Article accepted in Journal of Environmental Management
THE ROLE OF A LOCAL AUTHORITY AS A STAKEHOLDER
ENCOURAGING THE DEVELOPMENT OF BIOGAS: A
STUDY ON TERRITORIAL INTERMEDIATION
Sebastien BOURDIN* (corresponding author), Fabien NADOU*
*EM Normandie Business School (France) Metis Lab
Department of Regional Economics and Sustainable Development
9, rue Claude Bloch, 14 052 Caen (France)
In a context where anaerobic digestion is a controversial subject, it is not surprising to see that between 20%
and 30% of anaerobic digestion projects are abandoned, mainly for reasons of local opposition, problems of
coordination between stakeholders and the implementation of real territorial governance capable of facing the
challenges encountered during the setting up of the project. We can consequently question the role that local
territorial authorities could play to encourage the development of biogas in France. We used semi-structured
interviews conducted with anaerobic digestion stakeholders to identify the main functions of territorial
intermediation (and their specific elements) that local authorities could have to encourage the deployment and
success of these projects. Local authorities play the role of intermediation by (i) ensuring spatial and cognitive
proximities between actors, (ii) mobilizing territorial resources and favoring local anchorage (iii) installing
trust among the local stakeholders and (iv) having a role of instigator by participating in the supply (inputs) of
biogas plants and the purchase of the energy produced (outputs).
Anaerobic digestion, biogas, local authority, proximity, territorial intermediation
National, European and international institutions now consider energy transition as unavoidable
(UNO, 2018). The European Commission’s latest report on economic, social and territorial cohesion
(2017) insisted on the need to fight climate change and bring about an environmental transition
notably through the development of renewable energies. With relation to this, the Europe 2020
Strategy sets specific goals: (i) reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% compared with the levels in
1990, (ii) increase the share of renewable energy to 20 % and (iii) increase energy efficiency by 20%
compared with the energy consumption forecast for 2020. In France, the Ministry of Ecological and
Solidarity Transition (MTES) is pushing for an acceleration of energy transition, and is particularly
insisting on more and more anaerobic digestion as a sustainable, local and circular solution (MTES,
This is in line with the idea developed by a growing number of researchers, according to which the
strategy of liberation from fossil fuels is based on the intensification of the production of alternative,
green energies, including anaerobic digestion (Mshandete et al., 2006; Ward et al., 2008; Lyytimäki
et al., 2018; Alexander et al., 2019). Within the framework of the energy mix desired by France and
faced with the will of more territories to reach energy autonomy at local level, the valorization of
therefore seems to be the appropriate answer from an environmental and energetic
Anaerobic digestion, like the other sources of energy, is nevertheless subject to controversy,
especially from a socioeconomic perspective with positive and negative consequences (Tilche and
Galatola, 2008; Martinat, 2013). First of all, anaerobic digestion has several advantages for different
stakeholders. It enables local authorities to recycle biomass waste and produce (i) electricity which
can then be used for public lighting for example or (ii) heat to heat the water in a community
swimming pool or to heat the city hall or a school. It therefore enables the operating costs of public
administration to be reduced. This is an important argument in a context of strong tension with respect
to local authorities’ budgetary restrictions. The same is true for the industries where anaerobic
digestion is helping firms to lower their energy bill and the cost of waste treatment. From this
perspective, anaerobic digestion enables the local production and consumption of energy using the
Generated particularly by (i) breeding, (ii) crops and green waste produced and/or collected by local authorities, (iii)
waste from agribusiness
region’s resources, and can thus be considered as a form of circular economy and decentralized
production of sustainable energy (Song et al., 2014). Furthermore, as shown by Chodkowska-
Miszczuk et al. (2019), as anaerobic digestion plants rely on local biomass resources, they favor the
local rooting of the economy more than other firms do. They also participate in the embeddedness
into the life of rural communities by creating employment at local level (ibid.). Guenther-Lübbers et
al. (2016) analyzed the effects of the increase in production of biogas on employment and the value
added in rural areas of Lower Saxony, and identified a significant, positive impact of anaerobic
digestion on the studied regions. For farmers, it provides additional, stable income, it enables heat
autonomy in a context of the increasing cost of fossil fuels, it encourages a decrease in the purchase
of fertilizers as it valorizes digestates. There are nevertheless also socioeconomic disadvantages of
anaerobic digestion, especially the fact that it often arouses fear among local inhabitants and local
public opinion (Capodaglio et al., 2016; Zemo et al., 2019). Indeed, despite the fact that the local
population interviewed often agrees with the principle of a need to fight climate change at local level,
it is often not ready to welcome facilities meant to do this on its territory, let alone when they are
located near their homes. The refusals expressed by local populations and associations of inhabitants
of the regions welcoming anaerobic digestion projects are most often focused on questions relating
to (i) stench and noise impact, (ii) congestion of roads due to trucks carrying raw materials to the
biogas plant or (iii) the issue of the drop in value of the properties located close to the biogas plant.
