Communities Need the Energy Transition. The Transition Needs Community Buy-In.
There’s a need for speed on renewable energy projects, but they won’t get done if they trample local needs and values. Stopping long enough to listen is the best way to get farther, faster.
As the push to drive down emissions and phase fossil fuels down and out finally begins to speed up, one of the bottom line principles of environmental action—thinking globally and acting locally—is getting a whole lot more complicated.
Getting climate change under control means building massive numbers of new wind turbines, solar panels, heat pumps, and battery storage units in what amounts to the blink of an eye for new technologies. And the stakes could not be higher: every day, the reports of severe storms, heat waves, drought, and food shortages bring us a preview of what to expect if we don’t speed up the energy transition and triple the investment that is making it happen.
That mix of urgency and opportunity is producing two equal, opposite, and strongly-held viewpoints that are increasingly in conflict, and are both somehow true.
• The urgency of climate action doesn’t give any project permission to ignore, average out, or in some cases act as an accelerant for very real concerns about local impacts that can only be addressed if communities are at the table, and treated as more than just “stakeholders” in consultations that trample their concerns, their lands, and their most basic rights.
• And those concerns can’t translate into an automatic veto for an energy transition project as long as local listening begins early, community concerns are taken seriously and factored into the plan, and the project’s value as part of a wider, sweeping shift in the way we produce and consume energy isn’t truly outweighed by unavoidable local impacts.
The pragmatic reason for the climate and energy community to get this right is that local knowledge can make projects better, and slowing down to listen and learn saves time and dollars on future PR defences, court cases, cancellations, and permanent reputational loss.
The principled reason, espoused powerfully and passionately by climate advocates around the world, is that the transition off fossil fuels must not happen on the backs of Indigenous and other front-line communities that have already seen the worst impacts and few of the benefits of the fossil fuel era. In Indigenous territories, the principle of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent has to be a baked-in practice for any project developer, not a convenient perk, unless all we’re trying to do is replace one deeply damaging, often corrupt energy system with another one that looks just as bad from the ground up.
Which brings us to what Saami reindeer herders, Greta Thunberg, and Norway’s 1-GW Fosen Vind wind farm complex, Europe’s second-biggest, can tell us about how not to protect the values that all parties should hold dear—from Indigenous rights, to precious, beloved landscapes, to a future free from the worst ravages of climate change.
It Seems So Obvious…
Frédéric Simon, a respected climate journalist and senior editor at Euractiv, picked up half of the story in a post this week that chronicled European environmental activists’ lukewarm response to the continent’s ambitious bid to speed up renewable energy adoption. Plans to increase offshore wind 25-fold by mid-century had Greens worried about impacts on marine wildlife, he wrote. And conservation groups like WWF raised flags when the European Commission proposed to declare an “overriding public interest” in new wind and solar, as part of the urgent effort to break away from Russian fossil fuels.
The immediate catalyst for his post was FridaysforFuture founder Thunberg’s decision to join a protest against a complex of six onshore wind farms, first approved in 2010, that was built on the traditional lands of Saami reindeer herders in Norway and went into service in 2019. Thunberg and dozens of others were arrested outside government offices last Wednesday.
“Indigenous rights, human rights, must go hand-in-hand with climate protection and climate action,” she told Reuters. “That can’t happen at the expense of some people. Then it is not climate justice.”
Simon agreed, but with caveats. “Razing pristine forests to build massive solar or wind farms would be disastrous,” he wrote. “And there is a genuine issue in ensuring that local communities truly benefit from green energy projects.”
But “Thunberg has repeatedly told policy-makers to take the climate emergency for what it is—an emergency,” he added. “And the hard truth is that no renewable energy solution is 100% green. Nor is ‘clean tech’ 100% clean.”
That means “hard choices need to be made, some of them involving trade-offs,” beginning with the massive volume of raw materials that will be needed to produce the technologies of the energy transition without a doable but dramatic shift in industrial processes.
…Until It Gets Complicated
But that wasn’t quite the whole story.
The Saami have been fighting Fosen Vind since it was first proposed, eventually taking the project to court in 2014. Seven years later, the Supreme Court of Norway ruled the project illegal, concluding that locating the turbines on reindeers’ winter pastures violated the herders’ cultural rights. More than 500 days later, protesters descended on the environment ministry in Oslo, saying the government had done nothing in response.
“The reindeer won’t go near the turbine park, so all the area is lost,” Saami hunter, gatherer, activist, and politician Beaska Niillas told the Barents Observer last October. “If the Norwegian government themselves don’t follow their own legal systems, then how are they to expect that others are to respect the laws?”
A spokesperson for renewable power giant Statkraft said the company was working “to find mitigation measures that can ensure the human rights of the Saami, while at the same time continuing the renewable power production.”
