French village shows way to have wind take them out of debt

To HomepageHenry Samuel writes in the Telegraph about an important lesson for local governments that are wavering over encouraging renewable energy within their jurisdiction.  Are there lessons for others?

The French village that bucked the austerity trend

In an age of austerity when many French towns are groaning under debt, the mayor of a once-poor village now has so much money he does not know how to spend it and is asking locals for help.

For the first two years, the French state “forgot” to pay the village tax revenue from the use of the huge white turbines 

The wind of fortune has swept into Arfons, a village in the Tarn region of southwestern France, whose budget has rocketed fivefold in the past three years from 400,000 euros to 2.3 million euros (£1.94 million) – or 12,169 euros per person.

It is all thanks to 11 wind turbines that were planted in the surrounding area in 2009 and due to very windy conditions have surpassed all electricity production estimates.

Mayor Alain Couzinié says that Arfons, population 189, now has so much money it is at a loss as to what to do with it. “It’s like it has rained gold on the village. It’s a miracle,” Mr Couzinie told the Daily Telegraph.

With two megawatts of capacity per wind farm, the entire energy output is the “equivalent of the consumption of a town of 50,000 inhabitants,” he said.

For the first two years, the French state “forgot” to pay the village tax revenue from the use of the huge white turbines on wooded land it owns, meaning the alternative energy windfall has only just started pouring in.

When he announced the astronomical budget in January, the mayor said villagers were “pleasantly surprised”.

A touch more expansive, Baptiste Dubois, an inhabitant, told TFI TV news: “We’ve hit the jackpot. It’s Euro millions on a village scale.

“Lots of people were initially against the wind farms with people claiming it would destroy local flora and fauna, but that’s not the case at all.”

Three weeks ago, the mayor organised a public meeting with villagers to stump up suggestions on how to spend the cash, which also comes from a plethora of state subsidies linked to the wind farms.

He had expected grand schemes such as calls for a new sports stadium or municipal swimming pool.

Instead, the 70 villagers present were more interested in the pressing issues of sterilising stray cats, tackling Asian hornet nests and eradicating pigeon droppings.

They felt the money should also go into sprucing up the old village phone box, adding more flowers to municipal pots and installing speed bumps.

“They were asking for almost ridiculously modest changes,” the mayor said. “At first these proposals over such trifling problems almost irritated me. But I soon realised that it is by pragmatically resolving small problems that you improve the daily life of a village.”

The mayor does, however, have grander plans in mind, including getting the town hall to buy up the village’s only café-hotel-restaurant, which shut down a few months ago, at an estimated cost of 800,000 euros including works. He also intends to reopen a local grocery which doubles up as a post office and newsagent.

He said he was open to proposals from professionals “from outside the village, including Britons”.

Arfons is home to around 10 British families, with around half living there all year round.

Other plans include modernising the village’s rickety water and waste systems and creating environmentally friendly wood-burning heating for all municipal buildings that other private homes could also use.

The wind turbines are expected to keep the village well in the black for the next 20 years, but the mayor is already thinking about installing a photovoltaic park in the near future.

Mr Couzinié encouraged other cash-strapped villages to look into wind energy, which the European Union hopes will provide 20 per cent of final EU electricity consumption by 2020.

“My advice is don’t despair and look at all means of renewable energy to develop their village,” he said.

Despite his good fortune, the mayor said the wind farms could not solve all his village’s problems at a stroke.

“This village, like most in France, has an ageing population and all the money in the world won’t make us younger. What I hope is that this can help breath life back into the place, with more young couples and the cries of children.”

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