As far as the last risk is concerned, Zemo et al. (2019) have shown that large anaerobic digestion
facilities have a significant negative impact on the value of rural residential property. Furthermore,
anaerobic digestion projects are faced with the problem of biomass supply, which can sometimes lead
to problems of profitability (Wellinger, 2013; Capodaglio et al., 2016).
The management science and territorial economics literature shows that the emergence of territorial
projects is a phenomenon that is mainly based on the synergies provided by cooperation between
stakeholders (Reed et al., 2009). These organizations are, however, not always able to identify
partners in their environment with which they could work (Spigel, 2017). Cooperation is indeed rarely
natural, and spatial proximity is not the only explanation to why the actors group together for joint
projects (Carrincazeaux et al., 2008; Suire and Vicente, 2009) or can object to them (Soland et al.,
2013; Schumacher and Schultmann, 2017). Interaction and discussions underpinning joint projects
could be made easier thanks to intermediation (Newlands, 2003; Edler and Yeow, 2016).
Intermediation consists in creating a connection between stakeholders in order to increase their
chances of jointly developing new products or services. Despite recent contributions which seek to
understand intermediation (Lee et al., 2010; Håkanson et al., 2011), there is still a lack of knowledge
about the roles and means used by these intermediaries. This paper consequently seeks to explore the
notion of intermediation in more depth and specifically look at the role of intermediary played by
local authorities. We aim to analyze the extent and the way in which local authorities encourage the
deployment of anaerobic digestion by practicing territorial intermediation, which can be defined as
mediation of stakeholders with the aim of encouraging proximity – whether it be spatial or organized
(Torre and Rallet, 2005; Rallet and Torre, 2017) – to bring a project with a territorial dimension to
In order to do this, we conducted a qualitative study by carrying out (i) semi-structured interviews
with 49 stakeholders of projects or existing biogas plants, throughout the French Great-West region,
between July 2016 and March 2018, (ii) non-participant observation of public meetings organized
during the preparatory phase of projects in 2018 and (iii) the collection of 455 articles from the
regional daily press talking about anaerobic digestion projects between 2003 and 2018.
Our paper firstly presents the theoretical and empirical framework used to answer our problem, and
then the methodology used. We finish by explaining the main findings related to the role to be played
by local authorities to encourage territorial intermediation.
1. Literature review
1.1. Creating spatial and organized proximity to develop anaerobic digestion
Work on intermediation is relatively recent and the knowledge about this activity remains nascent
and partial (Lee et al., 2010; Håkanson et al., 2011) or non-existent within the framework of analyzing
energy transition projects. Although the role of an intermediary mainly consists in identifying
potential partners, encouraging spatial and organized proximities (Torre and Rallet, 2005; Rallet and
Torre, 2017) and offering a framework that encourages cooperation, the means of concrete action
remain unknown. It is therefore fundamental to understand the role and actions taken to practice
territorial intermediation in order to understand why projects fail or succeed.
The question of proximity is really prevalent in anaerobic digestion projects, as the valorization of
biomass necessarily implies strong local embeddedness (Chodkowska-Miszczuk et al., 2019), leading
to spatial relations (more or less distant, obligatory or not) and organizational relations (existence of
traditional, institutional, formalized or unformalized relationships) between actors, often implying
questions related to territorial governance (Torre, 2014). In this context, we use the proximity theory
(Torre and Rallet, 2005) in order to analyze the processes at work and the extent to which territorial
authorities encourage territorial intermediation. The authors distinguish between spatial proximity
(spatial dimension referring to the distance and therefore to the territorialization of this renewable
energy) or organized proximity (relational dimension referring to the ability of an organization to
make its members interact for the benefit of a project and therefore to the stakeholders’ practices with
respect to this green energy). The intersection of these two kinds of proximity forms what is known
as territorial proximities (Torre and Wallet, 2014).
The analysis of territorial proximities is especially used when there is a need to handle conflicts
between users of spaces, as it enables the difficulties in the relationships of coordination between
stakeholders to be crystallized (Torre and Zuindeau, 2009; Darly and Torre, 2013; Torre et al. 2014).
