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1 As the energy transition has increasingly driven climate and energy issues onto the political agenda since the beginning of the twenty-first century, decentralized energy policies and incentives to produce energy from renewable sources locally have created a context favorable to giving greater autonomy to local actors (Dégremont 2018; Chanard 2011). Until now, their capacity to act has been very constrained within the centralized network structure of France’s energy system (Boutaud 2016). In a broader sense, what has been put on the agenda is the transformation of territorial metabolism: in other words, all the energy and material flows involved in the functioning of a society belonging to a given territory (Barles 2017). As a result, the role of urban areas—whether the term is used to denote local power or urban space—is constantly being reestablished (Chanard 2011). This casts doubt on the idea that they are autonomous either in terms of their decision-making or in the physical sense (Lopez, Pellegrino and Coutard 2019). In point of fact, while urban areas benefit from the transformation overall, they remain highly dependent on external energy supplies since their own sources are still far from sufficient to cover demand. Furthermore, even assuming this demand could be met, the outsourcing metabolism is inherent to urban areas (Barles 2017). The management of urban energy flows, and more specifically the deployment of renewable energies, may therefore take shape through the (re)creation of relations between urban areas and the territories capable of supplying them (Barles 2019), including rural areas. According to the idea of territorial metabolism as it is understood in this article, rural areas can be defined as predominantly open, natural, and agricultural areas where biocapacity prevails. Bioproductive soils are, by definition, those that contribute to the production of life, particularly to primary production (solar energy converted into plant biomass), adding to the biocapacity of territories without prejudice to the use of this biocapacity (Boutaud and Gondran 2009). In recent decades, rural areas have assuredly undergone a profound socioeconomic transformation (Mora 2008). Nevertheless, their biocapacity remains significant. Climate-energy actions may also to some extent help reinvent the multifunctionality of rural areas (Pierre 2013). Urban areas, for their part, can be defined as products of “a socio-spatial specialization, generating a specific metabolism [characterized among other things by its outsourcing],” [1] in the words of researcher Sabine Barles:


Historians and urban planners agree that the city was born from the possibility of its inhabitants (or at least some of them) freeing themselves from the need to produce their own means of subsistence. This allowed them to develop other activities, particularly those involving interaction (we hope readers will forgive this abbreviated explanation, since the purpose of this text is not to proffer a theory of the birth of cities), and encouraged or even required the physical proximity and thus concentration of its inhabitants.
(Barles 2017, 822)

3 While urban areas may very well contain open, natural, and agricultural spaces, the extent of these spaces is restricted by the high density of the built environment and the human population. Moreover, there is obviously a great variety of both urban and rural areas (Vanier 2005); but that is not the subject of this work.

4 Following our empirical observations on these relations between urban and rural areas (that we now shorten to “urban-rural relations”) and the bibliographical research addressing them, we hypothesize that there are two main ways in which these relations can take shape: urban areas may tap into rural resources, or a form of urban-rural mutualism may be established. The first type of urban-rural relations manifests itself as the development of extraterritorial urban prerogatives exerted over rural areas to secure access to extra-urban energy resources (Barles 2019). In this scenario, the rural areas act as urban servicing territories, fitting in with the generalized urbanization outlook as described by Neil Brenner (2013). Another potential scenario is that of urban-rural mutualism, defined as the partnership of one or more urban and rural areas. Here, local actors mutually benefit from the situation, mobilizing local renewable energy resources to meet their own energy needs, or, more broadly, those of the territories to which they belong (Barles 2005b; Barles 2005a). Urban-rural mutualism can advance the transitional trajectory of territories even when such an outcome did not feature as a common goal prior to the partnership. While related to the concept of cooperation, urban-rural mutualism slightly departs from it, since cooperation implies a common goal that local actors work together to achieve. This allows us to step outside the urban-centric point of view: urban and rural areas could act in a coordinated manner to transform the territorial metabolism. Such urban-rural mutualism could thereby constitute an alternative to the existing network solidarity (Dégremont 2018), in the form of the current power grid, and ultimately provide energy access for all with a view to achieving national unity. The prospect of mutualism is very widely disseminated by national, regional, and local public actors, as well as by various associations such as CLER (Comité de liaison energies renouvelables), the network for the energy transition (Bailleul 2018).

5 Current knowledge of urban-rural relations remains inadequate and too case-specific, particularly on the subject of their translation into mutualism or the tapping of rural resources by urban areas (Balaye et al. 2018; Möller, Faulstich and Rosenberger 2019). Our approach juxtaposes research on territorial metabolism and the energy transition in general (Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl 2007; Barles 2017) with research in the social and political sciences of energy (Labussière and Nadaï 2015). The idea is to align the characterization and quantification of flows (type and quantity of natural resources mobilized, geography of flows) with an analysis of the actors, institutions, policies, and techniques that lie at the source of these energy flows. This approach enables us to examine which actors are implementing and managing these changes, as well as how these changes are structured and embedded into new systems of actors.

