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ManagEnergy is a technical support initiative of the Intelligent Energy - Europe (IEE) programme of the European Commission which aims to assist actors from the public sector and their advisers working on energy efficiency and renewable energy at the local and regional level.

Seeing the light : solar power plants in Alsace are the result of the collaboration of Franco-German renewable energy cooperatives

Georges Audras, Präsident Energie Partagée Alsace (EPA) / Alexander Schoch, MP BaWü / André Langwost,  Eurosolar-France/ Josha Frey, MP BaWü / Brigitte Klinkert , Vice Présidente of the departmental Council of the High Rhine / René Frieh, Vice mayor, Colmar / Dr. Josef Pesch, CEO fesa geno / Erwan Boumard, directeur Energie Partagée Investissement (EPI) / Gilbert Kümmerle, CFO fesa geno

First transnational renewable energy cooperative project

June 2015 saw the launch of an exciting new project in the French region of Alsace: Zusamme Solar ! Colmar (‘Together Solar! Colmar’). Solar power plants have been installed on the roofs of four industrial buildings (former textile factories), three of which are in Colmar, 2 600 m2 of panels giving a total electricity production of 430 MWh a year, or enough to supply 172 households on an annual basis.

The background

The project was originally developed by a German, who then sought an investor, and found ‘fesa Energie Geno eG’, a German cooperative. fesa has extensive experience of developing photovoltaic projects since the mid 1990s, including their flagship solar plant of 366 kW (2006) directly above the Freiburg motorway. Renewable energy cooperatives are not only focussed on financial profit. They are free to advance cooperation in society, and other non-financial benefits for the common good, by investing in projects that can offer solutions to the climate and energy crisis. The production facilities are shared by members and added value may remain within the cooperative to be reinvested in new projects.

Combining cross-border efforts

When it came to funding the project, fesa was looking for a partner, so naturally they turned westwards. ‘Energies Partagées en Alsace’ (EPA) [‘Shared Energies in Alsace’], an Alsatian renewable energy cooperative formed in 2008, consisting of 37 individuals, is committed to energy transition at a local level. Their involvement, especially given the location of the projected installations, made perfect sense. This is the first ever example of a transnational project of this nature whereby “German and French citizens are bringing together their money to invest in decentralised energy production and getting more in return than traditional ‘safe’ investments” points out Andre Langwost, president of Eurosolar, who brokered the partnership between the cooperatives.

Citizen-control through direct investment

The ownership of the project is split 50/50 down the middle between the French and German cooperatives, and the profits are shared equally between them. In terms of equity injected, 50% was directly from fesa, 10% from EPA and 40% from the citizen fund ‘ Energie Partagée Investissement’ (EPI) [‘Shared Energy Investment’].

In Germany cooperatives do not come under financial regulations, but are controlled by self-regulating Cooperative Societies that revise their accounts. This gives coops more freedom to raise money from the public. Thus, Germany can boast of 880 renewable energy cooperatives, as opposed to only a handful in the whole of France.

The investment cost of the project itself was about €800 000. A large proportion of this was financed by a bank loan from La Nef, a French ethical and cooperative bank, € 120 000 was contributed directly by the Region of Alsace, and the rest came from equity provided by share holders.

Now, there is an open call for citizen investment, in both France and Germany in order to refinance the equity and loans to the project. It is open to everybody to invest in, with a minimum stake of €100 via EPI in France - or via fesa Geno in Germany at a minimum stake of €3 000. This supports the project and allows investors to become co-producers of clean energy.

Municipality looks forward ; political will crucial to achieve more widespread energy transition

Colmar is unusual in being one of only about 150 (of 36 658) communes in France in which the management of electricity distribution is under local public control, through the Colmar company Vialis. Municipal political support for the project was crucial. Erwan Boumard, Delegate General of ‘Énergie Partagée France’ insists that “ the local collectives are becoming aware of the importance of re-appropriating energy production ˮ. The macroeconomic impact of renewable energy is made visible through job creation at a local level during the installation of projects such as this.

Zusamme Solar ! Colmar puts 400 kW PV on the French grid. “The challenge of this project was also to handle the variety of the settings” explained Andre Langwost, a French-German lawyer who handled the transnational issues, and the details of the 4 projects with 3 different feed-in tariffs and 2 grid operators.

“The projects were limited to 100 kW each to receive an advantageous feed-in tariff that ensured bankability for the four projects .” The lower feed-in tariff for a site that has a capacity of more than 100 kW of electricity acts as an effective disincentive for larger projects, thereby protecting the market of the French national electricity distributor. Promises have been made by the French government to reform this law, setting higher feed-in tariffs by the end of 2015 in order to re-incentivise the solar industry in France, which is flagging when it should be flourishing due to a rapid decrease in the cost of production of photovoltaic panels in recent years. "If we assume full cost calculation, auto-consumption from solar is cheaper across Europe than buying electricity from a big utility, but often it is not, due to hidden subsidies for oil, coal, and nuclear power that distort this market", Josef Pesch, CEO of fesa, underlines.

Alsace was the first French region to subsidise renewable community energy, and had the first two plants in France connected to the grid in 1996. Neighbouring Germany is a leader in the field of community energy. Here a third of generated electricity comes from renewables, and the big utilities only have a market share of about 6% in this field. It is hardly surprising they are not happy with community-owned renewables advancing, as they are losing out. There is a growing recognition of the need for renewable energy cooperatives to work together at a European level, so Zusamme Solar ! Colmar is a welcome example of the scope for collaboration between European citizens in shaping their energy future. If there is to be a European Energy Union, this is the shape it must take: Renewables Cooperatives! Together.

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