Anaerobic digestion projects concentrate these aspects where the spatial and social acceptance
dimensions play a fundamental role in the relations between the project stakeholders. Conflict puts
discussions and actors’ decisions which are not always included at the beginning, at the center, and
which can affect the outcome of the project. Furthermore, the question of profitability is a key factor
of success of joint biogas production projects (Van Groenendaal et al., 2010; Rajendran et al., 2013;
Capodaglio et al., 2016). Profitability is sometimes lacking as the quantity of inputs into the digester
is insufficient, irregular or unsure in terms of supply, while there are existing resources in the region
that are not used by the project initiators. This lack of use of resources can be involuntary (lack of
knowledge) or voluntary (it can hide the wish of some stakeholders to not work with other actors
toward the success of the project, or a lack of trust between them). In both cases, these are forms of
organized, (un)used proximities. We think that a local authority is the most likely to be able to
facilitate the use of these proximities in a given region, identify and reveal the potential synergies
between different entities in order to facilitate the success of projects.
1.2. Between chosen and imposed spatial proximity
Even if the notion of spatial proximity above all reveals a relationship of distance between individuals
or activities, and focuses on studying its origins, it can also cover analyses into whether this proximity
is chosen/sought or imposed (Torre and Zuindeau, 2009). From this point of view, when the
stakeholders want to voluntarily move away from or toward each other, we can talk of chosen spatial
proximity. It corresponds to the will of some actors to seek to move toward or away from other
stakeholders, resources, specific places or technical objects. On the contrary, spatial proximity can be
experienced as being imposed, once individuals find themselves faced with an infrastructure, place
or another actor in their near space, to which they do not want to be located close by. It can lead to
NIMBY attitudes with voiced opinion (Van der Horst, 2007). This situation has been frequently
encountered in regions where the development of onshore wind turbines close to housing or offshore
wind turbines close to the shore has led to conflict (Tegou et al., 2010). The objectors to such
infrastructures say that they pose a threat to the peacefulness of the sites (noise pollution from the
blades and turbines), to the beauty of the landscapes or to the drop in the value of housing. The
perception of imposed spatial proximity varies depending on social dimensions such as age, sex,
profession, the person’s environment, etc.
It should be noted that there is another type of proximity called “temporary”, in addition to these two
kinds of “permanent” spatial forms of proximity (Torre, 2008; Rychen and Zimmermann, 2008). The
need for temporary spatial proximity does not require the relocation of activities, as it can be satisfied
by mobility of varying duration. Let us take the example of a process to implement a participatory
approach for the development of an anaerobic digestion project: the regional stakeholders may have
to move to the same place to discuss the project together, for the duration of a public meeting. This
is known as the occasional, simultaneous activation of spatial and organized proximity. We think that,
as an authority is a neutral actor, it is the most likely to be able to facilitate such temporary spatial
and organized proximity.
1.3. Organized proximity as a lever of territorial governance of anaerobic digestion projects
Apart from the geographical relation, proximity also appears to be organized between the
stakeholders, and is based on two rationales: belonging and similarity (Shaw and Gilly, 2000; Torre,
2010; Torre and Wallet, 2014). Belonging describes the fact that the actors belong to the same
relational network, either professional or personal like a group of farmers, an environmental
association or association of area residents. These relationships can be created directly or facilitated
by a intermediary. Organized proximity will therefore be more or less great depending on the degree
of connection between the stakeholders, as this may vary over time. The other rationale on which
organized proximity is based is similarity. It expresses the fact that actors identify with the shared
projects and adhere to common values and standards and/or a common language. Emphasis is placed
on the cognitive relations between individuals, which can also be established on more implicit
communication or ties, based on similar references. These two rationales of belonging and similarity
are part of a perpetual movement that depend on everyone’s adhesions, and the encounters and
relationships that are created and broken off over time and space. The actors are united by the
cognitive bases of sharing which are opportunities to build coordination and proximity. These bases
can change over time depending on the rhythm at which individuals meet up. The emergence of a
project (Torre and Wallet, 2011) can be both a basis for sharing and a source of conflict. In the
beginning, there may be obstacles to the construction of coordination. Let us take the example of a
project designed with the stakeholders’ perception of a lack of dialog and consultation: a feeling of
imposed spatial proximity will increase, even more so as there is no logic of similarity. New country
dwellers do not have the same perception as old country dwellers, so they will be less inclined to see
a biogas plant, initiated by farmers, built near their homes through a lack of shared cognitive
representation systems of the rural areas. On the other hand, the conflict between users can also
contribute to positive local dynamics, helping to better structure the social relations and connections
between the stakeholders of a region (Torre and Wallet, 2014).
