Save your en­ergy

How easy is it to live off-grid in France? Find out what the op­tions are and how much help is avail­able

Living France - - Contents -

In most French vil­lages there are still older folk who can re­mem­ber when ru­ral homes used paraf­fin lamps for light­ing and were warmed by wood-burn­ing fires and stoves. To­day, when most home­own­ers de­pend on elec­tric­ity for heat­ing, light­ing, and pow­er­ing an ev­er­grow­ing plethora of de­vices from fridge-freez­ers to lap­tops and tablets, break­ing free of the con­tracts that tie us to sup­pli­ers may look like an im­pos­si­ble dream.

France is, ac­cord­ing to some sources, the fourth big­gest do­mes­tic elec­tric­ity con­sumer in the world, af­ter Canada, the US and Aus­tralia. That is largely be­cause state-reg­u­lated en­ergy prices are way be­low the EU av­er­age. But a grow­ing num­ber of tech­no­log­i­cal fixes make go­ing off-grid an in­creas­ingly plau­si­ble op­tion for your home.

OP­TIONS AVAIL­ABLE

So­lu­tions range from tried-and-tested so­lar pan­els and biomass-burn­ing fur­naces to wind and wa­ter power and geo­ther­mal heat pumps.

“Back in 2004 we found our­selves own­ers of a beau­ti­ful lake and a ru­inous cabin,” says Diane Kirk­wood, who with hus­band Bob now runs Covert­cabin, a collection of off-grid wooden hol­i­day cot­tages in Dor­dogne.

Un­able to af­ford the cost of con­nect­ing to a mains elec­tric­ity sup­ply, the Kirk­woods be­gan re­search­ing al­ter­na­tive so­lu­tions. So­lar pan­els pro­vide light and enough power to charge mo­bile de­vices, wood­burn­ers heat wa­ter for show­ers, and the three cab­ins have com­post­ing toi­lets. There’s bot­tled gas for cook­ing and pow­er­ing a mini-fridge.

Such back-to-na­ture con­di­tions may be fun for a short stay, but for all but a few diehards the novelty of the sim­ple life would prob­a­bly wear off af­ter a while. We’re all un­der­stand­ably com­mit­ted to our 21st-cen­tury ap­pli­ances. But with proper plan­ning, you can have the best of both worlds, pow­er­ing ev­ery­thing in your home for free.

Of course, one ob­vi­ous solution is to look at what you can do with­out in the way of ap­pli­ances – do you re­ally need a freezer, tum­ble dryer, and dish­washer? How­ever not all of us want to go back to a life with­out our labour-sav­ing de­vices, so let’s as­sume we’re look­ing for a no­com­pro­mise solution that will al­low us to keep them.

Many re­new­able en­ergy so­lu­tions for homes are state-of-the-art up­dates of old tech­nol­ogy, like clean-burn­ing fur­naces that use pel­leted, sus­tain­able biomass for hot wa­ter and cen­tral heat­ing, or scaled-down ver­sions of the wind tur­bines that in­creas­ingly sup­ply na­tional power sys­tems in France and else­where. Oth­ers are more in­no­va­tive, and all are get­ting more pow­er­ful and more af­ford­able.

If you doubt the po­ten­tial of so­lar power, visit Odeillo in Cerdagne (PyrénéesOri­en­tales), where a so­lar fur­nace uses an ar­ray of 9,600 mir­rors to zap a target to 3,500 C in sec­onds. That might be a bit over-spec for most homes, but pho­to­voltaic pan­els that sup­ply elec­tric­ity and hot wa­ter – so­lar heat­ing to you and me – are al­ready a tried-andtested tech­nol­ogy.

First pro­duced com­mer­cially in the 1970s, so­lar pan­els re­ally took off in the 1990s, and as the tech­nol­ogy be­hind them has im­proved they have be­come more af­ford­able.

“So­lar pan­els have come down in price tremen­dously in re­cent years,” says Chris Rudge, founder of Off Grid Sys­tems, a Devon-based com­pany which has in­stalled al­ter­na­tive en­ergy sys­tems for home­own­ers in France as well as the UK.

So­lar power, backed up by stor­age bat­ter­ies (which have also be­come much more ef­fi­cient in re­cent years) can meet the light­ing, de­vice-charg­ing and hot wa­ter needs of many house­holds in France, but it’s best used in tan­dem with other re­sources, such as bot­tled gas or LPG for cook­ing and a wood or a new-style biomass pel­let-burn­ing fur­nace for hot wa­ter and cen­tral heat­ing.

Chris in­stalled a home en­ergy sup­ply for an ex­pat in Li­mousin seek­ing a tai­lor­made sys­tem. “They cook with LPG and heat with wood, so they have no high­power elec­tri­cal items to worry about. We cal­cu­lated they sim­ply needed a charger, six stan­dard pho­to­voltaic mod­ules, and four bat­ter­ies. This all con­nected to their pro­tected con­sumer unit, and a gen­er­a­tor socket was in­stalled to pro­vide backup from their ex­ist­ing genset dur­ing the win­ter months.”

The mod­ules gen­er­ate up to 1800kW a year in cen­tral France and will pro­vide the own­ers with enough power for light­ing, fridge, TV, com­puter and other elec­tri­cal ap­pli­ances, Chris says.