6 The first part of this article provides an overview of these relations (number and types of renewable energy concerned), stressing the role local authorities play in securing rural resources for urban areas or, conversely, engaging in urban-rural mutualism; it also examines the way these authorities are viewed by local actors. This overview was compiled from the analysis of a corpus of documents. The second part of the article analyzes a specific case of urban-rural mutualism in Finistère, Brittany, in order to provide a better characterization of this form of relation and the way it transforms territorial metabolism. The analysis is based on seven semi-structured interviews with sectoral actors, alongside gray literature about the implementation of mutualism.

7 This work forms part of a broader thesis in the field of urban planning that concerns urban-rural relations associated with material and renewable energy flows.

Overview of urban-rural relations in France

Identifying objects that are disparate and not particularly revealing

8 The relations of interest to this study are those that exist between urban and rural areas and concern renewable energy flows (wood energy, solar panels, wind turbines, miscanthus, etc.). These relations stand apart from the flows brought into play by the dominant energy system in two ways: First, they fall within the bounds of geographical proximity (Gumuchian and Pecqueur 2007) as they relocate and connect places of production, processing, and consumption; and second, they are set up by local actors—especially public entities—as part of a drive to reappropriate the governance of these energy flows (Chanard 2011; Dégremont 2018; Boutaud 2016). These urban-rural relations appear novel by comparison with the modus operandi established under the dominant energy system. They unfold according to a transition gradient that we analyze in the rest of this article as part of our typological study.

9 There are a range of devices that address these relations with varying degrees of directness: strategic documents belonging to local authorities, networks, associations, and so on. We decided to create a corpus that assembles these elements and apply our identifying keys for urban relations to it. In the field of energy transition, the Grenelle de l’Environnement laws (2009 and 2010), and, more recently, the Law on Energy Transition for Green Growth passed in August 2015 (LTECV or Energy Transition Act) define, or seek to generalize, several mechanisms that encourage public authorities to deploy renewable energy. Agenda 21 is one example, along with France’s territorial climate, air, and energy plan, PCAET (Plan climat air énergie territorial, previously named Plan climat énergie territorial). Some local authorities may also take actions that go beyond these mechanisms. Another source of data is the call for projects launched by the Ministry for Energy in 2014 as part of the Energy Transition Act (“Territoires à énergie positive pour la croissance verte,” TEPCV). In addition to this, we used projects related to local energy transition listed by various networks and associations: Transition Network, Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), and the network for the energy transition, CLER. CLER runs a network of “Territoires à énergie positive” (Positive Energy Territories)—or TEPOS—that sparked the TEPCV approach. Last, the French government recently set up state-city treaties (“pactes État-métropoles”) to support urban areas in their trajectories toward sustainable development. One element of this initiative aims to promote the alliance between urban areas and their territorial environment. We therefore also turned our attention to the subject: the deployment of renewable energies in the context of such alliances is one of the potential areas for cooperation.

10 We only selected the projects that did in fact develop urban-rural relations. We dismissed those that only planned to introduce this type of relation over the next few years. Indeed, since such relations are frequently experimental in nature, it is likely that there will be significant gap between the actions planned and those that end up being accomplished. Table 1 presents the corpus analysis work carried out.

Table 1. Presentation of the corpus used and analyzed to identify urban-rural relations concerned with renewable energy flows, in France (2017–2018)

Corpus usedNumber of case studies (networks) or documents identified (labels, projects) within the corpusNumber of case studies (networks) or unanalyzed documents (labels, projects) within the corpus based on available dataNumber of case studies (networks) or unanalyzed documents (labels, projects) within the corpus based on available dataPortion of the corpus analyzed (in relation to available data)
No data availableUnder development
Public policies
Agenda 21s1,147 territories001,147 territories100%
Plan climat air énergie territorial (PCAET/PCET)528 documents relating to 566 territories00528 documents relating to 566 territories100%
Cooperation element of pacte État-métropole15 territories0015 territories100%
Call for projects
Territoires à énergie positive pour la croissance verte (TEPCV)550 territories520 territories (conventions not available online)030 territories5%
Transition Network33 initiatives0033 initiatives100%
ICLEI168 projects00168 projects100%
CLER—Territoires à énergie positive (TEPOS)58 recognized territories53 territories017 territories29%

Table 1. Presentation of the corpus used and analyzed to identify urban-rural relations concerned with renewable energy flows, in France (2017–2018)

Source: Urban-Rural Relations Database on Material and Renewable Energy Flows in France, 2017–2018. Laetitia Verhaeghe.

Relatively modest development of urban-rural relations

11 In total, we analyzed 1,926 documents within the corpus, supplemented by other cases recorded during the thesis work (information collected during conferences, seminars, and meetings). This figure does not represent all the projects studied, since a single document can bring together several dozen projects, as is the case for the PCAETs. We identified thirty-five urban-rural relations, all of which relate to the forest-energy sector. In the corpus studied, the deployment of urban-rural relations can therefore be observed only within this sector. Indeed, the local mobilization of renewable energy produced, for example, by solar panels or wind turbines, does not feature as one of these relations.

