On the first day of school in Bourguébus, a community in Calvados, the new first-graders stand in the schoolyard open-mouthed. The other teachers, parents, and students are already used to the peculiar roof of their school. Since August 2012 the building has been covered in solar panels. Officially inaugurated in May 2013, it is the first success of Énergie Partagée—in English, “Shared Energy”—a community investment fund for renewable energy.
[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on FuturePerfect and is licensed under the Creative Commons.]
It all started in 2010 with a small group of citizens who wondered which energy model they ought to endorse for their country. Their region, Lower Normandy, historically bears the mark of nuclear energy. The highly controversial nuclear power plant of Flamanville will be the home of France’s first European pressurized water reactor, which has prodded citizens like Valérie Haelewyn into action: “We wanted to come up with something different in our region. The topic of energy offered us an opportunity to take back control over our own home, to shape our children’s future.” Énergie Partagée embodies the idea of inter-community action in the scope of a large civic project: private actors such as associations, citizens, and businesses join forces with public authorities.
Local, but not alone
The initiative was quick to identify three schools on the southern plane of Caen, a community of several towns totaling 8,500 inhabitants. A shared-interest co-op with the name Plaine Sud Énergie was founded in June 2011 with the valuable support of ARDES, the regional association for the development of a solidary economy—one that is characterized by or involves a community of responsibilities and interests. It raises public-private funding for the purpose of installing solar panels on school roofs. The participating communities and their citizens fund the project by underwriting the co-op shares.
But that is not enough. Patricia Oury, co-manager and co-founder of Plaine Sud Énergie, says: “It is hard to start this all by yourself. We were unable to finance the three installations without help; our starting capital was insufficient to obtain any bank loans.” This was where Énergie Partagée got involved. In June 2012, the association purchased shares in the capital of Plaine Sud Énergie in order to increase the investment volume.
The story of this project illustrates what Énergie Partagée wants to do: provide leverage to local champions of renewable energy. The citizens’ capital raised by Énergie Partagée funds projects to generate renewable energy as well as to increase energy savings and energy efficiency. On the one hand, Énergie Partagée is an association that supports project administrators and creates networks between energy activists. On the other hand, it is a financing association, which has been authorized to collect and manage contributions from citizens for investment purposes since 2011.
Citizens shape and fund their own energy model
Among other things, the mission of Énergie Partagée is to build citizens’ capital—in other words, to make investments more meaningful by bringing those who provide funds and those who use them back together. The French co-operative bank Nef is one of the founding members of the structure. Haelewyn and her husband also invested money in Énergie Partagée: “What impressed us was this smart way to use money. It made us rethink the notion of investment. We realized that this model can make a difference in our very own community.”
The concept puts investing citizens into the driving seat of energy policy. “With Énergie Partagée, people choose where their money is going. They decide to promote a certain energy model,” explains Marc Mossalgue, who coordinates the movement. Oury confirms: “It turns citizens into spin doctors of change. In the case of Plaine Sud Énergie, the communities would never have gotten involved in this sort of project on their own.” According to Haelewyn, raising awareness is key: “The mainstream media never cover initiatives like this one, and that is why people don’t believe in them. This project proves, however, that you can make a difference. Right in your own community.”
And you can do it in an efficient way, too. Today, the schools of Bourguébus, Garcelles, and Saint-Aignan generate solar energy—in the first year of operation to the tune of about 70,000 kilowatt-hours. The region is not exactly known for its sunshine, but Oury is optimistic. The output is fed into the general grid and sold to Electricité de France, EDF. The energy company agreed to purchase electricity at 40 cents per kilowatt-hour over 20 years. This way, the investment will break even within 15 years. But solar energy is a difficult industry. Today, prices are closer to 17 cents per kilowatt-hour. Many are frustrated with the feeble pricing and legal framework, including Oury: “It would be impossible to balance the budget at today’s prices. We must use the success of this project to appeal to the public and its power to influence things.” She is convinced that people in the region are closely following the debate about the energy revolution.
Tackling challenges collectively
In addition to being a financing lobby for renewable energies, Énergie Partagée has also tackled the far more difficult task of raising awareness. The project Plaine Sud Énergie fuses educational and commercial approaches in powerful symbolism. Students in grades four and five explore the topic of energy with the help of questionnaires, experiments, and field trips to exhibitions. But the children are not the reluctant ones: “It is mostly the parents who hold us back psychologically. When I started presenting the project, I realized that many parents thought I was from a different planet,” says Oury. Today, she works on fostering a dialogue across the age groups, in the hope that she can change minds for the long term. The road is still long, but she knows that the faculty stands firmly behind the work of Plaine Sud Énergie.
Thanks to Énergie Partagée, the south of Caen generates solar energy as well as a movement toward a new system and a new way to perceive personal responsibility—valuable tools to tackle the collective challenges of our times. Valérie Haelewyn summarizes: “Basically, the topic of energy raises one question: What do we together want to make of tomorrow’s society? Énergie Partagée provides a beautiful answer to this.”
School photo CC-licensed by Energie Partagée.
Barnabé Binctin studied journalism in Paris and, once graduated, actively campaigned for citizen journalism. Today, he works for the environmental magazine Reporterre.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.