A transition initiated by photovoltaics in the urban heart of Loos-en-Gohelle

Chaire Paysage et énergie (ENSP), 2022

Loos-en-Gohelle, a town of 7,000 inhabitants located near Lens, is a mining town linked to coal mining. However, deindustrialisation and crises have left the region with a landscape of wastelands and a disillusioned population. In order to bounce back, the city has put in place a genuine energy transition strategy that is as unprecedented as it is ambitious.

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Loos-en-Gohelle in the mining basin

1 - Plaine de Gohelle

Loos-en-Gohelle is located in the Gohelle plain, at the foot of the Artois plateau. The natural relief is hardly perceptible, which reinforces the presence of the slag heaps. The landscape ensemble in which the commune is located forms a large part of the large landscape of the « Urban Heart of the Gohelle », which is exclusively urban insofar as it stops at the limits of cultivation. In the 17th century, large coal reserves were discovered, which soon became known as the « Nord-Pas de Calais mining basin ». This basin extends over one hundred kilometres from Valenciennes to Béthune, and is fifteen kilometres wide. The population of Loos-en-Gohelle grew from 2,400 to almost 8,000. Until 1950, the mining basin provided more than 50% of French coal production. The Loos site, with its 7 extraction shafts, became one of the most powerful headquarters of the Lens/Liévin group.

« This landscape is the emanation of the underground. The Terril chain gives a measurement of about one kilometre. All the mining activity of the basin is made coherent by the geology » François-Xavier Mousquet, landscape designer DPLG

2 - Landscape of the mining basin

The coal mining activity has considerably modified the landscape. The town developed around the mining sites, called pitheads. Mining towns are built around these pits. They are not very well connected to each other or to the historic town; on the other hand, the inhabitants, both past and present, are strongly linked to their mining pits, both physically and symbolically. The working class culture is strong. Mining requires the storage of materials and waste in slag heaps. Those of Loos have a particularly recognisable shape: by being conical, they have made it possible to accumulate a large volume of mine waste on a limited surface.

The major stages: from mining to sustainable development

From the 1910s onwards, the mining basin experienced several crises, but in 1970 the pits began to close down. As the recession set in, in 1977, an amateur film was made in super 8 sound. « Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow » was screened in public. It launched a first debate with the inhabitants with the idea of understanding the break with yesterday’s world in order to project oneself into a new future that has yet to be imagined. It marked the birth of a unique festival that was created in 1984 and continues today: the Gohelliades. This event allows the talent of the inhabitants to be showcased, to move from the world of the mine to a project to be built. The 11/19 site was closed in 1986. The shafts were backfilled in 1987 and the pit was destined for destruction. The municipality then intervened to prevent its destruction. It bought the site in 1989 in order to make it « a symbol of mining activity ».

An inventory campaign of the mining heritage was launched by the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs (DRAC) of Nord-Pas de Calais. In 1992, part of the tiles were listed as historical monuments. However, the site continued to deteriorate, and some buildings were destroyed in 1993. At the same time, the « Chaîne des terrils » association was created in 1989 under the impetus of a group of associations for the protection of nature, the living environment and the historical and cultural heritage. Its aim is to protect, promote and animate the history of coal mining. The association was the first to physically visit the 11/19 site in 1995, proposing a discovery of the built and natural heritage.

In 1992, a collective awareness made it possible to conserve the slag heaps. In 1995, the town hall of Loos-en-Gohelle launched a public consultation process which lasted 5 years. The 11.19 base prefigures a new development model. Public consultation based on social listening to the neighbourhoods led to the drafting of a framework document. In the years that followed, the municipality became a real laboratory. The first eco-building projects for social landlords appeared. An « ecopole » was created, bringing together various functions such as the national resource centre on sustainable development (CERDD), a cluster of eco-companies, the CD2E, the TEAM2 circular economy competitiveness cluster, or a solar platform of EDF, LumiWatt…)

Using the 11/19 site as a starting point, the municipality of Loos-en-Gohelle is embarking on a process of urban redevelopment with the aim of revitalising the area socially and economically. The former pithead was the « pretext » for reviewing the layout of the various districts, redesigning the paths between rural and urban areas and initiating unifying cultural and sporting events.

In 1996, the Permanent Conference of the Mining Basin (CPBM) was launched. It enabled a shared diagnosis to be made of the strengths and weaknesses of the coalfield and proposed short- and medium-term prospects. This diagnosis was included in the « White Paper on the Mining Basin » published in February 1998.

In order to specify the objectives, a development tool, the Mission Bassin Minier, was created in 2000 by the State, the Region, the Departments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais and the Association of Mining Towns; partners who were joined in 2007 by all the agglomerations of the coalfield. A charter for the living environment was created between 1996 and 2003; it is the founding document of the resilience of Loos-Saint-Laurent. The importance of the « participative aspect » and the desire to invest, not in one field of sustainable development in particular, but in all the fields identified as priorities in the environmental field: water, landscape, waste, mobility, energy, the High Environmental Quality approach, risks and social participation. The transition is starting. A sustainable city project is being built with the population. The people of Looss are becoming increasingly involved in the development of their town. It is a profound change of culture for everyone. Industry and businesses are interested in the transition. At the same time, the registration of the Bassin Minier as a UNESCO World Heritage Site was launched.