12 Contrary to our hypothesis, the results instead show a dissociation of renewable energy deployment strategies (Dubois and Thomann 2012). On the one hand, local public and private actors in rural areas develop energy self-sufficiency projects by mobilizing renewable resources from their territories: wood energy, organic waste (methanization), and so on. On the other, urban areas rely on private industrial actors that have their own renewable energy supply chains. Renewable energy production sites are designed on an industrial scale (solar farms) and may or may not rely on nearby resources (Pierre 2013). In addition, numerous projects aim at energy self-sufficiency only on a small scale: the installation of solar panels on the roof of a municipal building would be a typical example. This type of plot-of-land scale project can be observed in both urban and rural areas.

13 The results show that the (re)development of urban-rural relations in the context of the local deployment of renewable energies and the energy transition is not, at present, the dominant form of action. Instead, we observe the appearance of a tendency toward the physical autonomy of urban and rural areas, which, as we explained in the introduction, present a limited capacity to transform the territorial metabolism (Barles 2019). This observation is shared by other authors in the TEPOS analysis case, some pointing out that “the interterritorial transactions of the TEPOS have little to do with the actual energy flows between the city and the upland area” (Balaye et al. 2018).

Predominance of urban areas revealed by relational interpretation: Typology of urban-rural relations

14 Of the thirty-five urban-rural relations studied, not all take the same form or operate the same degree of territorial metabolism transformation. In light of this, we defined two distinct types of relation. In Type 1, the needs of urban areas are reconnected with the resources of rural areas in geographical proximity, which may become a way to provide increased security. Type 2 refers to a form of urban-rural mutualism that manifests itself as the partnership of one or more urban and rural areas, in which local actors mobilize local renewable energy resources to meet their needs, or, more broadly, the needs of the territories to which they belong. This type of relation can lead to a mutual transformation of territorial metabolism. The distribution of relations into each of the types is not fixed: they can shift from one type to another, depending on the measures taken by the actors involved in these relations. We have, moreover, determined their position on the basis of the information collected from the documents available. Given the number of cases, it is impossible to investigate each situation in depth. The position of each relation may therefore be reviewed and corrected if new information is brought to our attention.

Type 1: Locally reconnecting the needs of urban areas with rural resources

15 In the first type identified, urban areas—in the sense of public bodies or local authorities—(re)connect their renewable energy needs with existing wood-energy sectors in rural areas that have the capacity to meet those needs. The governance of such flows usually takes shape following two models. The first (Type 1.1) bears a closer resemblance to the modus operandi established by the dominant energy system since it takes the form of a supply contract between a local authority (urban area) and an a-territorial private industrial actor, such as Dalkia (subsidiary of the EDF group) or Engie Cofely, which are widely present in the wood-energy sector. In the case of public service delegation contracts, a private industrial operator is commissioned to operate and supply a wood-fired heating plant. This contract can also be granted to companies that bring together local authorities and a-territorial actors (such as mixed-economy companies). The supply arrangements set by local authorities might be specified to a greater or lesser degree. They may depend on a criterion of geographical proximity, that generally varies from 50 to 150 kilometers. In this context, the mobilization of supply chains may be left to the discretion of the private industrial actor. Conversely, the supply methods might be specified: local authorities may, for instance, identify a local forest-energy enterprise set up by private actors in the countryside, and set a requirement for the private industrial actor in charge of operating the heating plant to source supplies specifically from them. This helps boost the development of some wood-energy sectors in the territory. The Angers Loire Métropole urban community provides a good example of this. They required Dalkia, the manager of the Biowatts cogeneration plant (that uses wood energy), to source their supplies from a cooperative community-oriented enterprise (SCIC), Maine-et-Loire bois énergie. [2] Around forty local farmers are involved in this enterprise, whose purpose is to recover wood left over from the maintenance of their farms. The second governance model (Type 1.2) is defined by forms of partnership between public actors in urban areas and private actors in rural areas, without an intermediate private industrial actor. This model arises in public sector management of biomass heating plants, in which local authorities contract services directly from producers and processors.

16 Within the framework of these relations, the local authorities of urban areas have an effect on the energy system by choosing to use one energy source over another for their consumption, thus guiding production through their purchasing capacity. However, they do not seek to influence the entire sector, which covers many areas outside their scope of action. Urban areas tend to source their energy through the development of a structured private-sector industrial offer, capable of operating and supplying wood-fired heating plants. This private sector dynamic encourages investment in urban areas that are considered profitable: the danger is that some of the hinterlands, where consumption is lower, may be left behind (Dubois and Thomann 2012). Such private industrial actors are widely present in these Type 1 relations, numbering a total of twenty-three in Type 1.1 [3]; in other words, they represent over half of all the relations identified. As a result, the (re)development of direct relations with production and processing actors seems to be limited. Furthermore, such relations appear only in one type of flow and one specific sector. They fall within the sectoral approach established by the dominant energy system. The local authorities of urban areas therefore have a very limited scope of action, and, by extension, a limited capacity to control the outsourcing of the urban metabolism. Their actions are partly bound to an intra-urban energy strategy: they seek to recover their own by-products (organic waste, green waste, wood shavings) to produce energy and/or heat. In Sin-le-Noble (Hauts-de-France region), for example, the wood-fired heating plant is fed by wood chips from the Douai urban community and the Syndicat Mixte de l’Élimination et de Valorisation des Déchets (SYMEVAD) (Joint Waste Reclamation and Disposal Association), as well as by the Dalkia company, that uses wood sourced from forests within a radius of 100 to 150 kilometers around the plant. [4]