1.4. Territorial intermediation to be built
Anaerobic digestion projects require that stakeholders are brought together (spatial and organized
proximity) – both in the management and use of space and the economic development of the projects
– and this crystallizes and puts coordination mechanisms to the test. The governance of the projects
and relations in the region will be influenced by parameters such as the stakes of feasibility,
profitability, positive and negative externalities. It therefore seems necessary for an actor to be able
to facilitate the coordination of the system when steering, preparing and following up projects. We
propose the hypothesis that the actor able to take on the role of intermediary and facilitator is the local
authority welcoming projects in its region. This is all the truer as local authorities and especially
groupings of small towns, in the French institutional and regulatory territorial context, have very
strong or even obligatory competencies when it comes to economic development and regional
planning. They are able to play the role of intermediary in joint anaerobic digestion projects.
Local authorities are able to connect stakeholders, make it easier for them to communicate with each
other, facilitate the spreading of information and set up support mechanisms for projects. The role of
a intermediary can also include selecting and introducing partners likely to provide both knowledge
and resources that do not exist in a given region (Agogué et al., 2013). Intermediaries have been given
great attention in the literature on the analysis of social networks (see especially Howell, 2006 or
Burt, 2009). On a more specific level, several studies have been conducted in regional science on
innovation networks and the specific role of brokers as actors transferring knowledge between
organizations/actors that are not directly connected (Nooteboom, 2003). These intermediaries can
encourage (i) the connection of stakeholders, (ii) the communication and mutual recognition between
groups that would otherwise have been isolated/forgotten (Diani, 2003). Establishing such
connections between the stakeholders of a project can have an impact on local environmental disputes
(Devine-Wright, 2012). Reference to intermediation is to be linked to that of proximity. Torre (2014)
makes the connection by mentioning intermediaries responsible for activating networking between
stakeholders and conducting themselves in such a way as to have internal legitimacy during actions
encouraging the emergence of local initiatives. This legitimacy is therefore essential when
implementing governance to develop territorial development projects such as joint anaerobic
2.1. Research design and case study regions
Our study consisted in implementing a qualitative method using the conjoint analysis of three data
sources. The first data source is the conducting of surveys with the stakeholders of nine projects
chosen for their specific characteristics (table 1). The second source is the collection of what actors
said during meetings attended by several stakeholders and organized as part of the project
construction. The third source is the result of going through the regional daily press. Once these data
had been collected, we applied the theoretical framework of a proximity economy and our territorial
intermediation approach, in order to identify the roles of local authorities in favoring the deployment
of anaerobic digestion.
Table 1. Characteristics of the biogas plants studied
Progress of project
Type of energy
gas and digestate
Pays de la
electricity, heat and
gas, digestate and
electricity, heating and
electricity, heat and
in the planning
electricity, heat and
Pays de la
in the planning
gas and digestate
Pays de la
in the planning
gas and digestate
electricity, heat and
Our study area “Great West” stretches across three administrative regions in France, namely
Normandy, Brittany and the Pays de la Loire (map 1). The French Great West is characterized by its
economic vitality which is based both on important cities like Nantes and Rennes (and also Angers,
Caen and Rouen to a lesser degree) generating activity that produces superior goods and services
(cutting-edge industries, hi-tech, higher education and research, etc.) and on agricultural activities
and leading agri-food industries. This large territory is structured around the fact that there is a very
strong connection between dense, wide-stretching metropolitan areas and a large number of rural
territories (where the anaerobic digestion projects tend to be developed). The three regions
accompany the anaerobic digestion consultation and structuring approaches, and support both the
intangible (support of consultation activities, help examining the files) and tangible (financial aid for
the emergence of projects via feasibility studies, financial aid for investment) investment to create
biogas plants. By way of example, the region of Normandy will dedicate 12 million euros to the
Anaerobic digestion development plan between 2018 and 2020, as part of the global regional energy
transition policy. In this part of France, since 2004, 91 joint anaerobic digestion projects with partial
or exclusive valorization of waste from biomass have emerged in the “Great West” region of France
on July 1st 2018.
Map 1. Nine projects analyzed in the Great West of France
2.2. Method and data
We collected three sources of qualitative data in order to conduct thematic analysis using coding,
enabling themes and categories to be linked together. The approach consisted of skim reading and
coding mainly based on the themes discussed during the interviews. The two researchers took it in
turns to read and analyze the contents to ensure that the coding was robust.
We began by conducting 49 semi-structured interviews with the stakeholders of these joint anaerobic
digestion projects (see Appendix 1). The interview campaign was run for 14 territorial points of
contact (Chamber of Agriculture, ADEME, etc.), 7 persons living close to joint anaerobic digestion
projects, 6 associations (for and against anaerobic digestion), 8 firms (project initiators and
stakeholders), 7 politicians (mayors, chairmen of federation of small towns and political
representatives) and 7 farmers (project initiators and stakeholders).