It would be nice to imagine that this is a troubling but isolated case of an essential renewable energy development running afoul of essential community objections. By some estimates, at least 90% of the renewable energy projects on offer are far less damaging than the climate-busting fossil fuel production they replace. But the huge wave of activity that is already under way, and must accelerate to avert the worst impacts of climate change, means these collisions of needs and values won’t be going away anytime soon.
Mistrust, Tears in the ‘Saudi Arabia of Wind’
So how do we take the time to build community expectations into a project from the ground up, stay open to the reality that some proposals won’t ever win community consent, but still speed up the large majority of approvals in the face of an unforgiving, global climate crisis? There’s no single answer that will work for all projects and all communities.
But a study by Louise Comeau and Louis-Charles Vaillancourt of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick (CCNB) showed how things can go wrong. Their review of a failed wind farm in Anse-Bleue, in a part of the province known as the “Saudi Arabia of wind”, documented the enduring resentment and grief over a project that never bothered to build trust with the community, reached out to people too little and too late, failed to even communicate with majority-francophone residents in their own language, and raised fears that the impacts and benefits of the project weren’t fairly distributed.
They also found that the provincial government and utilities failed to legitimize and support the project in an area where outreach was complicated by the lack of an incorporated local municipality to work with.
It added up to the kind of “drive-by consultation” that many of us have come to expect from pipeline companies, not the developers behind technologies that are supposed to help build a better world. Years later, the Anse-Bleue project is dead, the developer is headed to court with an adjacent community, and locals remained “highly emotional” and “agitated” in their conversations with Comeau and Vaillancourt.
“Many informants cried during interviews,” the researchers reported. But “a planning process that is perceived as ‘fair’ can lead to greater tolerance of the outcome, even if it does not fully satisfy all stakeholders. More participatory processes may increase trust and support, and ongoing post-construction community stewardship should be maintained.”
“All energy projects, particularly at industrial scale, have social and environment effects,” Comeau, a veteran climate and energy hawk now serving as CCNB’s director of climate change solutions, said in an email. “Not all projects should proceed. We need to renew and expand electricity supply but in ways that engage communities early, particularly around siting decisions, and by negotiating in good faith on community benefits agreements. Fair process, fair dealing, and true partnership are critical to decarbonizing the electricity grid and meeting our climate goals.”
Solutions That Work
It isn’t as though we don’t know how to do better.
Local buy-in enabled the Island of Samsø in Denmark to reduce its emissions to near zero through collective ownership of wind turbines, solar panels, and biomass heating plants. Renewable energy co-ops and community solar projects in North America and northern and central Europe are proving every day that when people have a real say in the planning and get a share of the revenue, they’re more likely to see themselves in the picture of a legitimate energy transition project.
In Canada, communities affiliated with Indigenous Clean Energy have been leading the way to a “decolonized energy future”, with nearly 200 renewable energy projects above one megawatt at some stage of development as of February, 2021.
“First Nations are pursuing opportunities in renewable power that can reduce their current reliance on dirty, expensive, and often-unreliable diesel, which is the main or only source of fuel in many communities,” wrote ICE Director Terri Lynn Morrison. “Indigenous clean energy projects not only lift up communities but provide lessons to the rest of the country—and indeed the world—on what a sustainable economy looks like.”
Like most conversations about renewable power, Simon’s analysis for Euractiv missed the important opportunities for materials recycling, circularity, and demand reduction in over-consumptive societies that can dial back the conflict by reducing the enormous pressure to get projects built. Lithium battery recycling start-ups like Toronto’s Li-Cycle know they can get a much higher percentage of usable material from old electronics than from new mines. And in a little-noticed report chapter last spring, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found humanity could reduce its emissions by 40 to 70% by addressing issues of lifestyle, consumption, and “sufficiency” at a structural level, rather than putting the onus on households for all the heavy lifting.
Even half of those savings would buy time for developers in places like Anse-Bleue to do a better job of listening and adapting, or make it easier to decide that a project like Fosen Vind needn’t be built it all.
But that isn’t necessarily the way developers are thinking. We’ve been paying close attention to a trailblazing green hydrogen plant in Nova Scotia that may pull renewable power out of the provincial grid as it scrambles to get off coal. A highly-touted wind-to-hydrogen project in Newfoundland that has yet to address locals’ concerns about beloved and important natural areas. And a new sand quarry in Manitoba that will supply an essential resource to a nearby solar glass manufacturer but has raised serious concerns with local First Nations.
All of these conflicts and many more need to be resolved with all due haste. Few of them are as simple as declaring that a project absolutely must or must not be built.
But the stakes couldn’t be higher, and the Saami herders are the best illustration. They lose their land and their culture when a wind farm is built, but suffer essentially the same fate if the circumpolar North is allowed to tip farther into climate chaos. Like the rest of us, they only come out of this healthy and whole if we get the balance right.
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Mitchell Beer traces his background in renewable energy and energy efficiency back to 1977, in climate change to 1997. Now he scans 1,200 news headlines a week to pull together The Energy Mix and The Energy Mix Weekender.
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