17 These relations are therefore characterized by an urban-centric outlook. The city secures resources, either internally (by using waste wood left over from the maintenance of green spaces) or from outside its territory (rural areas), to meet its own needs. In this respect, Type 1 relations are a continuation of the forms of urban-rural interaction observed for over a century, in which rural areas are put at the service of urban development. Twenty-seven of the thirty-five relations identified come under this category. Over half are set up by private industrial players who view these new markets as a profitable investment (Dubois and Thomann 2012).

Type 2: Urban-rural mutualism

18 Type 2 relations take the form of urban-rural partnerships aimed at sharing the management of renewable energy sources.

19 In these relations, the local authorities of rural areas act in concert with those of urban areas, within the framework of their perimeters of action. Such partnerships can take shape in a variety of ways. They can be set up between local authorities (urban and rural), or project territories; they can also develop within a community—such as an inter-municipality—that contains urban and rural areas within its administrative perimeter. In all cases, the way these partnerships vary across territories is specific to the situation in which the urban-rural relation arises. They also present vastly different degrees of formalization, which may appear right from the start of a project or unfold later on. Urban and rural local authorities rely on their capacities for renewable energy consumption to fuel the sector’s growth. They also invest (financially and in human terms) in the establishment of coordinative structures such as Sociétés coopératives d’intérêt collectif (SCICs) (cooperative community-oriented enterprises) tasked with setting up production, processing, and consumption chains, as well as investing directly in processing tools (storage platforms/wood drying). When each player acts within their own administrative perimeter, but in coordination with one another, the management of the territory’s resources may successfully be shared, which can contribute to developing alternative energy routes. Nevertheless, local authorities do not act alone. They rely on various local private actors—farmers, forest owners, private property owners—who are fully involved in these sectors and participate in their development. Decision-making power can thus be shared among all stakeholders and take the form of multi-stakeholder governance. However, the decision-making power may sometimes lie with a single actor or a small circle of actors who have not only the skills, but also the financial and human resources to act on them. This can give rise to tensions and/or resistance among some actors who do not adhere to the common project.

20 In this type of relation, the deployment of the renewable energy sector revolves around other local issues (see our case study below) and links up with them, which can give rise to the implementation of territorial projects for the sustainable management of renewable resources. The actions carried out by local actors within these relations tend to transform the territorial metabolism. The transformation is led by a core of local public and private actors, whose partnership helps forge urban-rural relations that bring an inter- sectoral approach to the territorial metabolism. When these kinds of relations are developed between producers, processors, and consumers, it becomes possible for urban and rural areas to execute a number of services for each other (ecosystem services [5] in particular); services that were previously invisible in the monetary and material transactions that exist under the dominant energy system. Taken as a whole, this yields a clearer overall view of how a territory’s metabolism functions and offers a fresh angle for action.

21 The fact that there are only eight urban-rural relations in this category leads us to define these relations as initiatives at the fringes of the dominant energy system. [6] Their development potential must be weighed against the public procurement and budgetary constraints that burden local authorities. This constitutes one of the major discrepancies in national energy transition policies.

Exploring the modalities of urban-rural mutualism: The case of a wood-energy sector in Finistère

22 Although the region of Brittany has relatively little forest area, [7] wood energy represented 62 percent of its final renewable energy production [8] in 2016 (Bretagne Environnement 2017). The three wood-energy programs implemented since 1994 [9] have boosted the sector’s growth, particularly with regard to the use of wood chips since the late 1990s (Pierre 2013). In Brittany, there are two wood-energy sectors. The first, an industrial sector, has grown on the back of “Biomasse chaleur industrie agriculture et tertiaire” (BCIAT) (agricultural/industrial wood-based heating) projects, alongside projects led by the Commission de Régulation de l’Énergie (CRE) (French Energy Regulatory Commission). [10] This dynamic is more widely observed in other French regions, particularly the former Alsace region (Christen and Hamann 2015). In Brittany, this industrial sector is based on the use of wood chips from forest and industrial residue within a radius of 150 kilometers (Pierre 2015). The vast majority of the projects are related to the agri-food sector (for example, the wood-fired heating plant at the Sill dairy in Plouvien in northern Finistère), or concern large urban cogeneration units (such as the one supplying the southern part of the city of Rennes, managed by Dalkia). The second sector of the wood-energy industry comprises small- and medium-sized heating plants being developed by local authorities (for retirement homes, swimming pools, and rural heating networks); these have benefited from a significant proportion of the resources allocated under the wood-energy program (ibid.). The developed sectors are supplied by local platforms and rely on the use of wood from “bocage” agroforestry systems (hedged and wooded farmland); in other words, wood obtained from the maintenance either of areas of woodland or of embankments and hedges bordering farms (ibid.). Our case study focuses on this second sector. Mainly observed in western France (Pierre 2013), this sector is rooted not only in the quantitative increase in wood-energy production instigated by national energy transition goals, [11] but also in a strategy to broaden the types of resources explored (Banos and Dehez 2017).

