· Published in Cities versus multinationals

Loos-en-Gohelle, from Coal to Renewables. Is there a future for a small town without resources?

A former coal mining town in the North of France, Loos-en-Gohelle shows how a town can free itself from fossil fuel dependence through democratic participation, beginning with the real needs of locals.

There is much talk about the end of fossil fuels. But few towns have actually experienced it. Loos-en-Gohelle, however, a coal mining town in France, is an exception. Loos is a small rural town of 7,000 inhabitants located in the north of France, where coal was discovered in 1855. Mining has since shaped the town, its housing, its inhabitants, its social and economic structures and even its landscape. Loos used to be heavily coal-dependent, but thirty years after it closed its last mine, Loos is now a textbook case of how a town can liberate itself from fossil fuels. Formerly one of the largest coal production centres in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais mining basin, Loos has become an experimental hub for energy transition policies which are serving as an example for cities all over the world. Instead of suppressing its mining history, Loos has learned to live with it, and solar panels are now installed on the remaining spoil tips.

Coal dependence and shrinking cities

Before looking at what has been achieved in Loos, we should remember what it means to be dependent on coal mining. In a coal mining town, coal was the determining factor of just about everything. Coal meant giving work to thousands of people. The coal industry was the main employer of the region, around which the whole economy was structured. Coal also shaped the social fabric, both in terms of socio-economic status and ways of life. Politics too were centred around coal, as all political and union activity was supposed to embody the interests of the miners and their families. Public and private spaces also all revolved around coal: roads, housing, churches, schools, hospitals, workers’ gardens and sports facilities were designed to keep the miners sufficiently healthy and in close proximity to the mines. Coal mining reshaped the landscape as well: slag heaps and discarded buildings of the mining industry now cut across the horizon and transformed the cold damp countryside. Coal was also the main energy source: because miners’ homes were usually heated with coal, virtually free of charge, they were not insulated. Coal mining also had a heavy impact on the environment, with water and land polluted for decades.

The end of coal mining in the region therefore represented an economic, social, political and urban collapse. The image of shrinking cities is often used to evoke the situation: factory closures, job losses, social distress, mass unemployment, poverty, disenfranchised districts, land and water pollution, depletion of public resources, population loss, and no prospect of change. Averting the looming social and economic disaster represented an enormous challenge, and required imagining that an alternative way of life was indeed possible. But Loos was to prove that mining cities are not necessarily fated to remain polluted ghost towns reeling from high unemployment. There is the question of whether such a collapse is, in fact, necessary in order kick-start the transition to a green economy. Can this story of a town breaking its addiction to coal serve as an example for other cities? Can what was achieved in Loos also be achieved elsewhere?

Loos, a town built around coal

Loos-en-Gohelle has not been spared by history. It was destroyed several times by wars between the 13th and 17th century. Five kilometres northwest of Lens, Loos was again completely destroyed during the First World War. The first Battle of Loos in 1915 was a massacre, with more than 20,000 British soldiers killed between 1915 and 1918. But coal mining enabled Loos to quickly recover over the 1920s. Rebuilding, reinventing and reshaping itself forms part of the town’s history.

Everywhere you look, there are signs of the town’s mining history. The ground has sunk over fifteen meters since the beginning of coal exploitation. Many of the town’s houses are former miners’ homes, some in very poor condition. If you look up, you can see the high slag heaps that cut through the horizon, 185 meters above sea level. The motorway that splits the town in two has been built on an old railway line used for coal transportation, which you have to cross to reach pits 11 (1891) and 19 (1954). While the former has a head-frame, the latter has a 66-metre-high concrete extraction tower (weighing 10,000 tonnes). This single, much more powerful unit processed the coal from several surrounding pits. Most of the mining buildings are still there. From “Base 11/19”, visitors can walk on the slag heaps or visit the sustainable development resource centres in renovated administrative buildings.