The EU has en­thu­si­as­ti­cally sup­ported re­new­able en­ergy such as so­lar power, mainly through its re­gional funds.

Réu­nion, the French is­land in the In­dian Ocean, now gen­er­ates enough elec­tric­ity from so­lar power to sup­ply 850 house­holds, and aims to be com­pletely en­ergy suf­fi­cient within the next 10 years.

In metropoli­tan France, the gov­ern­ment (with most of its eggs in the nu­clear en­ergy bas­ket) has un­til re­cently been less en­thu­si­as­tic than those of some other EU coun­tries such as Greece, where so­lar pan­els glim­mer on ev­ery roof. But the gov­ern­ment is warm­ing to al­ter­na­tive en­ergy sources, and there are tax breaks avail­able. The gov­ern­ment now wants to see five mil­lion so­lar power units in op­er­a­tion by 2020, 80% of them in homes, and is dan­gling a num­ber of car­rots in front of home­own­ers to en­cour­age them to make the switch.

GOV­ERN­MENT IN­CEN­TIVES

It’s not al­ways easy to de­ter­mine what fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance may be avail­able, and the guide­lines can al­ways change with gov­ern­ment pol­icy, but you may be el­i­gi­ble for up to 30% of the cost of in­stalling so­lar power equip­ment, wood or biomass heat­ing or heat pump sys­tems as a crédit d’im­pôt pour la tran­si­tion én­ergé­tique (CITE). There are, how­ever, max­i­mum lim­its on the amount you can spend on the work – up to a ceil­ing of €8,000 for a sin­gle per­son and €16,000 for a cou­ple, which is in­creased by €400 for each ad­di­tional per­son in the house­hold.

The CITE is only avail­able to those who own a prop­erty in France as their main home (sec­ond-home­own­ers are not el­i­gi­ble), and is not avail­able for new prop­er­ties un­der two years old. The work must be un­der­taken by a reg­is­tered builder and the com­pany must also have the RGE qual­i­fi­ca­tion la­bel (Re­connu Garant de l’En­vi­ron­nement). In or­der to re­ceive your tax credit, you will need to send in the builder’s in­voice with your tax re­turn.

You may also be able to take ad­van­tage of l’éco-prêt à taux zéro, an in­ter­est-free loan up to €20,000 for two el­e­ments of en­ergy con­ser­va­tion, and up to €30,000 for three or more. The du­ra­tion of the loan is nor­mally 10 years, but can be up to 15 years where at least three el­e­ments of work are un­der­taken.

Other tax breaks can in­clude full or par­tial ex­emp­tion from your taxe fon­cière. At lo­cal level, re­gions and de­part­ments also of­fer loans and grants to­wards the cost of in­stalling so­lar pan­els. At na­tional level, you can start your of­f­grid home­work by vis­it­ing the of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment web­site, ren­o­va­tion-in­fos­er­vice.gouv.fr. Closer to home, as al­ways, the first steps are a visit to your mairie and a call to the lo­cal con­seil général.

DOES IT ALL ADD UP?

Set­ting up your own en­ergy sup­ply may be a tempting op­tion for en­vi­ron­men­tally con­scious buy­ers of older or more re­mote French prop­er­ties that aren’t al­ready con­nected to the na­tional grid. How­ever, the sums are less at­trac­tive for those who al­ready have a con­ven­tional elec­tric­ity sup­ply.

As­sum­ing you take full ad­van­tage of loans and grants and spend €20,000 on equip­ment and in­stal­la­tion, it could take up to 20 years for your sys­tem to pay for it­self, on the ba­sis that your house­hold en­ergy con­sump­tion is close to the French av­er­age of around 6,400 kilo­watt hours a year. So your grand­chil­dren may thank you for spend­ing the money but, bar­ring a surge in French en­ergy bills or a med­i­cal break­through in life ex­ten­sion treat­ments, you can’t ex­pect a quick re­turn. Nor will the ex­pen­di­ture nec­es­sar­ily add value to your home – in fact, it may even make it harder to sell.

Si­mon Ker­ridge, of Pézenas-based Langue­doc Prop­erty Fin­ders, cau­tions against go­ing com­pletely off-grid.

“Most home­own­ers liv­ing in France all year round will in any case want the se­cu­rity of a mains elec­tric­ity sup­ply in the win­ter months, when so­lar heat­ing may not meet all their en­ergy needs, so dis­con­nect­ing com­pletely from the grid is likely to re­duce the value of your home, not im­prove it,” Si­mon says.

“If you have a prop­erty that is off the grid it may well ap­peal to some peo­ple but at the mo­ment this will be a very small per­cent­age of the prop­erty-buy­ing mar­ket, mak­ing it harder to sell.”

In other words, if you can take the long view, are pre­pared to make some mi­nor com­pro­mises on power-thirsty home ap­pli­ances, or sim­ply don’t want to be be­holden to EDF, go­ing at least partly of­f­grid could work for you. Oth­er­wise, you might want to stick to the con­ven­tional power sup­ply. Robin Gauldie is a free­lance jour­nal­ist and for­mer ed­i­tor of Cli­mate Change – Ad­dress­ing the Chal­lenge. His French home is in the Mon­tagne Noire, near Car­cas­sonne in Aude

Above and be­low: One of Covert­cabin’s eco-friendly hol­i­day cab­ins in Dor­dogne

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