Producing renewable energy for urban areas from “bocage” wood

23 Our case study is located in southern Finistère, on the Atlantic coast, and primarily concerns two territories: the urban communities of Quimperlé [12] and Concarneau Cornouaille. [13] Our study area lies near two urban hubs: Quimper [14] (population 63,508) to the west, and Lorient [15] (population 57,567) to the east of the administrative districts (see Figure 1). These hubs polarize some of the municipalities of the two urban communities, among them those of Elliant and Saint-Yvi for Quimper, and the Rédené municipality for Lorient.

Figure 1

The territories of the Concarneau Cornouaille urban community and the Quimperlé urban community

Figure 1

The territories of the Concarneau Cornouaille urban community and the Quimperlé urban community

Base map source: Openstreetmap. Data source (2015 population): INSEE, RP 2015 main holdings by geography as of January 1, 2017. Author’s edit.

24 The two urban communities had a total population of 105,357 in 2015, [16] with the majority of residents residing in municipalities along the tourist coastline and in the two main cities of Concarneau (population 19,182) and Quimperlé [17] (population 12,018). The hinterlands are oriented toward agricultural production, especially dairy and swine production, as well as field-grown vegetables for the agri-food industry that is particularly well developed in these territories. The population is distributed among the three small towns of Rosporden (population 7,608), Bannalec (population 5,634), and Scaër (population 5,402), and among several villages. In these hinterlands, wood resources are relatively abundant in relation to the energy needs of the two inter-municipalities, with 18,000 tons per year available without exhausting wood chip resources (Richard 2011). Just under half of these 18,000 tons—that is, 7,400 tons (ibid.)—is composed of “bocage” wood: timber from in and around wooded, hedged farmland.

25 Maintaining these plantations entails costs for farmers. Several of the people we spoke to explained that for some farmers, “it is better to level the embankments than to maintain them [and that’s how they enter] into a logic based purely on productivity, that encourages excessive mechanization, the enlargement of fields, and so on; and the bocage ends up being removed or, at any rate, depleted.” [18] When embankments are not removed, most of the waste wood is either recovered in the form of log wood or burned in the fields. However, this renewable resource can help respond to the challenges of the energy transition while participating in the maintenance of hedges and embankments. Indeed, the bocage landscape provides a number of ecosystem services: water retention in the event of intense rain, reducing the flood risk for cities downstream; biodiversity conservation and enhancement; reduction of soil erosion; and so on. In the early 2000s, about a dozen farmers, mostly dairy farmers from the town of Scaër, joined forces to form an association (Douar Skaër), with the aim of examining various agricultural and non-agricultural topics. One of these was the commercialization of wood from embankments by a wood-for-energy operation in connection with ADEME. Their ideas became a reality in 2003 when the public swimming pool in Scaër (Quimperlé urban community) was rehabilitated and wood chips were used to feed the pool’s energy requirements. The Douar Skaër farmers then created Douar énergie to take charge of wood production and develop the economic activity. Ultimately, what enabled the resource to be put to use was dialogue, taking place as a series of meetings between the group of farmers and the elected representatives of the urban communities (Gumuchian and Pecqueur 2007). In 2007, a similar project was implemented in the city of Quimperlé, where another group of farmers (Quimperlé énergie), inspired by Douar énergie’s approach in Scaër, supplied the public swimming pool with wood energy. In 2010, the urban community of Concarneau Cornouaille took the same approach when it built a new public swimming pool in the Rosporden municipality and chose to heat it by means of wood chips supplied by one of the two groups of farmers. In this case, it can be observed that the relations established between urban areas (pools in Scäer, Quimperlé, and Concarneau, and the two urban communities) and rural areas (farmers’ groups) are based on the (re)activation of a local renewable energy source through the coordination of local public and private actors (ibid.). Prior to this, the resource had simply been dismissed in favor of imported fossil fuels (fuel oil, gas).

Establishing urban-rural mutualism

26 After working collaboratively on these experiments, the municipal officials of the Quimperlé and Concarneau urban communities began to wonder whether it might be worthwhile to build an official structure for a “local” sector. Its purpose would be twofold: to provide for the needs of future wood-fired heating plants, whose construction was already on the map for local authorities (both urban and rural); and to power community facilities (see Figure 2). The officials of the two urban communities deemed that structuring the sector was, indeed, an essential move; one that would enable supplies to be secured both quantitatively (ensuring the availability of resources) and qualitatively (in terms of environmental impacts, conditions for exploiting the resource, and maintenance of bocage landscapes). Consequently, they commissioned a feasibility study that was launched in 2010. The sector aims to produce, recover, and sell at least 6,000 tons of wood per year. Such a quantity generates enough profit for this sector to finance a full-time position for the management and development of the SCIC. The feasibility study led to the creation of the SCIC Énergie bois Sud Cornouaille in January 2013.

