French presidential candidates put new energy in election campaign

"I put in my own solar-energy heating system about two years ago," explained Bernard Trion, a plumber in this small Alpine town. "I'm now saving about 6,000 liters of oil every winter."

Not only has Trion gone solar for himself, but he has also modified his profession to include the increasing demand for the installation of polyester and glass energy captors. Working hand in hand with a small but expanding locally created factory, la Societe des Techniques Avancees (STA), Trion has installed most of the 200-odd captors that adorn the rooftops, garages, and gardens of numerous houses in and around Veynes.

A alpine town in a narrow valley, Veynes is considered France's foremost solar-energy citizens' laboratory. With high-cost oil accounting for 66 percent of France's energy needs -- one-quarter of its foreign import bill -- the search for alternative energy sources ranks high on the list of priorities for almost all of the country's 10 presidential candidates competing in the April 26 first-round elimination voting.

Ecologist Brice Lalonde would like to see a heavy emphasis placed on clean, renewable sources such as solar, wind, and tidal energy. The other more frontline candidates --Jacques Chirac, and Communist Georges Marchais -- are all advocates of nuclear power as the chief answer for bringing France out of its energy doldrums.

Socialist Francois Mitterrand has not pronounced himself against nuclear programs as such but would like to see tighter safety controls and more thorough research before charging ahead into the wholesale construction of nuclear plants.

Nuclear energy, which in 1973 only represented 1.5 percent of national requirements, now stands at 6.4 percent. The Giscard administration would like to see it account for nearly one-third of national needs by 1990, but alternative renewable sources, including solar energy, are expected to total a mere 10 percent. For the past six years, Veynes' Association for the Study of Solar Energy, formed by Vegnes' deputy mayor, Madeleine Roux, has been struggling to develop and promote the use of solar energy in all its forms.

Sandwiched between a series of low, jagged, pine-forested mountains in the Haute Alpes region, Veynes (population 3,400) happened onto solar energy out of economic necessity.

For years, Veynes had served as a major railway marshaling and repair center for steam locomotives. At one time, over 800 rail employees worked the yards in what was obviously a fairly prosperous town.

But with the end of World War II, government modernization programs caused the closure of thousands of kilometers of secondary railway lines. Diesel engines and electrification of France's main lines did the rest. The "desertification," as the French call it, of Veynes had begun.

Today, barely 100 rail workers cling to their jobs and the town has a predominantly high number of retirees. A handfull of small industries, such as a plastics plant and a fruit refrigeration depot for the region's diminuishing number of fruit farmers, provide a few jobs for the young.

Encouraged by Mme. Roux, an independent member of Veynes' primarily Socialist and Communist municipal council, the local townsfolk were faced with the formidable task of trying to reverse the malaise of high unemployment, loss of revenue, and severe depopulation that pervades many similar provincial towns in France.

"We started looking for ways of creating new jobs and hit on the idea of solar energy," said Mme. Roux.

Speaking in a soft Midi accent, she added: "We had to find something which would also permit us to be independent of centralized bureaucracy, which has a tendency in France to stifle local initiatives."

With an average 2,600 sun hours a year, the townsfolk of Veynes believed they could not only use solar energy for themselves to save on fuel costs, but also sell it. With the help of local teachers, architects, and citizens who had joined the solar association, Mme. Roux sought to establish what later became the STA to produce and sell solar captors. But despite abundant government promises of help for those who to create small enterprises, the association claims to have received almost no outside help.

Nevertheless, using its slogan of "solar energy, the energy of tomorrow in our hands today," the STA plunged ahead with its plans and organized France's first solar energy festival in 1976. Veynes also found a high-performance solar captor that it could manufacture itself.

"There are many types of solar captors on the market, most of them of poor quality," said Michel Chardon, the vigorously enterprising director of the STA that now provides 13 jobs in an area of 8 percent unemployment. "We needed a product which is efficient and can endure the sort of high and low temperature fluctuations we have here. A product which suits our climate can be used all over France and Europe."

The association bought the patent to a high-quality captor but immediately ran into severe financial problems. The government and the banks refused to give credits.

"Basically we had to raise our own funds," said Chardon. "But at least we now have no debts."

Before the end of this year the STA will have doubled its turnover since 1979 by granting 10-year guarantees for its product. "Expansion will also mean more jobs although we can only move ahead slowly because of lack of capital," Chardon said. "But that is alread y positive for this area."

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