“We can’t build the future if we reject the past”

On 31 January 1986, 113 years of coal mining came to an end with the closure of pit 19. In 1966, 5,000 of Loos’ 8,000 inhabitants were coal workers. The end of coal mining was experienced not only as an economic trauma but also as a social and cultural one. Along with massive unemployment, there was a feeling of both abandonment and a questioning of the lifestyles and practices inherited from a century and a half of mining, in a paternalistic social and political context. There was the question of whether this mining heritage should be erased in order to move on, or be fully re-appropriated in order to take another path. It was tempting to opt for the former. Many cities have tried to close the door on their mining past,while retaining the economic and social mindset they had inherited from the mining world. Local political leaders compete to attract the few large companies that might want to come to their town, while workers hold onto the hope of a new corporate employer.

However, this wasn’t the path taken in Loos. Former mayor Marcel Caron decided to draw on the town’s coal mining heritage in order to restore collective pride. “Base 11/19”, acquired by the city council in the 1990s, quickly hosted a national theatre (Culture Commune), and soon afterwards organised activities on sustainable development and transitioning to a green economy. The association Chaîne des Terrils, founded in 1989, and established in Base 11/19 since 1995, is dedicated to protecting and honouring the town’s coal mining heritage. Thanks to both its efforts and the town’s political leadership, it was even registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012. “We cannot build the future if we reject the past,” says Jean-François Caron, who succeeded his father as mayor of Loos in 2001. It would appear that making the town’s coal mining heritage the foundation for a new sense of collective self-esteem was a decisive factor in Loos’ success.

A focus on people’s needs and local activities

“We have not fallen victim to the Toyota syndrome,” says Jean-François Caron when asked about how to tackle mass unemployment (about 20%). Loos has not established or expanded “economic activity zones”, waiting for a large industrial company to move in, as Toyota did in Valenciennes, 70km to the east. While the majority of the people living in Loos work either in the automotive sector (in Douvrin, a neighbouring town), in the hospital sector (Lens), or in services within the Lille metropolitan area, Caron’s approach prioritises activities that can be developed locally: “I am following the principles of the functional economy, which is focussed on people’s needs, local practices and activities.”

With the end of mining, hundreds of families found themselves in badly-insulated houses with no free coal to heat them. One of the first things the council did was set up an energy renovation plan. In one of the town’s emblematic districts, houses have been completely renovated in accordance with new energy standards, insulated and equipped with solar panels, solar water heating, etc. This has made a big difference for locals, with their energy bill cut by at least half. New energy-efficient housing has also been built (45khW/m2 per year compared to 240 kWh/m2 per year on average in France) with minimal heating costs (200 euros per year). In 2019, 15% of the town’s apartments and houses were eco-renovated or built according to the new standards. Public buildings and lighting have been renovated to reduce heating needs and energy bills and the town’s car fleet greenified. The town has cut its electricity use by four. Once investments have been paid off, this will represent an operational saving of €100,000 per year – a significant saving for a council budget of approximately €6 million.

Concrete steps and a systemic approach

“If I were to start talking about global warming, there would be four of us – me and three good friends – that would be interested in joining in. Whereas if I were to talk about the savings that can be made on heating, it is immediately obvious for many people that they should participate.” Caron’s words sum up his team’s whole political approach: getting people involved means beginning with their needs. And not doing it on behalf of them, without their input, but rather doing it with them in a way that solves their problems. 220 public meetings were held in the town over his first term (2001-2008) and nearly 150 over the second (2008-2014). The focus has been on participatory processes and putting people at the heart of political decision-making, with a deliberate shift away from technocratic approaches.

Another key aspect of Caron’s approach is the emphasis on “concrete steps”, which reflects a wider political objective: transforming a territory devastated by the unsustainable development of coal mining into a sustainable development model. Showing, first of all, that “it’s possible” highlights the way forward, makes people proud, and triggers a change in attitude, in a process of collective learning. The challenge is roughly as follows: each year, the town, households, shops and local businesses spend €14 million on heating, lighting and transport. This is twice as much as the council’s total operating budget. The idea is therefore to siphon off part of it to fund local activities in emerging sectors, creating jobs and wealth in the area while protecting the planet.

