Safeguarding renewables against social backlash

Events across Europe show that renewable projects can spark social resistance if carried out at the expense of the environment and without involving local communities. Circumventing nature protection and public participation will not speed up renewables’ deployment — rather, it will slow it down.

Nicoleta Lipcaneanu and Alberto Vela report

As Europe grapples with energy insecurity and the effects of the climate crisis, EU capitals are preparing to fight back with solar panels, wind farms, and heat pumps.

To pave the way for this renewable energy expansion, the European Commission has tabled a powerful legislative and financial package, called “RePowerEU“. Conceived as the EU’s answer to the fossil fuel dependency on Russia, the plan aims to mobilise €300 billion (mainly channelled from the already existing EU Recovery Fund) to unlock energy savings and boost renewables deployment. This financial injection will be backed up by a set of regulatory proposals designed to speed up and foster the energy transition.

From making rooftop solar installations mandatory on new buildings (for all public and commercial buildings by 2027 and for new residential buildings by 2029) to proposing higher energy-saving targets, the proposal involves several positive initiatives to transform Europe’s energy landscape in the right direction. Yet even a good plan can be marred by some really bad ideas — and the RePowerEU contains a few of those.

In its quest to accelerate the renewables roll-out, the European Commission has called for allowing developers to build wind and solar projects without the need for an environmental impact assessment and with no requirement to involve local communities. Besides diverting attention from the main energy transition bottlenecks (such as the lack of resources and skilled professionals in permit-granting authorities), these proposed changes will create more problems than those that already existed.

Despite renewables’ numerous benefits in terms of climate, health and economic development, could wrong policy moves turn public opinion against their expansion? Experience in Europe has shown that to be successful, this transition must not only be clean but also nature-positive, just and people-centric, a crucial balance that the EEB and Europe’s largest environmental organisations are jointly calling for.

Least environmental cost

Speeding up permitting procedures for renewable energy installations is an absolute priority, but this must be achieved through better implementation of the existing environmental legislation — not by removing it completely.

Dismantling nature protection to tackle climate change would be like carrying water to a wildfire in a bucket with a hole in it. Not only would it be inefficient to speed up planning, but it also disregards the biodiversity crisis we are facing. Jointly addressing the climate and biodiversity crises has never been more urgent. The latest IPBES-IPCC report warns that the mutual reinforcement of climate change and biodiversity loss requires tackling both in a joint, synergic manner.

Environmental impact assessments have never been a problem in themselves. In fact, they help to reduce the risk of litigation at local level and provide the necessary clarity and certainty for both project developers and public authorities, thus helping to speed up the permitting and development processes for renewables. Barriers arising from administrative processes need to be addressed – but in the right way. Above all, by allocating more resources and staff to permit-granting bodies and environmental assessment authorities. These can create one-stop shops where bureaucratic procedures are digitalised and streamlined.

The RePowerEU holds all the keys to getting renewables permits fast-tracked without undermining the EU’s environmental legislation, as we highlight in our latest policy brief, building on the Paris Agreement Compatible energy scenario.

Lastly, it is not only fundamental to preserve existing environmental safeguards, but also to promote those sources of renewable energy (RES) that have the lowest environmental impact. Solar and wind technologies, when sited in suitable locations, have a particularly low environmental impact and should be preferred over technologies with generally higher environmental impacts, such as hydropower or most forms of bioenergy.

Re-Power to the people

When it comes to the deployment of renewable energy projects, it is common to come across some social scepticism and even resistance movements from local communities.

The predominant explanation of social reluctance toward renewable energy projects lies in the “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) theory, whereby people oppose new energy projects near their homes mainly because they do not get any direct benefit from the project. However, the real explanation is much more complex. In fact, community engagement is sometimes minimised to avoid NIMBY reactions which, on the contrary, increases the likelihood of social backlash.

The erosion of social confidence towards renewables often stems from the lack of citizens’ participation in the decision and policy-making processes. In this respect, it is paramount that RePowerEU does not ignore the Aarhus Convention agreement, which obliges the EU and all member states to guarantee public participation as well as access to justice and access to information in environmental decision-making.

Furthermore, social opposition to renewable energy projects is often manipulated and amplified by populist rhetoric. This strategy is used by populist political forces to emphasise their arguments against renewables, notably that these are impactful and unreliable when it comes to ensuring a stable energy system. To prevent and contrast all this, it is crucial to guarantee that local communities are actively involved and correctly informed.

Energy communities lead the way

Europe hosts numerous renewable energy communities (RECs), which offer concrete examples of the great advantages of a people-centric approach.

Among best practices, consider the recently launched onshore wind farm in Zeewolde (Netherlands). It claims to be the largest wind power project worldwide that is entirely community-owned: it is composed of 83 wind turbines, owned by over 200 farmers and local residents. It has been estimated that around 300,000 households will benefit from the green energy produced on this site. The project was developed for, and also by, the local community, which can invest and participate by means of the cooperative New Millers (De Nieuwe Molenaars).

“You can be angry about the possible arrival of a wind farm. You can also see it as an opportunity, take the initiative, and ensure that burdens are turned into benefits. And that happened here”

said Director Sjoerd Sieburgh Sjoerdsma to the NL Times.

Another interesting example is the Brixton Solar Community, managed by the non-profit organisation Repowering London. This community is based on energy produced by PV panels installed on public buildings. Local residents can become members of the cooperative for £1 (€1,15) a month and thereby obtain voting rights in the decision-making processes of the organisation. This method allows the community to decide on renewable energy locations, as well as to promote cooperation between citizens and public authorities.

Renewable energy communities (REC) can reduce the risk of energy poverty and help balance social and economic divides. Indeed, energy produced by community-owned projects can lower the bills for everyone; in addition, RECs help raise awareness about energy consumption, thus leading to stronger energy efficiency and energy savings. Empowering local people and boosting cooperation by establishing RECs is a win-win approach. Ownership models that promote justice and community control are crucial to success, as citizens have great benefits from being co-owners and co-producers, e.g. through revenues being re-invested in social and local services or the creation of local green jobs. In other words, renewable energy communities constitute a stimulus for better empowerment and democracy while tackling multiple crises. 

RECs can be also conceived specifically to engage low-income households. Recently, the regional government of  Valencia (Spain) announced plans to install photovoltaics in 360 public schools with the aim of creating energy communities for these areas. The huge energy surpluses will be used to reduce the electricity bills of the most vulnerable residents living within 500 metres of the schools. It is estimated that this public energy community will cover 50% of the electricity consumption of at least 20% of the residents in these districts.

Future-proof renewables

European policymakers can draw on countless successful examples of renewable energy communities, and these should lead the way for the EU’s repowering plans.

A unique window of opportunity to get the RePowerEU proposal back on the right track emerges from the next European Parliament votes (on 24/25 October in the ENVI Committee and on 29 November in the ITRE Committee). It’s vital that MEPs halt the proposed roll-back of environmental legislation while enhancing citizens’ participation in the planning and deployment of new renewable energy projects.

If renewables end up perceived as another cash cow for the few, while trashing nature and neglecting citizens, social opposition will emerge and the RePowerEU plan will defeat its own purpose: enabling a faster energy transition.