The 11.19 base became a centre of excellence for sustainable development. Many players specialising in eco-businesses wanted to set up locally. There are more than a hundred qualified jobs on the 11.19 base. It is a second life for this former industrial site. The city is gradually becoming more attractive. Sustainable development is producing results. Experts and journalists describe Loos as a pilot city for sustainable development. A city on the move, where everyone’s involvement counts. At the same time as the reflections on the charter, at the end of the 1990s, the town undertook the revision of its Land Use Plan (POS), which was completed in 2000, with the prefiguration of a Local Urban Plan (PLU) in the background. The municipality’s objectives focus on the balance between rural and urban areas and on redesigning the city by recomposing the neighbourhoods in order to create links between east and west. In 2012, the Miner’s Basin was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The same year, the Louvre-Lens was inaugurated on the former pit 9. It is a consecration. A new chapter opens on a different scale. In 2014, as Europe embarked on the energy transition, Loos became the first national « sustainable city » demonstrator.

An efficient administration, a societal transition symbolised by the solar roof project on the Saint-Vaast church.

1 - The Loos method

The Loos method consists of working in a participatory manner. As soon as we carry out actions, we do so with the inhabitants concerned. This collective approach is rooted in the historical mutual aid of miners’ families, perpetuated by the Gohelliades following the industrial decline. Loos-en-Gohelle first wanted to save its heritage, and then to restore the self-esteem of the local population in order to mobilise everyone around sustainable actions.

2 - A laboratory town: the example of 11/19

The 11/19, located in the commune of Loos-en-Gohelle, is a symbol of the energy transition: a fossil fuel site that has become a temple of eco-construction. Following the decline of the coal industry, the site was saved by the will of a large number of people from the commune and local associations. It was then taken over by the Communauté d’Agglomération de Lens-Liévin. With its twin slag heaps, the highest in Europe, the site is now very popular, welcoming nearly 150,000 people each year.

3 - Heritage and landscape constraints and the development of renewable energy

Since 2007, urban planning documents have included landscape and heritage development issues. Three territorial coherence schemes, supported by three EPCIs, set out objectives, which are integrated and detailed in the local urban plans. Work has been carried out with the municipalities to preserve the mining heritage and avoid putting it under a bell: what should be preserved? What should be preserved? Why? Article by article, these same questions were asked to make planning choices. The Mission Bassin Minier has compensated for the lack of engineering skills of the municipalities, and consultancy firms have been hired to write the regulations for the choices. In 2014, a first guide was published. This is an effective tool for communicating, disseminating and materialising the operational objectives. Loos-en-Gohelle acted as a demonstrator. This initial work done in consultation was then applied to the new SCOTs and continues to be applied when they are renewed. For example, the SCOT of the Grand Douaisis has integrated these issues by producing a landscape plan.

The development of renewable energies

1 - Articulation of energy and landscape policies on the scale of the greater area

The Pôle Métropolitain de l’Artois, created in 2016, is a mixed syndicate associating three agglomeration communities, including that of Lens-Liévin. Its objective is to bring together the actions of its members in various fields such as urban and landscape planning. It also defines energy objectives. The Artois Town Planning Agency quantifies the objectives and proposes energy choices. It carries out an analysis of the land by combining quantification and identification of potential. The Mission Bassin Minier is the reference actor on the landscape issue. It is also the structure where all the players can meet. On a global scale, the articulation of these views and the consultation that validates the objectives make it possible to ensure that landscape issues linked to the development of new energy infrastructures are taken into account, which is a condition for the success of the issues of governance, economics, etc.

2 - Obstacles to the development of wind energy

« The question of wind energy is posed on a different scale from that of the commune. Wind power reveals the frictions with the strong identities of the mining basin and the places of memory of the 14/18 war. For the last 6 months or 1 year, we have seen an anarchic development of wind energy in the region which goes against the logic of a project and puts politicians on the defensive. In the mining basin, a study has been launched with the DREAL to question the UNESCO universal value of the Terrils mountain range in relation to the installation of wind farms. What interests me is how do we manage to make the project? How can we move from a reactive and defensive logic to a project logic that articulates energy objectives and the value of the territory? What are the prerequisites for it to work? Mutualising the benefits, avoiding the fragmentation linked to the land and having all the actors of the territory around the table are crucial practices to move forward in the right direction. People compare windmills and wind turbines, but windmills symbolise local anchoring. J.F.Caron, elected representative and mayor of Loos-en-Gohelle.

