Renewable energy provides many benefits for European society, reducing carbon emissions, creating new jobs in installation, maintenance and operation, preventing financial outflows to fossil fuel producing states and improving energy security. As technologies have matured, they have also become increasingly cost-competitive against fossil fuel resources, with solar photovoltaics and wind energy approaching cost-parity in many European countries.

However, cost and performance are not the only challenges: non-cost barriers also need to be overcome, including permitting and planning issues, lack of awareness and expertise, public opposition, and the need for new and innovative business models. This is where public policy for renewables is increasingly focused, enabling citizens and project developers to make more informed decisions and ensuring that skills needed for the energy transition abound.

Being aware of these issues, the regions of Lapland (Finland), Epirus (Greece), Castille y Leon (Spain) and Normandy (France) joined the APPROVE project (Advancing public participation and stakeholder engagement for the improvement of renewable energy policies), with support from advisory partner, Poliedra, Politecnico di Milano (Italy). The project is identifying, sharing and transferring good practices in public acceptance and participatory approaches to improve regional policy support, with a focus on Structural and Investment Fund Operational Programmes (OPs) of the four regions.

The Upper Normandy Operation Programme

The energy sector is economically important for former Upper Normandy (now merged with Lower Normandy to form the Region of Normandy, after France’s 2016 regional reform), but the region performs below average in renewable energy generation – only 7% of final energy consumption in 2014, versus 9.4% nationally. To trigger a transformation in its performance, the region’s Operational Programme made around 4 million EUR available for bioenergy, but only funded one biogas project at a value of around 250,000 EUR. The remaining funds remained untapped.

Whilst the funding was available for renewable energy projects, we were not receiving proposals, suggesting a lack of required expertise amongst our target audience to implement projects or low-awareness of the opportunities,” explained Hubert Dejean de la Bâtie, Vice-President in charge of environment, energy and sustainable development from the Regional Council of Normandy. “Additionally, renewable energy projects, particularly on- and offshore wind, have also faced challenges and sometimes even court proceedings. This kind of opposition is a major concern for project developers.”

In APPROVE, Normandy looked to others to find out how local acceptance and engagement are achieved, what sort of support can be offered to stakeholders by regional authorities, and how project planners are encouraged to adopt participatory approaches to foster local support. As well as seeking to attract and implement new projects under the OP, the region also wanted to improve the instrument’s governance by providing support to project development and changing how calls for projects are structured and assessed.

An APPROVEd improvement

As a first step, APPROVE partners produced a report looking at its four regions and identifying gaps, needs and challenges to be overcome. For Normandy, the report noted that projects are not viewed as contributing enough economically to local life, with other concerns relating to noises, smell and view. Starting with resistance amongst local populations, resistance then also filtered up to policy-makers and elected officials, hindering action.

In tandem, the project identified twenty-three good practices relating to participatory processes. Taken together, the regional review and practice mapping suggested that community energy approaches may be a promising way to overcome resistance, leading to an new report being written up for Normandy with tools, actions and recommendations, specifically, that the Operational Programmes of Upper and Lower Normandy be amended to add:

  • A new sub-indicator with a specific target for citizen-led and participatory projects (% of energy generated in such projects, or number of projects);
  • Specific financial support for citizen-led projects in the investment priority 2 – Supporting the energy transition in Upper Normandy;
  • Specific mention of citizen-led projects in the guiding principles for selection of projects, for example, local roots, open governance, a non-speculative approach and ecological requirements;
  • Evaluation criteria that take into account the participatory and citizen-led nature of projects.

As a result of these recommendations, the Upper Normandy OP has been amended to provide support for raising awareness of community energy and establishing inhabitant groups. Normandy’s Operational Programme for 2021-2027 will maintain this, and focus primarily on bioenergy, providing financial incentives for participatory and citizen-led projects in wood energy and biogas projects. Whilst the main performance indicator for the OP will remain Megawatts (MW) installed, a sub-indicator on citizen-led projects will be set-up to report on progress to the region’s elected officials. Outside of the OP Framework, the region is also working on a call for self-consumption solar projects which will be open to citizen groups.

Further, taking particular inspiration from the Good Practices ‘Arctic Smart Rural Community Cluster’, ‘Wind energy service unit and quality label’, and ‘Collaborative planning for improving social acceptance of forestry practices in state-owned lands’, Normandy is now drafting its Action Plan, looking to establish new actions on citizen involvement, change eligibility criteria for projects to ensure better local acceptability, and set-up new engagement methods with stakeholders, including the development of a new Citizen Energy Plan.

Thanks to the APPROVE project, Normandy Region succeeded in gathering and involving a lot of regional stakeholders, and got a better view and knowledge of the needs, gaps and challenges of its territory. We hope that with a new focus, new funds and a Citizen Energy Plan, we will see new decentralised energy projects emerging very soon,” said Hubert Dejean de la Bâtie.

For more information on APPROVE, see the project website.  You can also find out more about community energy in the Policy Brief on Renewable Energy Communities, and discover other practices for citizen approval in the article, ‘Yes in my backyard!’ 

Image credit: Photo by FOX from Pexels