These interviews were built up on the basis of an analysis matrix using the theory of proximity and
were organized around several themes related to the (i) obstacles and difficulties encountered in
anaerobic digestion projects, (ii) the perception of the forms of proximity within the projects, and (iii)
the question of the place and role of local authorities in the encouragement of the deployment of joint
anaerobic digestion projects in the regions. The interviews were carried out face-to-face, lasted a
mean of one hour thirty (with each point of contact accepting its recording beforehand) and were
entirely re-transcribed. Most of the time, the interviews were conducted as follows: first of all, the
interviewee usually wanted to know about our research project and the reasons (or persons) that led
us to interview him/her. Once this initial presentation was over, we systematically began by asking a
question about the interviewee (and his/her organization if he/she was not an area resident) to get the
interview going. We then directed the interview toward the themes that we were interested in. We
wanted to let the interviewees speak freely and to resort to follow-up questions to redirect the
interview or continue with key points.
These semi-structured interviews were completed by the audio recording of public meetings about
the presentation and discussion of an anaerobic digestion project under construction in Mayenne
(Pays de la Loire Region), and another one in Ile-et-Vilaine (Brittany Region).
Secondary data were then added to these primary sources of data, enabling triangulation of both
sources and data. We collected 455 articles that had been published between 2003 and 2018 in the
French newspaper, Ouest France (the most read in our study area – 700,000 copies printed daily),
with the words “biogas” or “anaerobic digestion” in their headlines.
The newspaper Ouest-France is owned by the Association pour le principe de la démocratie humaniste (an
association dedicated to humanist democracy) and has 58 editorial offices throughout the regions of Brittany,
Normandy and Pays de la Loire. It does not defend any particular ideological or political position, but has been
committed to sticking to an editorial line aimed at upholding democracy, peace, justice and freedom, repscting
people and institutions since it was founded on June 7th, 1944. It holds on to its position because it is deeply
rooted in the region and publishes information that is of concern to the regions of its readership. Renewable
energies are at the heart of the development strategies in the regions of the Great West of France. They have
been regularly discussed in the newspaper’s columns for several years, given the fact that the newspaper is
deeply rooted and widely distributed in the West of France.
We decided to collected data from just one newspaper, as it deals with regional topics and is relatively
neutral when it comes to the questions we were working on. This newspaper has the largest reach in
the Great West of France, and gives substantial coverage to local projects in its daily editions. It is
therefore a local newspaper, as it has been established in the region for a long time and also deals
with subjects that are concerns for the inhabitants of the areas in which it is distributed and read.
Different groups and populations affected by such subjects are regularly invited to voice their
opinions in this newspaper.
So, regional daily press is a particularly interesting observation tool, as this is the main way that the
population is made aware of the information. It is also the main medium for local news. This source
has already been explored within the framework of energy transition (McNally, 2018) or to analyze
the conflict and dynamics of proximity (Torre and Darly, 2014; Torre et al., 2014).
3. Territorial authorities as intermediaries for the development of projects
3.1. Territorial authorities as marshals of local resources
Anaerobic digestion bestows two main roles on authorities, in order to meet the objectives of energy
transition in their regions: that of providing primary resources and financial resources. We will mainly
use two examples of joint anaerobic digestion projects (Gaillon and Vire-Normandie), from the nine
that we studied, to develop our comments.
Firstly, authorities can motivate stakeholders in their regions to develop one or more joint anaerobic
digestion projects through the contribution of their digestible waste (grass cuttings, leftovers of school
meals, etc.). Let us take the example of the joint anaerobic digestion project in Gaillon, Normandy:
the project was initiated and steered by the federation of small towns. In 2012, there were two
environmental stakes to be addressed by the federation: the extension of both the water treatment
plant and the inter-community water park as part of sustainable development. Anaerobic digestion
therefore seemed the obvious choice as it enables both the treatment and valorization of sludge from
water treatment plants, and the heating of water in a pool thanks to the construction of a heat network.
The industrialist Victoria Group (whose headquarters are located in a small town near Gaillon) was
subsequently chosen by the authority to run the unit via its firm Biogaz de Gaillon and to manage the
transportation of waste via its other firm, SAS Maillot. Industrial and household waste (30% of inputs)
and local farmers’ manure (21% of inputs) are treated and valorized into biogas, in addition to the
sludge from water treatment plants (49% of all inputs). This waste is then transformed into (i)
electricity via cogeneration and sold to EDF (the French Electricity Board), as well as (ii) heat, used
to heat the outdoor pool at the water park and the neighboring junior high school. This synergy was
greatly facilitated thanks to the spatial proximity of the stakeholders on the one hand, and the
organized proximity with the good relations (described by the persons interviewed with a feeling of
cooperation and constant trust) that the various actors were able to maintain on the other hand.