The regional wind energy plan for the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region sets out principles for the installation of wind turbines in the coalfield. It is based on the landscape entities. It defines the relationship between history and heritage, and also explains the conditions for the installation of wind turbines. The south of the department is very dense with wind farms. The interface landscape of Loos-en-Gohelle could accommodate occasional projects. However, a particular heritage remains an obstacle. During the 14/18 war, Loos-en-Gohelle was on the same front line as Verdun and many British soldiers fell there. In the Anglo-Saxon military tradition, soldiers must be buried at the place of their death. Many small cemeteries are scattered all along the former front line. The memory of the place represents a considerable political barrier to the development of wind power. The Anglo-Saxon culture does not view the development of wind farms in the area positively, as the sacredness of these places implies that they should be « put under a bell ».

3 - Solar

Since the first solar panels were installed, technology and legislation have evolved and it has been necessary to adapt. The first solar project dates from 2013-2014 and was installed on the roofs of the church in Loos. Since then, subsidies have become less important, the municipality does not have sufficient funding and the creation of a SCIC is not viable. These constraints led the municipality to think about an innovative model, a concession: the town grants a part of its roofs and authorises an external service provider to operate them. These roofs, which must be rented, are rented for a symbolic 1 euro to ensure the success of the project. The innovation comes from the fact that the concession created is an SAS in which we find private individuals, public institutions and citizens. Everyone can be a shareholder. The external candidate selected is SUNELIS, based near Lille. The SEM Hauts-de-France, whose objective is to develop renewable energies, provided funds. For the citizen part, an association, Energétic, was created. One of the symbols of the citizens’ involvement is the creation of the solar plan’s logo, which was entirely designed and created by the inhabitants. Currently, SUNELIS holds 20% of the concession, the SEM 35%, the city 10% and the citizens 35%. In the long term, the aim is for the citizens to become the majority shareholders and for the municipality to sell its shares. Eight roofs have already been installed in the city on public buildings. In a second phase, the city will call on the SAS for each new renovation. Private operators will also be able to rent their roofs and other territories will have the opportunity to join the concession.

4 - The beginning of a positive momentum

The structure is set up to allow a development that radiates beyond the commune. The Artois metropolitan cluster, which ensures the cooperation of 3 EPCIs, of which Loos-en-Gohelle is a part, is launching a strong energy axis, a real leverage effect facilitating the deployment of solar installations. A solar cadastre is being developed and will allow any person to have an overview of the places that can accommodate solar energy. It will give the possibility to visualise interesting surfaces for both private and public actors. In a region where a first wave of uncontrolled installations led to apprehension and mistrust on the part of the inhabitants, this tool will remove doubts and validate the profitability of solar installations. In addition, an energy information service has also been set up by the EPCI to support these initiatives. The size of the municipality and the number of inhabitants make it possible to launch this type of initiative.

5 - Share of solar energy in the Loos energy mix

Today, locally produced solar energy represents only 1% of the commune’s needs. There is considerable room for improvement. Nevertheless, the current approach is already bearing fruit, with solar energy representing 94% of the energy consumption of municipal buildings.

6 - Exchanges with the Architecte des Bâtiments de France: birth of good practice

In 2018, the town launched a preliminary declaration project with ENEDIS, a purely technical view at the time. The Architecte des Bâtiments de France (ABF) initially gave a negative opinion. This optional opinion was not against the idea of installing solar panels, but criticised the « post-it » placement, i.e. without the shape of the panels covering the entire surface of the roof. The municipality, despite the optional opinion, decided to open a dialogue. The developer followed the recommendations and the panels could be installed, covering the entire roof. This project then served as an example taken up by the Mission Bassin Minier. Today, the projects initiated within the framework of the citizen solar plan are working in the same way, ensuring a valuable spatial coherence. 6 - Future of the concessions The concessions for the photovoltaic exploitation of the roofs have a life span of 30 years. At the end of these 30 years, the roofs must be repaired, returned to the city or be the subject of a new contract. The chosen business model ensures that the bank loan is amortised in 15 years. The difficulty is to launch the project because of the purchase price constraint. However, between a roof carried by a private individual and a roof carried by the SAS, the cost is halved. The profitable economic situation of 2.3% profit per year ensures a virtuous circle. However, there is still a lot of uncertainty in the long term with the current fall in the price of solar energy in France.

Loos-en-Gohelle’s objective is to be 100% renewable by 2050. To achieve this, the municipality is planning a drastic reduction in consumption and a massive increase in local energy production. To this end, an energy planning study co-financed by ADEME was conducted between 2014 and 2017. It defines the following priorities: renovate, massify and modernise. The municipality has planned a 30-year concession allowing the installation of nearly 2600m² of photovoltaic panels on 8 municipal roofs. Firstly, it is facilitating the entry of citizens into the capital so that they become shareholders. In a second phase, it wishes to equip new public or private roofs.


  • Experience extracted from the guide «  Energy transition : towards desirable landscapes  » carried out in 2021 - 2022 by the Landscape and Energy Chair of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure du Paysage de Versailles : www.ecole-paysage.fr/fr/node/402

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