In Reunion, Solar Power is Crucial for Agriculture – and Social Reintegration

Centrale photovoltaïque couplée à une exploitation agricole au coeur d’un centre de détention à La Réunion
Three Oceans ReunionFrance
Reunion: Where Solar Power Fuels Agriculture – and Social Integration
9 MW
of installed capacity
8,700 m²
of agricultural land farmed
inmates trained
In the Indian Ocean, Reunion and its 860,000 inhabitants depend heavily on imports. But solar energy is part of an increasingly sustainable electricity supply. Since 2014, this French Overseas Department has housed a solar power plant and electricity storage system – in the middle of a detention center. It’s among the world’s first such systems, and supports the environmental, economic and social development of the island.

At 10,000 km from mainland France, the Overseas Territory of Reunion is one of the poorest in France. It is not connected to any external electricity grid and still extensively uses fossil fuels (fuel oil and coal) to generate its electricity. But the island has ambitious goals for both agriculture and renewable energies. It aims to increase and diversify its food production, generate 100% renewable electricity by 2023 and achieve energy self-sufficiency by 2030.

This has prompted the decision by AFD to support the Bardzour project, developed by Akuo Energy, and its concept of Agrinergie, which combines agriculture, solar power generation and social integration. This solar power plant has a unique combination of benefits:

  • A continuous generation of 100% renewable electricity reinjected into the EDF grid
  • Storage of the electricity generated in order to smooth out the distribution 
  • Supply of organic agricultural products for Reunion 
  • Training and job opportunities for the inmates in the prison where it is located.

Bardzour (“breaking dawn” in Reunion Creole) is much more than just a solar power plant. It provides a response to a number of development challenges which benefits Reunion, its people, inmates and their families.

“A project like Bardzour is all about demonstrating that there’s a new virtuous development model to serve the environment. The energy transition can and must be achieved by serving the environment and territories.”

- Xavier Ducret, CEO of Akuo Energy in Reunion

Photos: © Pierre Marchal / AFD

Sandra Chane Waye is the manager of the Bardzour project at AFD’s Reunion office. What makes this place distinct, is it’s the first such plant with energy storage on an island (9 MW). “It’s a world first in terms of size, energy storage and the location on an island and in a prison.”

“Reunion is a land of innovative solutions,” she says. Because with Bardzour, it isn’t just about combining power generation with agricultural production. It also involves including a social component for the integration of inmates, some of whom took part in the construction of the power plant and others participate in the agricultural activities.

“Akuo Energy is committed to including a strong social component in its economic activities, which is in line with AFD’s mandate. In this case, we’re developing renewable energies on the island and we’re promoting reintegration into the professional world.” The program is fully in tune with AFD’s strategy, which promotes energy efficiency and the positive climate impact and, second, the strengthening of social cohesion and reduction of inequalities.

The power plant has received awards, and several countries are now following its lead.
A former self-employed farmer, Rémi Rivière now works for Agriterra as deputy farm manager and trainer at Bardzour. Every day, he organizes the timetable at the detention center, checks on the farm – and the inmates. “My role is to supervise them, give them instructions to ensure the farm operations run smoothly,” says Rivière. “I also share information about alternative agricultural practices that respect the soil, biodiversity, workers and consumers.”

They generally have a good relationship, says Rivière. Rémi works to make sure there’s a good atmosphere, “while being rigorous, serious and firm”. Most of the operators are motivated, often “grateful to the company and its teams” and happy to work at Bardzour.

“They know that their reintegration will be easier because they’ve worked and had this experience. The fact of working at Agriterra provides them with a source of income, allows some of them to hone the skills and acquire new ones,” says Rivière. “As the training progresses, we generally see that inmates are more autonomous, more interested, they learn how to work in a team and take more and more responsibilities.”
Akuo Energy is a French group specialized in developing and financing the operation of power plants using renewable resources. In 2007, it developed the patented concept of Agrinergie: a unique system combining power generation with agricultural production on the same site. The objective: supply 100% renewable energy (and green Reunion’s energy mix), while maintaining or creating agricultural land.

