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
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.
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.
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