From resistance to resilience: local approaches to renewable energy

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The necessity of renewable energy projects across the globe is evident, yet debate continues over where these projects are best placed, why such resistance to new projects exists and the real benefit they generate for local communities. Businesses, policymakers, and residents alike debate the generation of jobs, community engagement and social cohesion, all whilst accepting the underlying principle that the global community must discover and successfully implement new methods of generating and harnessing energy. This tension is increasingly evident in Italy, the UK, US and other high-income economies but notably, we also see local communities working in partnership with businesses to embrace renewable projects and reaping the benefits in their backyards.

Resistance to renewable energy projects

Recent research suggests that UK residents are far more receptive to ‘green’ proposals than to those that pose no positive environmental impact. Research indicates that whilst residents are most enthusiastic about the development of local facilities, recreational spaces and improvements to public infrastructure and utilities, projects that demonstrate a ‘green’ impact are also met favourably. A conclusion that is echoed in the US with 70% of respondents suggesting they would be happy living in close proximity to wind turbines, a figure that increased further in relation to solar farms. A recent study conducted by Berkeley Lab, a survey of industry professionals suggested that opposition is often caused by a vocal minority and is less widespread than we might think. However, there are marked differences between the results of such research conducted on the hypothetical proposal of projects and the reaction of local residents when such proposals are submitted. In this distinction we see the paradox of NIMBYISM underpinned: an understanding of the necessity of such projects and the theoretical approval versus the desire for projects to be implemented elsewhere. So, despite research indicating that the majority of populations across the world are not opposed to solar farms or wind turbines in their local area in principle, the fact remains that such proposals are often met with resistance and 4 out of 5 developers surveyed by Berkeley reported concerns that community opposition will delay or prevent progress in achieving decarbonisation goals.

Success elsewhere

Arguably, the answer to the NIMBY issue facing Italy, the UK, US and other countries across the world is to look to those countries and projects which evidence the possibility and success of local engagement in renewable energy projects during development, construction, and in the operation and legacy of these projects. Tangible, positive, and localised impact from renewable energy projects is not achieved with a ‘one-size-fits-all approach but instead with the active engagement of stakeholders from the outset and a fundamental understanding of both the place and the people. Projects seeking to make an impact locally must focus on establishing relationships and building partnerships with the local communities in which they operate. This cohesion enables a specialised local approach, adapting to the needs and intricacies of the local area and its people.

Cristiano Spillati, Managing Director of Limes Renewable Energy

Businesses and projects must be acutely aware of their positioning as guests on the land where they operate and of the people who live there, developing projects in partnership with local communities, governments, landowners, developers, and workers, and adopting a highly collaborative approach. Early engagement of all those parties which often pose resistance is integral to the successful implementation of renewable projects within local communities and instilling a sense of pride and ownership.

A local workforce

A truly sustainable approach centres around sharing and distributing the value created by a project with the local community, investing in the fight against climate change and reducing energy dependency. Real value can be created in the generation of jobs, therefore a concerted effort to hire local people must be made during the construction and management phases of the facilities. A continued focus must be placed on enhancing skills and resources present within the host community to allow for the development of a skilled workforce, offering on-site training and opportunities.

It is increasingly evident that the modern world must adapt and adopt renewable energy to survive.

Local suppliers

Frequently underestimated in the implementation of renewable energy projects is the detailed knowledge of a locality that can be garnered from local suppliers and harnessed. Utilising these suppliers is best practice and ensures maximum accuracy in understanding the locality. Identifying these experts is a process that should be locally led, in place of the introduction and imposition of outside specialists. There remains a place and a need for the level of diverse experience possessed by these specialists, but the art of local implementation is in treading a fine line between expanding local knowledge and dismissing it in favour of ‘tried-and-tested’ approaches.

More than compensation

Approaching compensatory works as a further opportunity to collaborate with local authorities and communities from the initial planning stages of a project results in an agreed package that can specifically address the community’s needs. Aside from compensating perhaps the largest and most beneficial act a business can do is to develop and implement fully reversible projects, allowing for the complete return of land to communities following an agreed tenure of operations. This release should reflect at a bare minimum a return of the land as comparable to pre-operations but far preferable, enhanced.

Agrivoltaic projects represent a promising development in this space. The implementation of these practices is still in its infancy but with increasing pressure on land resources for food and energy production, developments which allow for the co-location of solar projects and agricultural land use are crucial. One such land sharing opportunity is the restoration and management of native grassland vegetation beneath ground-mounted solar energy facilities. Agrivoltaics pose the potential for a wealth of positive impacts on land, from creating shaded areas to protect crops beneath, reducing the amount of water lost from the soil to evaporation, and even to maintaining biodiversity. They also offer an opportunity for those farming the land to considerably reduce the cost of their energy. Once again, the success of these practices is dependent on the specificity of the approach. Experienced agronomists provide soil type understanding, native crop inclusion, and an analysis of possible crops that would be most compatible with the site and the design of a comprehensive crop rotation plan in order to maintain and increase soil fertility. Whilst difficult to evidence the long-term impact of these projects as they begin to be implemented, it is clear that the maximisation of available land is key. Working alongside experts and local people to allow solar projects and continued agricultural activity to co-exist could transform the sector.

It is integral that businesses and policymakers alike endeavour to learn from the successes of locally supported projects and those operating them.

Local and precise

As is the commonality in successful renewable energy projects worldwide, local success is determined by a considered, collaborative, and continued approach to the inclusion of local knowledge, experience and skill, and a commitment to tangible positive outcomes for the community and the territory in preparation, construction, and operation of a project. The approach must be tailored to the locality and remain adaptable. It is in projects which are governed by these principles that we can see the possibilities that new renewable energy projects can bring to residents. It is increasingly evident that the modern world must adapt and adopt renewable energy to survive and as such it is integral that businesses and policymakers alike endeavour to learn from the successes of locally supported projects and those operating them to work alongside residents to see them implemented. Vital sustainable and renewable projects have to exist somewhere and if developed correctly communities will thrive with them in their backyards.

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Lucija Kozina
Lucija Kozina
Lucija started her career as a translator. Having moved to Germany, she found herself in editorial shoes and is now doing her best to navigate her way through various industries in order to bring informative but easy-to-read content to readers.

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All images were taken before the COVID-19 pandemic, or in compliance with social distancing.