The solar plan

To some, it seemed unbelievable that a small poor town in northern France that was heavily coal-dependent for decades would set itself a 2050 target of 100% renewable energy. The local authorities’ first step was to reverse prevailing narratives and prove that the North was also perfectly capable of creating solar power. The church roof was in poor condition and every storm that hit the town meant new repairs. After studying several options, solar panels were installed. Since 2013, more than 200 m2 of solar panels have been installed on the church roof, generating 32 MWh, the equivalent of twelve households’ energy consumption. It has enabled the town to save €5,000 a year. This may not sound like much, but for a small town like Loos, this was a hugely symbolic step forward.

The solar panels on the Church were living proof that the town could change di- rection, and it wasn’t long before a solar platform called LumiWatt was installed at the bottom of a slag heap [1] as well. It consists of 22 photovoltaic 3 kW panels, which are currently testing ten different technologies. Studies are carried out to test performance, resistance and adaptation to the terrain to determine which technologies are best suited to the region. LumiWatt has made it possible to raise awareness among citizens, share knowledge and expertise, and provide real data on photovoltaic production. Loos-en-Gohelle has thus become a new technological showcase for renewable energies, proving that innovation can come from what was once the heart of the coal mining region.

Loos was then able to adopt a solar plan to “take a step forward in transitioning to a green economy”, thus making it “a positive energy town [2].” Twelve public buildings with significant potential were identified, some of them requiring additional renovation work. The first phase of the solar plan (2017-2020) represents a production capacity that is twelve times as much as that produced by the solar panels on the church roof: 440 MWh from the initial eight solar-equipped public buildings (2,500 m2 of solar panels), covering over 90% of municipal buildings’ energy consumption [3].

Hand in hand with corporations or going it alone?

For a small town of 7,000 inhabitants, the level of investment required to renovate public lighting and public buildings, to install solar panels and fund individual projects, as well as develop skills for an ambitious “positive energy” action plan exceeded the available financial resources. The council had an even more ambitious plan and wanted to get EDF (France’s electricity operator) involved (e.g. with energy storage projects in mine shafts). However, EDF refused to come on board. It is unclear why EDF turned them down, but the question is raised of whether the company has no real interest in local citizen-led experiments that seek to both economise energy and develop solar energy.

Increasing and scaling up the council team was a key challenge. The mayor recruit- ed additional staff and relied on small private companies for project management assistance. In order to carry out the solar plan, a mixed ownership company (“société d’économie mixte,” or SEM) seemed the best solution, but required that the town have at least a 50% stake in its company’s capital. The council finally decided to operate under a concession: the concessionaire, selected according to public procurement rules, is responsible for carrying out the solar plan, which includes operating and maintaining the solar panels. But it is a concessionnaire like no other. It is a consortium comprising a private local company, a region-owned mixed ownership company, the town of Loos and local citizens. A loan will cover 80% of the €560,000 required for the project and the remaining 20% will be self-financed (10% from the town and 35% from citizens and local players). Citizen involvement is key to the project’s success, especially as the newly-created company, SAS Mine de Soleil, hopes to expand into other areas.

Getting citizens on board

Getting people involved in energy retrofitting to reduce their bills was one thing, but getting a rather poor community interested in renewables was another challenge altogether. Right from the beginning, the council worked hand in hand with citizens that were interested. They played a role in the design and implementation stages, and the solar plan is run by a team that includes councillors, citizens, and professionals [4]. Citizens can now become direct shareholders of SAS Mine de Soleil and the community has shown considerable interest [5]. “Citizens and council employees are becoming the very first ambassadors of the local energy transition,” says Jean-François Caron. A financial assistance program to purchase equipment was also set up, with 31 households becoming self-sufficient in electricity. The council has also set up a scheme where a solar panel is donated to every newborn baby in the town. And all this has been achieved without EDF or the help of any other major corporation.

