Brittany has had its fair share of heroes, not least the fearsome duo Asterix and Obelix and their fight against the imperial powers of Rome. Patrick Saultier would be the last person to compare himself to the indomitable pair, but he, with a group of strong-minded modern day Gauls, is leading a twenty-first century quest, not to defeat the Romans, but to defeat out-dated French legislation and to bring renewable energy to les Bretons. Philippa Nuttall Jones reports about the modern-day electricity rebels.
Trained as an engineer and believing passionately in the need to protect the environment and boost the local economy, Saultier realised the important role wind could play in achieving this dual aim in his small village near the town of Rennes. By 2008 he had mobilised enough support from the local population to be able to create a small wind power company and erect six turbines that belong to and benefit the local community.
“As early as 2001 I was inspired by Denmark, and the fact that the country was producing so much power from community-owned wind farms,” he says. “I started talking to people and explaining that we could do the same here in Rennes. By 2003 it was clear that we had to do this; that people wanted to set up a project.”
His latest cause is helping the inhabitants of the Ile de Sein, a small island off the coast of Brittany, to realise their dream of becoming powered by 100 per cent locally-produced, community-owned renewable energies.
The island has a permanent population of just over 100 inhabitants and over 40 of them are pushing for their homes and businesses to rely solely on renewables in the future. They show that by harnessing the natural resources of the wind, sea and sun they could power their homes and rid themselves of the fossil fuels on which they are currently reliant. Today, the island receives its electricity from three generators that use 420,000 litres of oil a year.
Islanders are convinced of the need to move away from fossil fuels and embrace renewables for “environmental reasons and because they are living daily with the direct consequences of climate change,” says Saultier. The highest point on the island is only 1.5 metres above sea-level and increasingly the islanders are forced to dig dams to protect themselves from the surging water, especially during and after storms.
“They can see that sea levels are rising and are very, very concerned,” says Saultier. “Living on an island, these people are the first to suffer the effects of climate change. They are frustrated that their consumption of fossil fuels is contributing directly to this and want to be part of the solution, not the problem.”
Employment is another reason for the interest in home-grown renewable energy. “There are fewer people living on the island full-time as more and more houses become holiday homes,” explains Saultier. “We need jobs on the island. When we buy oil from Qatar this doesn’t employ anyone in Brittany and means lots of money being spent outside France. Locally produced renewable energies would create employment for residents and bring investment to the island.”
If the project were to come to fruition, the Ile de Sein would be the first place in France to be powered 100 per cent by renewable energy. However, before this can happen, the islanders have to convince the French government to change national legislation, which states that areas not connected to the mainland grid can produce no more than 30 per cent of their energy from renewable sources to avoid blackouts. The Ile de Sein is one of three Breton islands that remain off grid. Proposed changes to the law are being discussed by politicians and could be voted on this summer.
Opponents to the plans say it would be impossible to power the island 100 per cent from wind, wave and solar power, but islands of a similar size in other countries, namely El Hierro in Spain, Eigg in Scotland and Samso in Denmark, are already well on their way to achieving this goal.
“I am always interested in projects where local people want to bring about change intelligently by using local resources that allow them to consume better and that create jobs within the local community,” says Saultier. Doubtless, Asterix and Obelix, the original community defenders, would be happy to offer some magic potion to help him and the inhabitants of the Ile de Sein achieve their aims.
This article by Philippa Nuttall Jones (@Jones_Pippa) is reposted with permission and was first published at World Future Council. She is a Brussels-based communications specialist and EU desk editor of the Tree, a climate change communications tool.