Biocombustibles exploits a forest of opportunities

Biocombustibles has invented an economic model that structures the wood energy sector at regional level in Normandy, driving growth for local businesses and helping to keep energy costs under control.

“Our engineers identify new outlets for the wood-based waste products on our industrial sites.

Visionary and socially responsible

When fossil fuel prices began to soar in the 1990s, many local authorities invested in renewable energy networks. Although, these days, nobody questions the use of geothermal or biomass energy to provide heating and hot water for community housing, schools or even swimming pools, at the time, many of the sector’s precursors were seen as dreamers. And yet, these enlightened public decision-makers had fully realised - well before everyone else - that unless we adopted an approach to renewable energy sources that matched the stakes and resources of local regions, the costs could quickly spiral and become prohibitive for constituents as well as businesses. “These were the issues that led to the creation of Biocombustibles in 1996, as a logical extension of the Wood Energy and Local Development Plan,” explained Jean-Jacques Ribot, CEO. “Local authorities were keen to make sure they would have a constant supply for their wood boilers, thereby guaranteeing a stable energy price over time. To achieve this, we had to organise the sector and bring together the various players involved in supplying the biomass - in other words, forestry companies and sawyers. They are now Biocombustibles’ main shareholders. Although we are officially a private company, we operate like a cooperative, constantly seeking to ensure everyone benefits and no-one loses out."

Wood as a strategic resource

By organising the sector, the aim was also to utilise the region’s resources as effectively as possible.  At the time, 50% of a log - in other words, the sawmill residues - would end up at the dump.  Nowadays, we make sure that all parts of the tree are recycled to get the most out of their specific characteristics. In order to supply sawmills with high-quality wood, Biocombustibles is involved right from the start of the process. Its teams identify forest areas that are insufficiently maintained and approach their owners to offer to cut down their trees and replant nobler species. Every year, 30 projects of this type are carried out in Normandy, boosted by public initiatives. And the results speak for themselves: of the 3 million m3 of biomass produced each year in the region, Biocombustibles manages to collect and transform 1.3 million m3. “If a forest is poorly maintained, it becomes depleted. Our approach means that we are able to help renew it constantly. This is particularly important given that 14% of Normandy is forest land.” The region can count on the entrepreneurial creativity of Jean-Jacques Ribot’s teams. Over the years, the business has evolved into a group with an increasingly diverse range of activities. In addition to the sale of wood fuel in all its forms, Biocombustibles also offers by-products through its subsidiary Biodistribution: ornamental bark mulch, wood ties, urban furniture and wooden toys, and is now even exporting its model to Brittany.

Boosting the regional economy

By structuring the wood energy sector, Biocombustibles has boosted the entire regional economy. “We work in close partnership with 150 businesses throughout the region and have a direct impact on 22,000 jobs.” Innovation is another major lever, as far as Jean-Jacques Ribot is concerned. “We’ve just hired two new engineers tasked with identifying new outlets for the wood-based waste products on our industrial sites. The pallets we use to transport materials and products on-site are often destroyed or taken to the dump. We are now offering them to industrialists for use in their own energy production.” Biocombustibles is determined to recycle every single part of the wood it uses, right down to the ashes. They are used as fertilizer on farms, based on a simple philosophy: “What comes from the land should be returned to the land”.

A true energy provider

Biocombustibles is proud to call itself an energy provider and considers itself to be on a par with the big names associated with the sector. “We don’t market a set volume of wood. We commit to producing a given number of megawatt-hours per year.” A successful strategy, since more and more businesses are signing up to this offer, which combines a competitive price and a lower carbon footprint, based on a circular economy. Businesses now account for 45% of the group’s revenues - 20 million euros -, as opposed to 40% for collective heating networks and 15% for private customers. And Biocombustibles has again proved itself to be particularly creative in this field. “Some people are reticent about installing a wood boiler - using logs or chunks of wood as fuel - in their home, usually due to concerns about supply. To counter those concerns, we have developed a self-service drive-in system, like supermarkets, located as near as possible to our customers.” In line with its socially-responsible values, the company offers its customers free use of delivery vans. “By encouraging people to install automated wood burning stoves, we highlight the great energy performance of biomass. This kind of installation has a fuel efficiency rate of 96%. That means it reproduces almost all the energy it consumes. It is one answer to the major issues related to the question of depleted energy sources."

Creating jobs at local level

Driven by its success, the company employs 50 people and has more than 10 additional positions to fill over the coming months. These positions include lorry drivers, machine operators, site managers and quality correspondents, accountants, etc. What is the main criteria for recruitment? Motivation. “We’re looking for people who will quickly find their place in the team and who share our philosophy. We do everything we can to promote well-being in the workplace and make sure all employees feel they have contributed to our achievements, and as a result, we have a very low staff turnover."

Team work on a regional scale

Jean-Jacques Ribot, who has been leading Biocombustibles for over 20 years, is convinced that, for a company to be successful, everybody has to be involved. “We plant the tree together and we pick the fruit together.” This view goes well beyond the group’s borders. It also applies to local authorities, the government and even banks. “We regularly invite them to come and visit our sites, to get a better feel for our work. Likewise, we work closely with Societe Generale, which helps ensure we have the working capital we need, and supports us regarding investments in infrastructure and real estate transactions. Our partner fully understands the issues we face thanks to its strong regional presence. For example, through a leasing arrangement, it funded the construction of a new warehouse in the outskirts of Caen, to be used for wood storage. And of course, its architecture has been specifically designed to ensure it is perfectly adapted to its environment."

Key figures

  • 65 collective boilers supplied

  • 8 industrial boiler plants supplied

  • 320,000 tonnes of wood delivered in 2016

  • 55,000 tonnes of permanent stock

  • 1500 tonnes of wood collected every day from suppliers

  • 17 logistic platforms

Philippe Legrain, CEO, Concept 1900

You make my head spin...

Concept 1900, a merry-go-round designer based in the North of France, has succeeded in turning a traditional market into a dynamic business with a strong focus on exports, thanks to a strategy built on innovation.

Read the article about Concept 1900