Putting energy into what can be done locally

The mayor readily acknowledges that ensuring a better public transport system is a major challenge. The mining basin has no urban hierarchy, making it extremely difficult to establish an efficient public transport system. In addition, the agglomeration, not the town, has jurisdiction over public transport, and it has contracted the service out to the private company Transdev. Caron’s request that buses be equipped with bike racks for those without a bus stop near their home or workplace went unheeded. And he has been only able to set up 10 km of cycle lanes, 15 km of greenway and buy 7 CNG commercial vehicles for the town.

The council tries to intervene systemically wherever it can. Structuring and developing the renewables sector by creating jobs, supporting small companies and providing training is one of them. “Base 11/19” hosts several R&D centres: a resource centre for sustainable development (CERDD), a centre for creating and developing eco-businesses (CD2E), and now a training and apprenticeship centre for new eco-construction jobs. Around 150 jobs have been created. “The research and development centre on eco-materials and renewable energy is a benchmark in France,” says Caron. “Our consistent approach has united us with many technical and financial partners both in the region and the country, as well as all over Europe, while also enhancing the attractiveness of our region,” he adds. Loos’ economy is now based primarily on the service sector, with a hundred shops and craftspeople. The town’s’ economic activity has been boosted by these new green sectors, allowing traditional activities (such as restaurants, etc.) to thrive as well.

Eight years ago, less than 2% of Loos’ vast agricultural area was cultivated using organic methods. Most farmers viewed the mayor’s ecological projects with scepticism, as pesticides were often used for open field crops (potatoes, beets, pumpkins and carrots) they cultivated for agri-food groups such as McCain or Bonduelle. In 2010, the town acquired a dozen hectares of land and launched a call for projects which met three conditions: organic methods, collective projects, and for each hectare received, the farmer had to convert one hectare of his own to organic practices. This third condition has enabled farmers to gradually change their methods. Today, 100 of the town’s 800 hectares are in the process of conversion, and several other large farms are considering it.

“Innovation is disobedience that has met success”

Thanks to its clearly-identified political will, Loos-en-Gohelle now shines as one of the jewels in France’s green transition. But Caron acknowledges that “what’s hard is doing things on a larger scale,” and it is a day-to-day struggle trying to expand social or environmental innovations. France’s energy transition agency, Ademe, has called Loos a “sustainable city role-model”, seeking to draw lessons from the experience that could ultimately enrich energy and green transition policies.

Identifying methods and practices that allow cities and territories to take or regain control of their energy policy is key. Nevertheless, it is probably not simply a matter of “copy and pasting”. The example of Loos has illustrated that the energy transition is not merely about implementing procedures and good ideas. It is primarily about creating a strong political project that takes into account the town’s history as well as the social and economic reality of its inhabitants. “Showing that you can do all this while being poor sends a very strong message of empowerment,” explains the mayor of Loos-en-Gohelle, who has illustrated what a small town without resources can do to lead the green transition. “An ecological and social transition can’t happen without an economic transition and a democratic revival.” The challenge may indeed be a shift away from compartmentalised public policies towards policies that focus on individual and collective empowerment in order to move towards a greener economy.

By Maxime Combes

An economist by training, Maxime Combes (@MaximCombes) has been an activist in the global justice movement since the late 1990s, particularly as part of Attac France. He is the author of Sortons de l’âge des fossiles ! Manifeste pour la transition (2015, Seuil) and the co-author of many collective books.

Illustration: Eduardo Luzzatti.

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[1The project was initially funded by the town, the agglomeration of Lens-Liévin, CD2E (Centre for the creation and development of eco-businesses), and private investors (such as EDF).

[3Since self-consumption is very low in France, the electricity produced is fed back into the grid and purchased by EDF at a price set by the public authorities and guaranteed over 20 years.

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