Who put the ‘unequal’ in ‘renewable’?
Renewable energy is no longer a pie in the sky. The past decades have brought about a societal awakening and the realisation that the traditional fossil fuel-based energy production cannot continue indefinitely. Technological advancements have made renewable energy sources accessible, affordable and efficient. There have been major political breakthroughs, most prominently the Paris Agreement. Since the energy sector is responsible for more than two thirds of global CO2 emissions, a reduction of global warming as pledged in this Agreement is impossible without substantial reform of the industry. When the Covid-19 pandemic brought an overheating global economy to a halt, many expressed their hope that this would be the chance for a new start. The drop in energy demand threw suppliers of fossil fuels into financial trouble and exposed how fragile the global energy sector is. On top of the technological means, funds, and political support, the pandemic gave the international community an occasion for a fundamental change of the energy market from fossil to renewable sources.
But between all the international accord and shiny green leaflets, one aspect remains overlooked: Renewable energy plants require a lot of space, be it wind farms, solar farms, hydro-electric dams, or biofuel production; up to ten times more land than coal or gas for the same energy output. This demand of land often comes into conflict with the interests of local inhabitants.
Wind farms are infamous for the not-in-my-back-yard (‘nimby’) opposition they provoke among organic-buying, middle-class suburban residents. They may oppose developments for various reasons, from health concerns and aesthetical purism to general scepticism towards change. Although the word has a negative connotation, nimbyism as a phenomenon is not necessarily a bad thing. It can put a control on governments and investors who are not familiar with the area. Consultation with the local population can greatly improve the social and environmental impact of projects.
Whether legitimate or not, nimby movements can cause renewable energy development to fail. This happened to the Cape Wind Project, one of the United States’ earliest offshore wind farm proposals. Despite several surveys finding a majority of the local inhabitants in support of the project, it was litigated to death by a well-funded minority opposition. What is more, regulations adopted under political pressure can make it almost impossible to build renewable energy plants. State laws in southern Germany require wind turbines to be built at a distance at least ten times their height from the nearest settlement. In such a densely populated region, this blocks as much as 99.85% of the area suitable for generation of wind energy.
Nimbyism does not only slow down the development of renewable energy sources, it can also reinforce social inequalities. Marginalised communities often lack the means to organise protests or to take legal action. In addition, a renewable energy plant in a less privileged area may face less opposition simply because it is not the most pressing concern of the local inhabitants. Under these circumstances, even legitimate opposition to developments is not always raised or not taken into account. That leads not only to the relocation of projects to such areas, but also to an attitude to avoid more affluent areas in the first place. This attitude, in the United States most often affecting black communities, has been termed ‘pibby’ (‘place in black’s back yard’) by Robert D. Bullard, the ‘father of environmental justice’.
Bullard’s research and advocacy is not primarily directed at renewable energy plants, but quite the opposite: waste dumps, petrochemical plants, and similar facilities. But although renewable energy plants are cleaner than the typical waste dump, they still come at a price for local communities, especially where both the products and the profits are exported. And the way they are planned and developed shows striking similarities to traditional, ‘dirty’ pibbyism.
One example is the sprawl of wind farms in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in Mexico. The Isthmus provides ideal topographic conditions for wind farming, attracting many foreign investors. Since the early 2000’s, the cities of La Venta and La Ventosa have been engulfed in more than 1,600 windmills, with double the amount planned. Some are as close as 30 metres away from dwelling houses. Claims that windmills are responsible for a variety of diseases – the windmill syndrome – are scientifically unsound, but what is sure is that the farms changed the social structure of the region. Although the wind farms are cleaner than the extraction of fossil fuel would be, their construction impacts natural resources in similar ways. Animal habitats are cleared, the soil is compacted, and concrete foundations are built into groundwater reservoirs. Even oil spills are reported. Promises that the investments would provide employment and a higher living standard for the native population remain for a large part unfulfilled. Large landowners profited the most, and the immigration of wealthier foreign workers have increased the prices for land, food, and – ironically – electricity.
In another instance, Swiss company Addax leased 10,000 hectares of farmland for 50 years from small farmers in Sierra Leone to grow sugar cane for a new biofuel factory. The plant was funded with €400 million, in part by several African and European development banks. It was supposed to produce bioethanol for the EU. The project was marketed as a model in sustainability, providing substitute farmland, equipment, and seeds for those who demised their fields. But the bioethanol output fell short of expectations and, after only a few years, Addax sold the majority of shares to a British-Chinese investor who sold them on to yet another investor. The new owners do not honour the commitments made by Addax, and since the loans by the development banks are all paid back, no oversight remains. The local population is left deprived of their traditional farmland and with much fewer paid jobs at the ethanol plant than promised. Within one year, food insecurity has dramatically increased in the area. The Addax Bioenergy plant was sanctioned by the chief of the region and by the then-Sierra Leonean president Koroma, but those who have to suffer its ill success were not included in the development process. They were tricked or bullied into signing the lease agreements without fully understanding the consequences. This is a recurring strategy in cases of land grabbing and was also seen in the context of the wind farms in Mexico.
Pibbyism happens on a global scale. Industrialised nations place the land-consuming wind farms and biofuel plants that are necessary to achieve their CO2 emission goals as far away from their backyards as possible. To be clear, nimbyism, pibbyism, and their consequences are not exclusive to renewable energy projects. Similar examples can be found in mining, oil extraction, and all sorts of industries. But renewable energy started on a promise, the promise of sustainability. If it is to keep that promise, it must not become complicit in existing patterns of social oppression. It is indispensable that humankind reduces its carbon emission substantially, but CO2-neutrality must not be an excuse for social unsustainability.
To further acceptance and legitimacy of renewable energy plants, the affected local communities, no matter the colour of their skin and the size of their purse, must be given a strong voice and a stake in the process of planning, construction, and operation. Successful social integration cannot only prevent nimbyism, it can completely reverse the picture, as the overwhelming public support for the Ardrossan Wind Farm in Scotland shows. If at least a share of the products and profits of the power plants stays within the communities, they may even empower previously marginalised groups. Breaking up old, coal dust-heavy economic hierarchies, renewable energies have the potential to make the world a more equal place. Therefore, the Covid-19 crisis is not only an opportunity to head towards a renewable energy market, but a truly sustainable one.
This article was written for the MD x EuroMUN Printed Edition.