Secondly, hardly any work present in the literature has analyzed the barriers to the development of
anaerobic digestion from the standpoint of public funding (Bag et al., 2016; Mittal et al., 2018). The
of a joint anaerobic digestion project requires investment risk-sharing (Zglobisz et al.,
2010). In such a context, an authority can make a financial contribution to an anaerobic digestion
project, either directly thanks to subsidies or indirectly. Let us take the example of the anaerobic
digestion project in Vire-Normandie in Normandy: the town decided to build an Environment Cluster
– with the perspective of creating a new garbage dump – by grouping together on the same site the
dump, a composting plant and a waste transfer dock. The authority suggested that the initiators of the
joint anaerobic digestion project (Agrigaz Vire which groups together around forty farmers and
several local industrialists) locate their plant in the future Environment Cluster, in order to resolve
their problem of finding an appropriate site for their project (close to a gas distribution network for
the injection of biogas and far from any housing). The desired land – that belonged to an agricultural
high school – was bought by the town in exchange for the sale of wetlands in its possession, sought
after by the high school. Thanks to this pooling of costs, the initiators of the anaerobic digestion
project freed themselves from the purchase of land and supporting facilities much more expensive
than if they had been alone, as explained in their interviews or as reported in the press.
3.2. Territorial authorities as intermediaries: necessary yet insufficient spatial proximity
Local authorities can also play the role of intermediaries in certain situations. Indeed, their mission is
to deploy local development policies in their region and they are therefore, by definition, proximity
actors for the inhabitants and initiated projects. In light of the various projects analyzed in our study,
authorities fully embrace their role as intermediaries by encouraging the combination of spatial and
organized proximities, in order to facilitate the development and acceptability of the anaerobic
digestion projects among the local population. We were able to identify several situations of
intermediation organized by authorities, using the verbatim accounts from our qualitative corpus and
by using the Proximity analysis framework.
The mean investment to set up an anaerobic digestion plant is between €5,000 and €11,000 per kW
3.2.1. Organizing cognitive proximities: the role of facilitators
The first role of intermediaries consists in playing the role of facilitator by organizing cognitive
proximities. The aim of this is to involve a maximum amount of persons in the project (environmental
associations, financiers, area residents, etc.) in order to make it legitimate. Politicians are often very
well-known locally and have a network that enables them to put project initiators in touch with the
“right” persons. When the project initiators do not come from the region, their need for intermediation
is strong so that they can know the local stakeholders with whom they will be working in the future.
This kind of help is also crucial when seeking partners both upstream of the process (providers of raw
materials like biomass) and downstream (potential consumers of electricity, heat and/or biogas).
Furthermore, local authorities play the role of facilitator in the majority of cases, to both put regional
stakeholders in touch with each other and make available and support project engineering, especially
when it comes to land registration and urbanism. They also support project initiators with their search
for land suitable to welcome a digester (use of territorial resources) or help them with administrative
Secondly, an in-depth study of the interviews and press articles highlighted the difficulty in
implementing anaerobic digestion projects. In more specific terms, there is a problem of congruence
between the use of territorial resources on the one hand and territorial embeddedness imposed by the
very principle of anaerobic digestion. This is a case of the NIMBY phenomenon which has already
been discussed in the literature (Soland et al., 2013; Schumacher and Schultmann, 2017; Zemo et al.,
2019). A form of imposed spatial proximity has been identified in several areas of study.
“I was here before them […] We never asked to have a plant like that next to us, it’s unfair” (resident
near the unit in Livré-la-Touche, Pays de la Loire – B1)
“There’s a strong smell! That’s the downside…but it’s at times, it depends on the direction of the
wind in fact!” (resident near the Geotexia unit in Le Mené, Bretagne – B3)
In fact, the persons living right next to a biogas plant may feel aggrieved, like no-one consulted them
before deciding where to locate it. The analysis of the secondary data taken from the regional daily
press throws a lot of light on this subject. This feeling of injustice refers to the subjective perception
of fairness in the process of setting up biogas plants. It is linked to aspects such as the choice of the
site (its location) and the permit procedure, the possibilities of participative approaches, the amount
of information available, etc. The perceptions of justice and fairness are inherent to the wellbeing of
local communities. Situations that are perceived as being unfair can lead to protests and conflict
between the stakeholders, especially when the decisions made seem to favor certain actors to the
detriment of other parties. This is the case in several of our fields of study, like in Craon (Pays de la
Loire) or in Percy-en-Normandie (Normandy), where the projects have been abandoned. This shows
us that if local communities perceive that outside interests monopolize the majority of the benefits of
the energy generated or if they are not involved in the development processes, they could nourish a
feeling of being unfairly treated and take part in oppositional activism. When we compared projects
for which there was strong local opposition locale and those for which there was no pressure,
especially from area residents, we noticed that consulting the population was what made the
difference. In these cases, the local authority actively participated in the information and
communication phases (skeleton staff in town halls, advertising, organization of public meetings,
etc.). When organized proximity is either not used or used too late, in other words when the
stakeholders of a project have not been involved in its construction, projects are on the receiving end
of problems with inhabitants. This is when we catch a glimpse of the essential role of authorities as
facilitators of territorial intermediation. Our findings are in accordance with the work by Soland et al.