Figure 2

Heating plants and networks powered by wood chips produced by the SCIC Énergie bois Sud Cornouaille in 2017 and ongoing projects

Figure 2

Heating plants and networks powered by wood chips produced by the SCIC Énergie bois Sud Cornouaille in 2017 and ongoing projects

Base map source: Openstreetmap. Data source: SCIC Énergie bois Sud Cornouaille. Authors’ edit.

27 While the project’s initial purpose was the commercialization and, by extension, the maintenance of bocage wood, the officials of the two communities decided to diversify the sources of wood supplying the sector by also including forest wood and so-called “opportunity” wood, acquired, for example, from the maintenance of green spaces. As a matter of fact, in comparison with the other two types of wood, bocage wood comes at additional cost in terms of time and techniques. Combining a variety of wood sources helps to absorb some of the extra cost of bocage wood. Moreover, it allows for a certain flexibility in handling the territory’s complementary wood sources and economic activities (see Figure 3) while ensuring that the resource is not overexploited, in accordance with the feasibility study (Richard 2011). The project manager recruited by the two inter-municipalities to carry out this study explained the intention, saying he “sought to bring in all [the actors] that we were able to identify in the territory who were interested in the cooperative approach, that is to say, who were ready to work effectively in a spirit where the idea is to try to build together rather than compete with one another.” [19] Bringing a range of different stakeholders into cooperation enables the various sources of wood energy to be exploited because it gives them a specifically “local” value in terms of provenance, place of production, and consumption (Forney and Häberli 2016). Previously, these three types of sources had been ascribed little or no value, mainly because of the costs involved in commercializing them. Given the price of the regional, national, and even international markets for wood chips, the costs of exploiting the resource were too high to be profitable and competitive.

Figure 3

Diagram of the sector’s metabolic functioning defined by the SCIC Énergie bois Sud Cornouaille

Figure 3

Diagram of the sector’s metabolic functioning defined by the SCIC Énergie bois Sud Cornouaille

Data source: SCIC Énergie bois Sud Cornouaille. Based on data for the 2016–2017 fiscal year. Author’s edit.

28 The establishment of a local energy market, in the form of urban-rural mutualism, is based on the coordination of local public and private actors and their commitment to a cooperative project for the management and consumption of a specifically local resource. However, setting up such cooperation is an arduous process and should not be taken for granted. While, in theory, the actors involved are meant to find a common interest in the project, in reality, they each “look out for themselves to reap the greatest profit; it’s mainly about prices.” [20] As a result, negotiations within the SCIC have resulted in compromises and production planning (and processing steps) for farmers’ groups and the forestry operator, in line with the consumption needs of the local authorities over the fiscal year.

29 For the Quimperlé urban community, this project was not just about developing a local energy market. The broader aim was to instigate the management of territorial resources on a wider scale, encompassing other issues. According to one of the officials, “the idea was to work on renewable energy for the territory’s local needs, and hence [...] on the management of the bocage, its maintenance, and its administration, in a spirit of sustainable development.” [21] In this regard, the community officials stated that the wood-energy sector had been set up in line with actions to protect and restore the bocage that have been ongoing since the early 2010s under the Breizh Bocage regional program. [22] This program sets out specific goals relating to the reconstruction, conservation, and commercialization of wood from farmland areas. Indeed, local authorities can bear the extra cost of bocage wood since its recovery goes hand in hand with landscape maintenance; this brings a number of advantages, such as water retention in the event of heavy rain, reducing the flood risk for Quimperlé and Concarneau located downstream, and biodiversity conservation and enhancement. In collaboration with farmers and the Chamber of Agriculture, a charter for the sustainable management of bocage wood was drawn up, establishing good practices for wood-cutting maintenance work and training as well as for logging. These utilities and amenities were gradually adopted by number of Douar énergie and Quimperlé énergie farmers, who then engaged in maintaining, servicing, and sometimes even developing the embankments and hedgerows on their plots of farmland.

Urban-rural mutualism caught midstream

30 In 2018, the SCIC Énergie bois Sud Cornouaille failed to achieve its 6,000-ton target, partly because a number of heating plant projects planned by the local authorities were not carried out. In the years following the enterprise’s creation, the cost of fossil fuels—including gas—dropped and community budgets were cut down, producing an economic climate unfavorable to the construction of wood-fired heating plants, as they require a significant initial investment. In the town of Elliant, local authorities turned down an offer by SCIC Énergie bois Sud Cornouaille, opting instead for a gas connection from Gaz réseau distribution France (GRDF) (France’s natural gas distribution network) to power the district heating network. This is a clear example of how the energy transition can be tripped up by the economic environment, in which the local wood-energy industry is forced to compete with fossil fuels produced and distributed internationally. One way to overcome this difficulty would be to align the various sectoral policies adopted by local authorities. In the Quimperlé urban community, for instance, instead of having the swimming pool management service bear the extra costs of farmland wood, the environmental service could subsidize the wood-energy sector to ensure that it can continue its activities, and thus continue to provide the associated ecosystem services. [23] Another factor behind this failure was that some municipal teams changed following the 2014 elections, generating a shift in political agendas and priorities. In Moëlan-sur-Mer, the socialist mayor, Nicolas Morvan, who was particularly committed to the SCIC, [24] had planned to build a wood-fired heating plant and a heating network during his potential second term. This would have been an important outlet for the SCIC. But he was not reelected in 2014, and Marcel Le Pennec, a candidate with no political party affiliation (listed as miscellaneous right) won the elections. Consequently, the project was never carried out.

