A recent study has explored the role that renewable energy schemes can play in promoting sustainable development at the local level. It suggests that more must be done to encourage local investment and involvement in renewable energy projects if global sustainability objectives are to be met.
Increasing levels of renewable energy sources (RES) in the energy mix implies there will be more decentralised energy production, distribution and consumption than at present. There is therefore the need to carefully consider the relationship between the development of RES and the territory at the local scale. In this study, 'territory' refers to more than the geographical location, and incorporates environmental as well as social factors. Thus, implementing various energy production schemes - such as solar power plants, hydroelectric plants and biomass sources - requires an in depth understanding of both the local environment and those who live in it.
This study focused on how the introduction of RES at the local scale could contribute to a more sustainable way of living. When RES schemes are introduced, there is the risk that decisions will be based on economic returns, with little consideration for benefits for the local area where such development takes place. For example, in the case of wind energy plants, production could be controlled by international companies with no relationship to the area in question.
The study argues that a better scenario would be to involve the local community, through innovative financing, cooperation between public and private sector groups, and engagement of the local population in decision-making processes. This is arguably a better model for achieving real sustainability, as local resources and technical knowledge can be used effectively. In addition, RES projects can cause some local environmental damage, for example, production emissions from energy plants could cause localised pollution. In these circumstances, RES might not be considered sustainable at the local scale.
The researchers say that RES policies should be able to sustain local activities that complement energy production, so that there is co-operation between local private and public stakeholders and external companies and local administrations are involved in investment decisions. The local population should also be involved in the decision to construct the power plant to reduce potential conflict of interest.
RES policies should also attempt to minimise the environmental impact of the construction, production and distribution of energy phases of the project and local supply chains should be developed. Whilst external companies may produce clean energy, if they have no interest in establishing local supply chains, the carbon emissions from the transport of raw materials may be considerable. Policies should try to ensure there is local production and consumption of the renewable resources e.g. exploiting local agricultural waste as raw material inputs.
In order to create sustainable lifestyles at the local level, the researchers suggest RES schemes can play a positive role. However, it is essential for such initiatives to engage with local people and institutions to obtain the maximum economic, cultural, environmental and social benefits.
Source: Bagliani, M., Dansero, E., Puttilli, M. (2010) Territory and energy sustainability: the challenge of renewable energy sources. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management. 53(4): 457-472.