(2013) showing that an information deficit or a lack of participative democracy could explain local
“The dossier was almost finished when we heard about it! We couldn’t let ourselves be oushed
around” (person living close to the Agrigaz anaerobic digestion project in Vire-Normandie,
Normandy – B6)
Conversely, area residents and other local actors adhered to several other projects as they had been
widely consulted, and received a lot of information and explanations. The support from the local
authority in the process was often decisive in these kinds of situation.
“This is why we provided transparency from the beginning, by explaining things, going to see different
persons, telling them what was going to happen, etc. We organized visits to plants located in other
regions […] We did a lot of things in terms of informing the population and making them aware”
(mayor of Vire-Normandie, Normandy – E2).
“We took the “heat network” competency because there were two clients close to the biogas plant:
the swimming pool and junior high school” (chairwoman of the Eure-Madrie-Seine Federation of
Small Towns, Normandy – E3).
It is very clear from our interviews that information is at the heart of controversy. The processes of
interpretation through which the concerned actors attempt to understand their situation are largely
dependent on the knowledge, information and their degree of expertise. The processes of consultation
can play a crucial role in the spreading of reliable information, including evidence and supporting
data. In the cases studied where the project came to fruition, the authority played an essential role in
providing the inhabitants with information (inaccessible to the public) about the prevalent or future
risks, the expertise needed to take action and by asking environmental questions in such a way that
legitimized local concerns and politicized local perspectives. In this instance, the politician very often
reminded his constituents of the interest of building a digester in order to reach the strategic goals set
out in the planning documents in terms of sustainable development and energy transition.
3.2.2. Creating trust: the role of neutral actors and educators
As intermediaries, authorities also supported the local communities by sometimes representing the
populations directly affected by the installation of a biogas plant and by defending their claims in
front of the project’s initiators. This is how they were able to suggest leads for exploring changes to
the project, especially in the case of opposition, while remaining neutral. We often noticed in our
interviews that some politicians would escalate the inhabitants’ questions and thus manage to
negotiate changes to the project. In general, project initiators were willing to offer improvements for
the wellbeing of the inhabitants. This prevented the creation of an anti-anaerobic digestion association
(imposed spatial proximity) if the area residents had not had the feeling that they had been heard
during public meetings (temporary spatial proximity).
The perception that area residents have of the threat and opportunities related to anaerobic digestion
can be modified by the spreading of information about litigation and the problems related to biogas.
This can influence both the establishment of action by the inhabitants with respect to this energy and
the way they do this. Such knowledge (sometimes accurate, sometimes voluntarily or involuntarily
wrong) can be particularly essential to leverage controversy. In fact, several authorities organized
temporary spatial proximity through visits to digesters in operation located in other regions in order
to “reassure” the area residents and provide them with accurate information. It was common for them
to call upon authoritative experts playing a crucial role in the “certification” of the information. The
latter must be validated to be credible both among the affected communities (especially area residents)
and in the eyes of the general public, given that environmental-related disputes strongly depend on
“neutral experts” or influential public figures to interpret the questions at stake in a credible way.
Table 2. The different forms of territorial intermediation and proximities in a project
Time of action
Types of territorial
Making plots of land available (possible
anticipation in the urban planning documents)
Before the projects are
Help finding plots of land
Identify consumers of heat in its region
(industries, (inter)community infrastructures,
etc.) for a possible partnership
Before the projects are
implemented, during the
Ensure the regulatory distances are complied
with (especially with respect to area residents)
During the administrative
Ensure that project initiators have information
about urbanism regulations
On request from project
initiator, or during diagnostic
or administrative procedure
Help with the organization of events for general
public (such as open days of a plant already in
During the public enquiry or
Information and communication related to
projects provided for the population (skeleton
staff at town halls, articles in newspapers, etc.)
From the beginning
Support the project in the event of opposition
while remaining neutral, explore leads
legitimizing the opposition
In the event of opposition
Make human and/or physical resources
available to support project initiators or help
them to implement their project (rooms,
minibuses for visits, etc.)