31 As Geneviève Pierre (2015) points out in her research on other wood-energy sectors around western France, the “longevity of subsidized projects, subject to changes in public policies, competition from industrial suppliers, and public procurement rules, has yet to be secured” (326). These factors lead us to call into question the frameworks used by local authorities in assessing urban-rural relations. Indeed, if the economic background—in other words, profitability and competitiveness in a national or even international market—is taken as the only frame of reference, such relations cannot compete with the dominant fossil fuel market. However, as we have seen, urban-rural relations carry other modalities that align with the perspective of a transition reaching beyond the energy system. Some of these are observable, but difficult to measure (and in some cases, purposely not measured); the same goes for the ecosystem services provided by wooded farmland. Since they are still in their infancy, these relations run up against a standardized framework; a modus operandi established by the dominant energy system.


32 In France, while there is a drive by local actors—particularly local authorities—in both urban and rural areas to develop urban-rural relations as part of the energy transition, fostering these relations is not the course of action most frequently mobilized by these actors. As yet, urban areas (or their local authorities) have relatively little control over cross-territorial flows, and, when they do take charge, their primary focus tends to be on meeting urban needs (Type 1 of the relations analyzed). Moreover, the relations identified relate exclusively to the field of wood energy. The mobilization of other renewable energy sources does not give rise to urban-rural relations. In France, urban-rural mutualism (Type 2) is based on what Olivier Labussière and Alain Nadaï (2015) consider as weak signals; in other words, experiments that are not yet well developed, but that are characterized by the potential for transforming territorial metabolism.

33 Through an analysis of one of these mutualistic urban-rural relations, we have been able to pinpoint some of their characteristics. It seems that such mutualism is brought about through a concerted effort of coordination and non-competition among a comprehensive set of local actors, both public (local authorities) and private. The solution involves considering the complementarity of needs and resources available within the framework of a territorial project; a framework that encompasses renewable energy production projects and connects them with various local issues, thereby ultimately driving a mutually beneficial transformation of the territorial metabolism.

34 Nevertheless, this transformation is only partially explored in this article since we have limited ourselves to a fraction of the energy flows involved in the functioning of societies: renewable energies and, more specifically, wood energy. Energy as a whole also includes energy contained in food (Haberl 2006). Our reflections should therefore be taken in conjunction with considerations surrounding the food system and its transition. This particularly raises the question of land use (Barles 2017), its multifunctionality, and/or the potential competition that could develop between food production and so-called technical energy production (heating, biofuel, energy). In view of this, the type of relations that may exist between producer and consumer territories, between urban areas and rural ones, appear to be very important indeed.


