Wanted: elbow grease
In Divonne-les-Bains, an association founded by former CERN personnel is restoring the oldest hydroelectric plant in France. The adventure started more than ten years ago, and now you’re invited to take part…
View of the benzole-powered thermic engine from 1907.
Georges Leskens, a spritely 85-year-old, is president of the Divonnelectro association. Georges, a former electrical engineer at CERN, now has a new goal: to bring the Moulin David hydroelectric plant in Divonne-les-Bains, which he found in a derelict state in 2001, back to life. “When I entered the plant for the first time, I found several remarkable period machines… and the extent of the damage,” recalls Georges. “Among other things, the town used the building for storing salt and grit for the roads... so I don’t need to tell you what state the mechanisms were in!” Aware of the historical value of the site (see box), Georges convinced the Deputy and Mayor of Divonne, Etienne Blanc, to renovate the plant and, while he was at it, to manage the project. “Along with Gérard Vindret, a metalwork craftsman from Divonne who is passionate about old machines, and a few friends from CERN [the oldest of whom is now more than 90 years old!] we threw ourselves into the adventure,” he explains. In 2002, the Divonnelectro association was created.
Eleven years and some 14,000 hours of work later, the association, which now has 50 members (of whom 15 are very active), including former CERN personnel, retirees from SIG (Services Industriels de Genève), members of the EDF (Électricité de France) Foundation and local people from Divonne, can be proud of its achievements: “The main restoration work is almost finished,” says Raymond Bouquin, former electrical engineer at CERN and also a member of Divonnelectro. “All of the machines that have been restored work as they did when they were first built. Even the oldest, which dates from 1902, now works like a Swiss watch!”
Raymond Bouquin, Henri Slettenhaar and Georges Leskens (from left to right) in front of the marble electric board of the Moulin David hydroelectric plant, in Divonne-les-Bains.
The association is taking things even further: on its initiative, the town is having a modern 50 kW turbine installed which will provide power for some of Divonne’s streetlights. “Eventually, the tourist office, which is a stakeholder in our association, should move into the hydroelectric plant,” reveals Henri Slettenhaar, former IT specialist at CERN, who is in charge of communication for the association. “In parallel, we would also like to create a small working museum. Visitors to the tourist office would then be able to learn more about part of the town’s history.”
With this in mind, Divonnelectro is looking for new members. “We invite newly retired people from CERN, and, more generally, anyone who is interested in our project, to join the association,” says Georges. “We all learnt a lot working at CERN, and it’s a pleasure to be able to put this knowledge to good use in serving the community.”
Some history The Divonne-les-Bains hydroelectric power station, constructed in 1887, is the oldest hydraulic plant in France operating in its original building. Originally it supplied the town’s grand hotels and thermal baths with electricity.
Until the 1950s, all of Divonne-les-Bains’ energy was produced from its river, the Divonne. When EDF was founded in the 1950s, this method of generation was abandoned, along with the majority of the hydroelectric plants in the Pays de Gex and elsewhere. The plant at Divonne-les-Bains was the sole survivor and is now an integral part of the region's industrial heritage.
Are you an electromechanical technician or engineer, an IT specialist, an energy expert, keen on helping to set up a museum, or just willing to give up some of your time? Contact Georges or Henri: they will be happy to answer your questions.
The members of the association meet every Tuesday morning, or more frequently if events are planned or for social occasions. For further information, please go to www.divonnelectro.fr.
Divonnelectro participates in the scientific development of renewable and sustainable energy through the organisation of technical conferences
and exhibitions at the plant.
by Anaïs Schaeffer