From the beginning and
throughout the project
Be available in the event of a need for
On request from project
initiators or from the
beginning of the project
Put points of contact involved throughout the
project lifecycle in contact with each other
(financiers, central government services, etc.)
From the beginning and
throughout the project
Play the role of facilitator in the administrative
procedures and help understanding
At the time of administrative
procedures or the beginning of
Involve a maximum amount of persons in the
project to make it legitimate (environmental
associations, financiers, etc.)
Throughout the project phases
Finally, our interviews showed that the perceived proximity was mentioned several times as a
precedent to trust. In the nine case studies (existing plants or plants in the planning stage), our
interviews and the public meetings show the role played by the authorities to create trust and
transparency. When the latter initiate this or when they actively support the project initiator, the
projects seem to be subject to less major opposition which could lead to the final discontinuation of
In light of the analysis of the various interviews, we have identified different forms of intermediation
(table 2 and graphic 1) that can be proposed by authorities aiming at encouraging the deployment of
joint anaerobic digestion in the regions. More specifically, we have noted the roles of facilitator,
neutral actor and educator to start territorial proximity dynamics and encourage the success of the
Graph 1. The different forms of territorial intermediation in a project
In the systemic framework that characterizes modern society, the institutions and many researchers
identify energy transition as the only way to enable economic growth, social fairness and
environmental conservation to co-exist. Anaerobic digestion is a way for regions to work on their
energy transition and autonomy as well as their resilience. Due to the fact that it uses local territorial
resources, it enables the conditions of local embeddedness of activities (spatial proximity) to be set
up. It is nevertheless subject to demands, especially from local populations who adopt a NIMBY way
of thinking. A lot of the time, they are not against projects aiming at developing renewable energies,
but rather against the location of the facilities (imposed spatial proximity). We therefore questioned
the role that territorial authorities could play in the dialog and trust between the various stakeholders,
as well as in the organization of relational proximities that encourage the social acceptability of
anaerobic digestion projects (organized proximity).
Our findings show that the role of intermediary occupied by local authorities is an influencing factor
in the success of projects. Such intermediation has different forms: (i) ensure spatial proximities, (ii)
install trust among the local stakeholders by ensuring organized proximities and (iii) have a role of
instigator as this perpetuates the supply (inputs) and the purchase of the energy produced (outputs).
Our analysis highlights the fact that cooperation between the stakeholders of a biogas project is
sometimes difficult. They need an intermediary in whom they can trust and who also takes initiatives,
due to the risks and externalities to be shared, and the difficulties in finding partners and the right
location for the project. Trust in an intermediary can initially make up for a lack of trust between
stakeholders. In order to play the role of territorial intermediary, the project leader needs detailed
technical, scientific and relational knowledge, through identifying the sensitivities, stories,
friendships and enmities between each regional actor involved in and/or affected by the project. These
elements take into account the reality of the projects in their technical, sociological, spatial and
The distinctive feature of territorial intermediation, and the local authorities that organize it, boils
down to the subtle balance to be found between support and supervision. Indeed, despite the fact that
the role of the local politicians in particular as initiative takers is quite well-known, the role of go-
between which sometimes voluntarily takes a back seat and makes more suggestions than proposals
is a lot less well-known. This competency is fundamental by nature, as we should avoid falling into
the trap of excessive, paralyzing formalization to encourage synergies between stakeholders. The
difficulty of territorial intermediation lies in the fact that the intermediary must know how to organize
without imposing, arrange meetings without revealing everything about the strategic aspects, and
enable connections to be made even when the actors are very different (especially from a sociological
and organizational point of view).
We have only studied here the roles played by local authorities in terms of territorial intermediation.
It would be fruitful to analyse in future work the gaps that may exist in the perceptions of territorial
intermediation’ roles between elected officials on the one hand, and project leaders on the other hand.
The identification of such gaps between supply and demand in territorial intermediation would make
it possible to adjust public policies to support the development of methanisation and make them more
effective. In addition, further research could be carried out in the field of renewable energies using
the same method but for other energies. This type of work could be interesting from an academic
point of view to enrich the grid of roles of territorial intermediation that we have designed.
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Appendix 1: list of interviews
14 territorial points of contact (A), 7 persons living close to joint anaerobic digestion projects (B), 6
associations for and against anaerobic digestion (C), 8 firms (D), 7 politicians (E) and 7 farmers (F).
Regional chamber of
Regional chamber of
Regional chamber of
Association for AD
Syndicat Mixte de
Traitement et de
(Joint Commission for
the Treatment and
Association for AD
Conseil Régional Pays
de la Loire(Pays de la
Conseil Régional Pays
de la Loire(Pays de la
Assembly of cities