  • [1]
    Translator’s note: Our translation. Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign language material in this article are our own.
  • [2]
    Angers Loire Métropole urban community and Maine-et-Loire Chamber of Agriculture, Une nouvelle filière bois sur Angers Loire Métropole, press release, 2017.
  • [3]
    Source: Laetitia Verhaeghe. Urban-Rural Relations Database on Material and Renewable Energy Flows in France, 2017–2018
  • [4]
    ADEME (Ecological Transition Agency), “Chaufferie biomasse réseau de chaleur – Sin-le-Noble – 59,” 60 exemples d’installation biomasse en collectivités (Angers: ADEMA Éditions, 2018), 117–118.
  • [5]
    The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2015) defines ecosystem services as the benefits that human societies derive from the proper functioning of ecosystems (Méral and Pesche 2016).
  • [6]
    These results echo the research carried out in the field of science and technology (STS in French) on socio-technical transitions, and more specifically on the study of innovation niches in the context of a multilevel analysis (Geels 2002). However, our research approach does not form part of this analytical framework, instead relating to the field of territorial ecology (Barles, Buclet and Billen 2011) and the analysis of the socio-ecological transition as defined by Marina Fischer-Kowalski (Fischer-Kowalski and Rotmans 2009).
  • [7]
    Emmanuèle Savelli, “Bien qu’en hausse, la surface forestière bretonne est plus faible que la moyenne en France” [While Brittany’s forest area is on the rise, it is lower than average in France], Observatoire de l’Environnement en Bretagne, 2019, accessed February 20, 2019. Available at:
  • [8]
    In other words, energy at the stage of being used by the final consumer.
  • [9]
    Created in 1994, and supported by ADEME, the Brittany region, and its four departments, Plan Bois Énergie Bretagne is a public aid program to develop wood-fired heating plant projects and build a supply chain in the regional territory. Plan Bois Energie Bretagne is supported by two structures: the local energy agency, AILE (Association d’Initiatives Locales pour l’Energie et l’Environnement), and ABIBOIS (Association Bretonne Interprofessionnelle du Bois) since 2015. Source: Plan Bois Énergie Bretagne website. Available at: Accessed February 20, 2019.
  • [10]
    Fonds Chaleur is a financial framework that aims to contribute to the goals of France’s National Renewable Energy Action Plan and sets a target of obtaining at least 23 percent of energy from renewable sources in gross final energy consumption in 2020. It was created following the Grenelle de l’Environnement (2009) and its management was entrusted to ADEME. One of the modalities of this Fonds Chaleur is the national “Biomasse chaleur industrie agriculture et tertiaire” (BCIAT) call for projects. This initiative aims to develop projects for the production of heat from biomass in industry, agriculture, and the private service sector. Since 2009, the CRE has launched several calls for tender entitled “CRE Biomasse” to financially support cogeneration projects (joint production of electricity and heat) powered by biomass.
  • [11]
    In metropolitan France, wood energy represented 40 percent of total energy production in 2017 (Commissariat général au développement durable 2019). This resource is a key element of energy transition policies. Increasing the mobilization of wood resources is one of the strategies used to reach the target of at least 32 percent of energy produced from renewable sources in gross final energy consumption by 2030 in France. This target was set under the Energy Transition Act (Banos and Dehez 2017).
  • [12]
    Chaired by Nicolas Morvan, Mayor of Moëlan-sur-Mer from 2008 to 2014, a member of the Socialist Party, and then, from 2014, by Sébastien Miossec, Mayor of Riec-sur-Bélon, member of the same political party.
  • [13]
    Chaired by André Fidelin, mayor of the town of Concarneau and a member of the Republican Party.
  • [14]
    From 2008 to 2014, the mayor of the town was Bernard Poignant, a French MEP from the Socialist Party. In 2014, the elections were won by a mayor from the Republican Party, Ludovic Jolivet, also the president of the Quimper urban community.
  • [15]
    Nobert Métairie, a member of the Socialist Party, has been town mayor since 1998.
  • [16]
    Sources: INSEE, RP2015 main holdings by geography as of January 1, 2017.
  • [17]
    From 2008 to 2014, the Quimperlé mayor, Alain Pennec, did not belong to any political party (independent). In 2014, the new mayor, Michaël Quernez, associated with the Socialist Party, had also been general councillor of Finistère since 2008.
  • [18]
    Interview with the project manager, coordinator, and manager of the SCIC Énergie bois Sud Cornouaille, May 22, 2018.
  • [19]
    Interview with the project manager, coordinator, and manager of SCIC Énergie bois Sud Cornouaille, May 22, 2018.
  • [20]
    Telephone interview with the Quimperlé urban community’s vice-president for water, environment, and energy, July 16, 2018.
  • [21]
    Telephone interview with the Quimperlé urban community’s vice-president for water, environment, and energy, July 16, 2018.
  • [22]
    In 2007, under the “2007–2013 State-Region Project Contracts” scheme, the French government, the Brittany region, the Loire’s water agency, and the four departments of Brittany (Côtes d’Armor, Finistère, Ille-et-Vilaine, and Morbihan) set up the first Breizh Bocage program to conserve and strengthen the bocage network and reduce water contamination from agricultural runoff. In the Quimperlé urban community, the restoration of the bocage network was implemented from 2011 on the catchment area of Le Bélon, and from 2014, on the catchment area of Ellé-Isole. This program was renewed under the Brittany rural development program for the 2015 to 2021 period. This led to the definition of a strategy to protect the bocage in the Quimperlé area. The guiding principles of this strategy are structured around three areas: reconstitution, conservation, and development of the bocage.
  • [23]
    Interview with the director of Quimperlé urban community’s environmental department, May 23, 2018.
  • [24]
    Interview with the project manager, coordinator, and manager of SCIC Énergie bois Sud Cornouaille, May 22, 2018.

While the energy transition is concentrated in cities, it cannot be contained within them: the majority of the energy they consume is produced outside their administrative perimeter. While the current dominant energy system leaves local actors with limited room for maneuver, changes seen since the start of the twenty-first century are paving the way for an increase in local actors’ autonomy. To contribute to the deployment of local renewable energy, cities must (re)create links with the rural areas capable of supplying it. This article shows that these urban-rural relations are not currently a dominant factor in the measures taken by local authorities. Most of these relations are characterized by an urban-centric perspective: the city taps the resources of the countryside. Urban-rural mutualism seems to be an experiment that is currently still underdeveloped but has real potential to transform territorial metabolism and ultimately to contribute to the energy transition.

  • urban-rural relations
  • mutualism
  • territorial metabolism
  • governance
  • energy transition

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Laetitia Verhaeghe
Laetitia Verhaeghe, PhD student, Geography-Cities joint research unit, CRIA team, Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne.
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