Bardzour houses 6,000 m² of solar greenhouses and 2,700 m² of field crops. “The agricultural production is secured by anticyclonic solar greenhouses equipped with insect-proof nets which allow the air to circulate while protecting the crops,” says Xavier Ducret, CEO of Akuo Energy Indian Ocean, “The solar panels, which supply electricity to 14,000 inhabitants a year, act as shade for certain plants.”

Part of the available land in the detention center is used to preserve endemic species. It is an arboretum developed by the National Botanical Conservatory in Mascarin, which helps create a peaceful atmosphere for family visits.
Farming is the main activity of Agriterra, a partner company of Akuo Energy to help it develop its expertise in Agrinergie. “Our aim is to apply resilient agriculture with permaculture and agroecology techniques in order to respect the environment as much as possible, as well as the health of producers and consumers,” says Angélique Grimaud, Head of Operations at Agriterra.

The company also contributes to the integration of inmates or, as they are often referred to, the "operators." Since 2014, 53 of them have benefited from training for an average duration of ten months prior to their release. “We train them in the occupation of multi-skilled agricultural worker through nine training modules, for example, on setting up irrigation systems, soil management, plant care, preparing products for sale and spatial planning.” They also benefit from assistance with any projects to set up their own farming activity.

The wide variety of crops grown on the farm is another advantage for the operators. They include organic market gardening and fruit growing, as well as sustainable horticulture. What’s more, some operators want to work at Agriterra when they are released; others have already become farmers.
solar panels

The 27,000 solar panels cover an area of 4.5 hectares, which generate an annual total of 10 GWh in local renewable electricity. This contributes to Reunion’s energy strategy, by reducing dependence on imports, and minimizing the share of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions in the energy mix. Bardzour is reducing CO₂ emissions by 8,868 tons every year.

“It’s also about continuing to produce electricity to support the island’s growth and contribute to its economic development,” says Marc Dubernet, AFD’s Regional Director, “The project is structuring a green energy generation sector for EDF.” 

EDF’s Island Electric Production injects renewable electricity into the grid by storing energy in lithium-ion batteries, which offset the lower levels of power generation when there is less sunshine – the batteries can store an hour of the power plant’s generation, i.e. 9 MW). All of the electricity produced by Bardzour is sold to EDF.


Agri hand in handBardzour also has 8,700 m² of farmed agricultural land: 6,000 m² of solar greenhouses and 2,700 m² of open-field crops.Together, they allow a diversified production of fruit, cut flowers, medicinal and aromatic herbs and vegetables. It is directly used at the canteen of the detention center and is sold directly to an organic cooperative as well as to restaurants and individual customers.

All the equipment required for the farm is financed by Akuo Energy through the revenue generated by the sale of electricity, and in consultation with the agricultural partner involved in the project, Agriterra.

For this project, Akuo Energy’s partner company aims to reach the break-even point to show that it is possible to have viable organic farming in Reunion. Indeed, all the farming is based on permaculture and is now certified organic, a rare thing on the island. It relies on the agricultural workers employed by Agriterra and operators from the prison.

Preparing people for outside Prison

Six operators work permanently at Bardzour. The first ones were trained in the construction of solar generation units when the power plant was installed. They have been working on the farm since 2014, “with a salary higher than the legal minimum,” says Xavier Ducret.

This system allows the detention center to offer additional opportunities under their reintegration program and creates local employment. “Since the implementation of the project, Agriterra has hired five operators who were trained on the Bardzour solar farm,” says Angélique Grimaud. Among the permanent jobs created: an agricultural engineer in charge of the training of operators on the site; a deputy farm manager and operator trainer; an administrative officer; and two jobs for the supervision and maintenance of the facilities.

Clearly Bardzour is an innovative power plant on a number of fronts – and a trendsetter. In the coming years, the concept of Agrinergie will be replicated in New Caledonia, Mayotte and mainland France, with an eye to preparing inmates to resume life in society with the skills they need to succeed.