The history of energy development in the United States has always been an exceptionally individualistic affair. For instance, the wildcatters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century applied a winner take all mentality to their oil production. According to the Rule of Capture, if you’re the first to exploit a resource, you own that resource. It’s a model of energy development with limited foresight that values speed, efficiency, and cost while disregarding the damage caused to communities and environments.
In the modern-day, energy developers have continued this history of short sightedness by considering only individuals when it comes time to compensate for the resource taken and the damage caused. These companies operate with the faulty assumption that the land owners they work with are the only ones impacted by energy development. But there is an even larger group who often goes uncompensated; those living nearby. However, they almost never see compensation for detrimental changes to their quality of life.
Currently, we are in the midst of an incredible transition to clean energy sources. We’re seeing a radical shift towards decarbonized, decentralized, clean energy on a flexible, transparent grid. Troublingly, however, our methods of energy development are not transitioning nearly as well as our physical infrastructure. With the rise of solar and wind energy over the past few decades, the same, outmoded development methods from fossil fuels have been practiced: only the immediate land owner is considered for compensation as surrounding neighbors are ignored.
This is problematic because people don’t just live in an area; they form connections with it. A place’s history, culture, economy, aesthetic, and customs all inform bonds that residents make with it. We share these bonds with each other and use them to generate an identity as a community. For instance, farmers don’t just happen to live near a lot of farms; they’ll often tell you they live in a “farming community” specifically. That identity is important, powerful, and can cause measurable harm to residents if disrupted by sprawling energy development.
That’s why it is so important that we devise new models for developing clean energy projects. The days of assuming that the individual land owner is the only person impacted by development are over. The true impact of a project is diffuse and messy; spilling outside the lines of our typical thinking and potentially staining the lives of many, many people. Not only should energy developers consider this out of a sense of morality, they should consider it good business.
Take the misty hamlet of Nossen, German; it’s renaissance era castle looming high among its many winding roads. In 2004, something else joined that lofty castle on the skyline: wind turbines. The landowners who hosted these clean power machines were of course compensated for the use of their land. But those living nearby were given little thought or chance for input.
Those local people still had to see the turbines, they had to hear them, and they had to deal with alterations to a landscape which they valued. Once installation of the wind farm was completed, just 26% of residents had a positive opinion of the development. Only 30% associated these clean-energy-producing, climate-change-fighting machines with a better future for their children.
That lack of goodwill is troubling. But, there is a better way to build this energy future of ours. Just a short distance away, another town was also seeing turbines crop up on their horizon. But the development model practiced there was very different. As compared to Nossen, the town of Zschadrass opted for a much more open and transparent process: community co-ownership.
From the beginning of Zschadrass’ wind development, the town was included as a financial partner in the project. That meant that the community at large, not just the directly impacted landowners, would be able to see benefits of the project’s financial success. These benefits were designed to be transparent and cooperative. A direct funding line was created from the sale of electricity for community improvement projects. The community chose collectively to fix up the local school, build a new community center, and provide discounts for local sports clubs. All of this was directly funded by the town’s financial stake in the wind farm. When surveyed, 62% of Zshadrass residents saw the local development as positive and 92% saw it providing a better future for their children.
This case study of community co-ownership gives us a model for how the development of renewables should be pursued as our energy transition continues. Solar and wind developers are producing something we desperately need: carbon free energy. But that desperation cannot be used to impose potentially damaging change on communities. Clean energy development must occur, but it must also be ethical; whether through community co-ownership, revenue sharing, the establishment of community solar allocations, or the creation of microgrids to give nearby communities greater resilience to climate change.
Unfortunately, examples of this inclusive model of compensation are hard to find in the United States. While there are many energy developers that have started to affix the word “community” to their projects with pride, exactly what benefit communities directly gain in exchange for hosting the project is unclear. Both communities and developers should be concerned when the word “community” is used to whitewash a project. That can spawn resentment towards a technology that needs to be integrated deeply into our future.
Part of the beauty of the clean energy revolution is that we have the chance to re-envision all aspects of how we deliver power to our communities. Energy is becoming decentralized and we need to become more comfortable living close to where our energy is produced. Out-of-sight, out-of-mind will no longer cut it. But compensating communities for hosting large energy infrastructure is a critical component of this transition as well. As Zshadrass shows us, this is beneficial for both those building clean energy projects and those living near them.
Unlike the dirty energies of the past, we have the chance to build an energy system that is clean, sustainable, flexible, and local. But we can’t build this future with the same development tools left over in the box from one hundred years ago. Moving forward, we must forge new tools as ethical as world we hope to build with them.
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