Energy distribution, the last taboo in French energy policies

Electricity distribution grid (c) SRD
Published by Yannick Régnier on 12/03/2015

On Friday March 6 2015, Yannick Régnier, in charge of Energy and territory projects for the CLER, the network for energy transition, spoke on television at the salon BE Positive in Lyon.

The program of the day? Towards a new territorial governance for energy, with a focus on autonomy, solidarity and ability to act.

Below is the video of the CLER intervention, as well as a written synthesis of the content.


Note: The video of the intervention, on the same set, of Patrick Saultier, consultant engineer and Director of the local company Ile de Sein Energies, promoting an energy transition project for the island is the focus of another article.

Autonomy and solidarity should not be mutually exclusive

The movement of positive energy territories is known for promoting an autonomy of territories (in terms of energy), meaning that the territories must be able to become actors in their own development.

But it also comprehends three dimensions of solidarity:

  • Territory solidarity, through the commitment to export a possible surplus of the renewable energy production to territories that have a structural deficit (particularly urban sectors);
  • Social solidarity, through the communities’ positioning as a defender of general interest and of the local energy public service, specifically concerning the struggle against economic insecurity and energy isolation:
  • Human solidarity, through the permanent management of an exchange, help and sharing network (the TEPOS network).

These solidarity issues concern the positive energy territories more than any other. This is why they sometimes refuse to see them reduced to the sole principle of tariff equalization for electricity.

Questionning the relevance of the relations between solidarity, equalization and monopoly

First of all, let’s remember that tariff equalization does not guarantee equality between people (to know more, read the article: Electricity tariff equalization, a French myth to be debated). The social issue of the price of electricity (in €/kWh) and of its uniqueness at the national level is only secondary. The following example is a proof; it is not at the center of the preoccupations of the national network of actors working in the sector of poverty and energy insecurity in housing (RAPPEL) whose activities have indeed moved beyond the injunction of an instrumental equality to focus, first and foremost, on the concrete situations of inequality, primarily conditioned by income level, thermal quality of housing or even (if mobility is integrated) geographic location.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong, by contrast, to claim that tariff equalization in itself poses a problem of equality. Therefore a principle creating such wide support should not be called into question on this basis. The problem only eventually appears when equalization is used as a pretext to justify the quasi-monopoly of the EDF group, via its subsidiary ErDF, concerning the management of energy distribution in France.

Today, the tariff equalization is guaranteed by an accounting mismanagement within the ErDF accounts, in a total lack of transparency and beyond territorial control. Besides, hundreds of millions of Euros per year (2013: € 427M; 2012: € 535M; 2011: € 308M according to ErDF accounts) are transferred from ErDF’s regulated distribution activity to EDF, its parent company, whose production and supply activities can be considered commercially sensitive.

However, equalization can easily be maintained within a concession system open to competition (or at least in local public companies), as Dominique Rousseau, a constitutional law specialist, clearly reminds us, in a note  written at the CLER's demand. In their White Paper dated October 20 2011, the FNCCR also made suggestions regarding the practical aspects of an alternative system.

Making it possible for territories to act

It must be said from the start, the established energy system reduces the possibility for territories to act.

All rural territories have abundant renewable energy resources, although they each naturally have their own specific energy productions. From the perspective of resources, territories have relatively homogeneous capacities in terms of sustainable energy.

Focusing on energy potentials in an autonomous way, by local actors and for local actors, can generate considerable profits and create the tools for a perennial energy strategy, at the heart of territorial projects and of a local development effort.

Today, under cover of national solidarity, the energy transition of the territories is stalled as they have to face the inertia of the established energy system as well as the ban on coordinating their interventions in the energy chain efficiently (from production to consumption via the key link, distribution) and on the different energy networks (electricity, gas, heating).

Simultaneously, in Germany, thanks to a more decentralized organization in terms of energy, initiatives such as that of the EWS Schönau energy cooperative or of the appropriation of energy networks by local governments (electricity, gas, heating) have been established in Hamburg.