How Energy United the Big Players of the City

Shifting from plus-energy territory to City Booster... On 10 May 2016, EDF Collectivités organized a retrospective of a year’s worth of Energy & Territory Workshops. AREP’S Head Project Officer for Smart Cities, Étienne Burdet, gives us his thoughts on the event.
Photo of a wind turbine

EDF must really be quite desperate for a rebrand, I thought as I admired my t-shirt in the gigantic gilded mirrors and enjoyed the sophisticated squeak of my tennis shoes on the marble of the sumptuous Saint-James Albany building: clearly it had invested heavily in this retrospective of its Energy and Territory Workshops. With territories as much as individuals becoming producers of energy themselves, and increasingly smart energy at that, EDF, with its nuclear plants and its giant dams, does come off as rather antediluvian. An impression the attendees willingly confirm. Pretty much straight off the bat, Bruno Charles, Vice-President of Greater Lyon, merrily declares: ‘EDF is a USSR that worked out.’ This kind of tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation is just the done thing in this sort of meeting, it’s something of a ritual that sets the audience at ease− an audience made up of ministers, employees working in EDF’s technical support, engineers, academics. Familiar faces, it’s just that I’m used to seeing them in a setting where the focus is on town planning, not on energy.


And what had been important enough to have all such a select group of individuals summoned? A year-long study of plus-energy territories, or, to be quite precise, the TEPCV (Territoires à Énergie Positive pour la CroissanceVerte or Plus-Energy Territories For Green Growth). This was something of a rush job thrown together by Ségolène Royale just in time for the COP21, aiming to have some big results, and quick. And then – what a splendid idea! − EDF commissioned a range of academics to follow up on its progress.The overall outcome is what you’d expect: this had been a case of more haste than speed, yes, but who was going to turn up their nose at a juicy state subsidy? Many local authorities within the TEPOS network (Territoires à ÉnergiePOsitive or Plus- Energy Territories), drew on the TECPV as a budget boost for already-existing projects.


 But there were some glaring omissions on the TEPCV: train stations. There were miles and miles of bike lanes, hundreds and hundreds in cubic metres of insulation, a few wind turbines and solar panels– surprisingly few projects for energy production though −, but not one single multimodal interchange hub to be seen [i].  Oh well, too bad. Or maybe this was a good thing after all. All these study results are incredibly useful for the City Booster programme by Gares & Connexions, and more generally for the urban insertion of our development projects.


The key information was to be found not in the reports, but in how the panel was made up. Energy is a topic that unites a range of players unimaginable only five years ago. Everyone wants to be part of the energy transition and everyone wants to exchange (or co-produce, share, etc.) energy with their neighbour in one way or another. Picture this: a station that stocks and distributes energy. The surrounding properties are going to want to tap into their grid. Or a power-producing train station (guess how many square metres all that rooftop space offers). An opportunity for a territory that wants to cover its energy needs with renewables. And what’s a station where solar-powered Navyas leave from? No less than an opportunity for a city to completely transform its transport system.


If locally generated power becomes a key element in City Booster, developers, local authorities, and many others are necessarily going to want to have a share in the project, that’s what these workshops prove. And we’re not talking HEQ stickers on the façade to absolve us of our sins and prove we’re good people. We’re talking about being connected to the territory via the smart grid, we’re talking about boosting the local energy metabolism. We’re talking about selling services that are in high demand.


So what kind of scale are we going to be offering these services on? For the adjacent property, a one-kilometre radius, for the entire city even? What are the boundaries for Plus-Energy City Boosters (a label I give out personally and that enjoys the respect of the entire AREP Environment team)?

 As Alain Bourdin, who headed the research for the TEPCV Workshops, aptly put it: ‘the scale is right when it unites the right players around a new project’. Regardless of the size − be it a city block or a region – what counts is that we create a new dynamic among the players involved. For example, Bourdin considers the greater Brest region a poor TEPCV: sure, it’s ahead of its time on the power question, but that was already the case before the project was started. What we need to ask ourselves is the following: what types of players do we bring together? Who wants to buy/sell/generate power, and in collaboration with whom? Who will benefit from connecting to the smart grid of our multimodal interchange hub?


And what has come of the workshops run by EDF Collectivités (the name is a sign of the times)? Easy: they facilitated meetings and dialogue between the plus- energy territory players – the ones who will potentially be on the receiving end of smart grids one day. EDF neither sent its own researchers, nor did it create its own projects using home-made solutions, nor did it set the tone for the discussion. A little like Meetic for territorial energy, EDF provided no contents, but rather the opportunity to exchange information about shared interests. And sure enough, as the TEPCV projects were examined and the discussions progressed, it emerged, slowly but surely, what the needs in terms of power exchange and storage and shift consumption patterns were. EDF can talk all it likes about its cables, which it claims are smarter than the others, but without the dialogue that allows to find shared interests, there won’t be anyone to buy those cables. With the right, active network of players in the various sectors, there’s no need even to advertise anymore.


Uniting players on energy questions by taking on the role of facilitator rather than lecturing others and playing the absolute authority, now that, that’s smart, both figuratively and literally. Obviously I’d love to do that on the topic of train stations. So it’s easy to rock up in tennis shoes and with a bushy beard and play the start-up guy contesting imperialist EDF structures amidst all those suits. But somehow, dispensing with sensors and high-tech gadgets, EDF managed to teach us a thing or two about smart cities …





This title for this year’s Energy & Territory workshop series is Big&Energy. Food for thought, that’s for sure!



[i]*Not that I went through all of the 200 files with a fine-tooth comb, so I may well have missed a few details. However, overall, multimodal interchange hubs and the SNCF had difficulties in becoming part of this project.