Energy Transition

Deploying clean energy means using more land. That won't happen without community engagement

Wind turbines in Galicia, Spain, where community engagement could manage opposition to renewable projects.

Wind turbines in Galicia, Spain, where community engagement could manage opposition to renewable projects. Image: Sergio Diaz/Unsplash

Miguel G. Torreira
Global Utilities Strategy Lead, Accenture
Kristen Panerali
Head, Clean Power and Electrification, World Economic Forum
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The Net Zero Transition

This article is part of: Centre for Energy and Materials
  • COP28 stakeholders want to triple renewable energy capacity – requiring a massive increase in land usage for infrastructure.
  • Growing opposition to expanding clean energy infrastructure can be addressed by people-positive community engagement.
  • A new white paper from the World Economic Forum’s emphasizes how the people-positive approach builds value for communities from new energy projects.

A massive build-out of clean energy infrastructure is needed to meet the goals of a sustainable, secure and equitable energy transition. This is a necessity to get the world on track for 1.5°C. However, we must also recognize new infrastructure will increasingly intersect with population centres and natural ecosystems. So managing the impact of clean power infrastructure deployment will become even more important.

This week, at COP28, stakeholders are calling for world leaders to triple renewable energy capacity to at least 11,000 GW by 2030. In fact, to meet net zero goals, this three-fold increase would be followed by a nine-fold increase by 2050. All of this requires significantly large areas of land and water. Estimates range from 2-3% for the EU and the US and up to 5% for Japan and South Korea.

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Yet for clean power infrastructure developers, finding project sites that do not impact people is becoming increasingly difficult – with opposition to new infrastructure build on the rise. The terms NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) and BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) are used when referring to opposition to all types of infrastructure projects from communities, Indigenous groups, conservation groups and even local public and regulatory authorities.

In the northwestern Spanish region of Galicia, for example, there has been growing opposition for large-scale clean power infrastructure. Dense forests and small villages alternate through its green hilly landscape with turbines that take advantage of the windy conditions. Amplified by different pressure groups and social media, protest against new projects is increasingly delaying and even preventing the deployment of additional renewable power. It is important to acknowledge this and ensure that communities are part of the decision-making process.

Equitable community engagement for just energy transition

As the clean energy transition continues to build momentum, bringing people along on this journey will be critical. Certainly, community engagement is not a novel concept within the world of energy and infrastructure. It has been around for decades and, before renewables, was used in the fossil fuel sector, with a long history of successes and mis-steps. However, societal expectations have evolved. There is a growing recognition for a just and equitable energy transition. Moreover, there is broader access to information and easier amplification of voices through social media. If community engagement is not well-managed, businesses risk losing their social licence to operate and eroding their business value.

However, when business manages community engagement well, clean power infrastructure development presents a considerable opportunity to create enormous value to society, the economy, the environment and business. The definition of an “equitable and just transition” has traditionally included energy access, affordability and economic development. However, it should be expanded to include community engagement outcomes such as job creation, local upskilling, engagement in the decision-making process, as well as equitable distribution of benefits.

Meanwhile, a new people-positive approach to community engagement could also speed timelines for the deployment of clean energy projects, benefiting the environment and helping governments to help reach the goal of tripling renewables to achieve climate and in some cases energy security goals.

Businesses also stand to benefit from reduced risk of opposition, elimination of bottlenecks and avoidance of costly delays. Communities’ involvement can also infuse projects with local knowledge to improve project plans as well as receive a wide range of benefits.

This week, at COP28, the World Economic Forum launched a white paper calling on industry to integrate people-positive approaches into infrastructure deployment. This includes prioritizing community impact within the business strategy, as well as leveraging cross-sectoral collaboration to move towards a partnership approach with communities.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

The paper calls on industry leaders to develop a framework for measuring people-positive impact, recognizing that the speed and scale of the energy transition requires new approaches and solutions that deliver outcomes to society, the environment and the economy.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Energy TransitionNature and Biodiversity
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