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Why smart siting of renewable energy is crucial for people and planet

We need to plan the expansion of renewable energy carefully.

We need to plan the expansion of renewable energy carefully. Image: Unsplash.

Marianne Kleiberg
Regional Managing Director Europe, The Nature Conservancy
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • The global energy crisis threatens to undermine action on climate change.
  • Pressure is mounting to identify suitable land for clean energy installations.
  • Smart siting of renewables offers protection to nature and communities.

The events of 2022 mounted a sizable challenge to Europe’s ambitions to become the first climate-neutral continent. The food and energy crises triggered by the war in Ukraine are once again pitting our immediate needs against the long-term survival of both people and planet. Since the start of the energy crisis in September 2021, governments across Europe have allocated over €700 billion to help citizens and businesses manage soaring food and energy prices through the winter.

While the cost of meeting these immediate needs is high, we also cannot afford to lose sight of the climate and biodiversity crises we face. If global warming were to exceed 1.5C, the increased drought in the Mediterranean would impact nature in a way that has no precedent in the past 10,000 years.

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With its REPowerEU initiative, the EU is sending a strong signal that the status quo is no longer sustainable for people or the planet. The initiative sets an ambitious target: 45% of the EU’s energy will come from renewable energy sources by 2030. To meet this aim, member states need to install an additional 600GW of solar by 2030 and more than double wind production to at least 480GW.

However, clean energy installations like wind and solar farms require significantly more land than their fossil fuel-powered predecessors, so one of the key barriers to rapid deployment of renewables is identifying suitable land that does not unduly harm the nature and communities in their path.

If we don’t plan the expansion of renewable energy carefully, we may yet impact the very nature and people we seek to protect. This is where smart siting comes in.

What is smart siting and how can it help the energy transition?

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced at COP26 his ambition for India to meet 50% of its energy requirements through renewable energy by 2030, it was greeted warmly by the global community. However, initial development plans could have negatively impacted nearly 12,000km2 of forest and 56,000km2 of agricultural land. Analysis by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) found that by placing renewable energy infrastructure on land that had no socio-ecological conflict, India could meet its 2022 renewable energy target by more than 10 times by identifying sites on lower impact lands.

This provided a useful guide for the county of Zadar in Croatia which boasts 2,000 hours of sunshine annually and has one of the windiest climates in Europe: a location that was deemed ideal for developing renewable energy sites to meet Croatia’s aim to phase out coal by 2033. However, as planners started to explore the potential in the county in 2021, it became clear that a more integrated siting process was required. Over 50% of the county falls within the EU’s Natura 2000 network of protected areas for biodiversity, and there were multiple stakeholders’ needs to consider.

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Working with the Energy Institute Hrvoje Požar, TNC deployed the smart siting blueprint: an overlapping series of maps depicting regional environmental and social data with those indicating solar and wind potential. In this case, 22 individual datasets were used to make the maps, identifying sensitive zones such as bear habitat or bat colonies alongside valuable cropland, and areas with high energy yield and proximity to the grid. The datasets were comprised of input from local experts and non-experts alike to identify and rank land with significant community value to be considered.

After excluding areas under strict conservation protection and those already experiencing high competition for land-use from different stakeholders, the study identified enough suitable land for wind and solar installations to meet half of Croatia’s total national 2030 target for solar and wind power from this one county alone.

We believe that conducting this analysis for the rest of Croatia will help the country accelerate renewable energy deployment at a crucial time for both people and planet; helping the country to become a green energy exporter in the not-so-distant future.

This study, and a growing number of others like it, is evidence that there is a path to overcoming the climate, nature, and energy challenges we face – and that we don’t have to sacrifice our long-term aims to meet our short-term needs. With good data and comprehensive stakeholder engagement from the beginning of the renewable energy siting process, we can minimize the land-use conflict that can often slow the much-needed global transition to clean energy.

As EU countries race to identify go-to areas to help them meet 2030 renewable targets, let these examples from India and nearer to home in Croatia help light the path ahead.

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Forum InstitutionalNature and BiodiversityEnergy Transition
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