Are renewable energy systems as clean as they seem?

“The local people started to use the solar panels like rackets to play Ping Pong” said a teacher in my Renewable Energy class a few years ago when I was still in college. He was talking about a solar system project implemented in one of the many poor towns located in Colombia. I remember his expression while saying it, like thinking “what were those people thinking?”. And that is, perhaps, a more relevant question than one might imagine as an engineer.

Renewable energy systems are considered to be the clearest answer to climate change. Transition to carbon-neutral energy is necessary and according to the Green Deal of the EU, will be a fact by 2050 in that continent. Solar panels, wind turbines, and hydropower technologies are examples of the new developments to transform energy through processes with very low greenhouse gases. If you ask any person whether these new technologies are cleaner than conventional energy systems, you will very likely get an affirmative answer.

However, there is one factor not considered in this clean qualification; the intersectionality of the neutral carbon energy transition. The usual focus when deciding whether a renewable energy project is feasible or not is only related to the socio-technical factors, which include economic viability. Nevertheless, the socio-political factors, which assess if the system is adapted to the community it will work for, for example, are neglected. The lack of these last considerations in the process of renewable energy projects development points out that a carbon-neutral energy transition does not guarantee that pre-existing inequalities in energy systems will be reduced.

Although the development of renewable energies does improve life quality by alleviating poverty, providing energy sufficiency to communities, and creating new jobs, it may have the opposite effect in communities framed by gender, race, and class disadvantages. These people are affected by consequences like displacement, loss of social capital, energy poverty, food insecurity, and, surprisingly, poverty increase. This means that renewable technologies are not a fixed solution for everyone since the advantages they may bring to a community depend strongly on their situation and the implementation process.

The fact that “fixed connections and subscription fees of solar energy give rural women less agency regarding access and appliances, as opposed to men, who in general are homeowners and have higher incomes” in Kenya and that “communities displaced by hydropower developments are often resettled on lands that are unsuitable for cultivation, forcing much of the population into informal wage labor” in Laos and Vietnam, are just a couple examples of how necessary is to add genderracial and class analyses into the renewable energy projects and to consider these as a part of the evaluation of the feasibility of clean energies.

Therefore, along with the improvement of the economic feasibility of renewables expansion, we must keep in mind that the people related to the project have relevant voices and that they are valuable. Also, that the social inequities may be counterproductive for the projects’ future because the community may not be prepared in terms of education and, hence, end up left out and unheard, like the people that decided to play Ping Pong with the solar panels. Johnson et al. summarize it here:

Instead of assuming renewable energy is a solution to social problems and creating policies around popular discourses, policy-makers might wish to look at a renewable energy project as one of the many aspects that need to be considered when addressing issues of gender and social equity.

I think that, although adding to the equation of renewable energy systems the social inequities makes it more challenging to move towards a carbon-neutral energy world, it is something necessary to achieve genuine social justice. Energy transition will not be green if social inequities are not addressed through it.

References

The social and societal dimension of the energy transition, Open Access Government, (2020, November 27), Retrieved December 4, 2020, from www.openaccessgovernment.org/social-and-societal/98770/

Oliver W. Johnson, Jenny Yi-Chen Han, Anne-Louise Knight, Sofie Mortensen, May Thazin Aung, Michael Boyland, Bernadette P. Resurrección. Intersectionality and energy transitions: A review of gender, social equity and low-carbon energy, Energy Research & Social Science, Volume 70, 2020.

Original text posted on SJEI

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