is not intuitive.

“The people of Loos-en-Gohelle say we have to keep our own history if we want to look towards sustainability, and the future” says Gheysens.

Unesco named the northern French mining basin a world heritage site in 2012, which served to confirm people's pride in their past, and has translated into support for new projects.

The former coal mining infrastructure has been transformed into a centre of green innovation, with buildings in the shadow of the slag heaps housing several businesses focused on sustainability, a theatre and a business incubator.

“In this place you have people saying: this is our debt in carbon - the two slags. And now we will show what is the future,” he says.

Money talks

Pride is one thing, but when it comes to citizens and consumers, a driving factor is still money.

Fanny is another Enercoop customer in Lille, who decided to switch about a year ago. She would have liked to do it long before, but she couldn’t afford it paying the 150 euros a year more it would cost.

The decision came when the government announced a price increase on EDF electricity.

“I said, let's go: it's more expensive at the beginning, but I won't have increases,  and probably in 5 years or 10 years it will be the same price,” she says in her Lille apartment.

That's very likely. EDF has been pushing price increases, which the government has largely resisted. But the cost is expected to go up, and Enercoop CEO Emmanuel Soulias says when that happens, renewable energy will be well positioned.

Ten years ago, when Enercoop was founded, its electricity cost 35 per cent above the market. Today is 16 per cent higher, but Soulias says the price itself has not gone up, “but the price of EDF has been growing. So we think at one stage the curves will cross, and the price of green electricity will be lower than classical, standard electricity.”

The French Environment and Energy Management Agency published a report recently saying that France has the capacity to get to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050. Soulias says it’s possible, but he questions the political will to get there.

“The technology is ready, the technology is cost effective, now it's just a question of ambition and political choice,” he says. “In the same way that many years ago, France decided to invest massively in nuclear technology. If we invest in the research and development of renewables, I think we can find a solution. It's not a technical question, it's a political question.”

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