background image

Solving the tricky part of getting to net zero requires reconfiguring community engagement approaches

author image

By Maria Petrova

· 8 min read

Increasing renewable energy capacity has been identified as a key solution to reaching net zero targets. Despite policy efforts and historic investments by the Biden Administration and private developers, renewable energy projects are met with strong local opposition. The implementation of Community Benefit Agreements is discussed as a possible equitable and efficient solution to aid the energy transition.

graphic of wind energy

The urgency of the climate situation is well-understood, but targets are elusive

Statements like the following send conflicting signals: “the richest 1% emit more carbon than the poorest 66%,” “global temperatures are on track to exceed 2.8C by 2100,” “the United States has set a goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035,” and “approximately 0.5% of U.S. land would need to be covered with solar panels to achieve the decarbonization goals proposed by the Biden administration.” On one hand, they suggest that developed countries, and particularly the United States, have well-established solutions to tackle the climate crisis, but on the other, they leave us wondering why rich countries are behind in reaching their set climate targets. What hinders implementing solutions?

As the annual United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) meeting in Dubai, United Arab Emirates comes to a close, it is becoming clear, yet again, that our efforts in curbing greenhouse gas emissions have not been sufficient.

The importance of transitioning to net-zero emissions in an effort to limit warming to 1.5°C under the Paris Agreement is well-established. In May 2022 the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded the key milestone of 421 parts per million, which is more than 50% higher than pre-industrial times. For comparison, before the late-19th-century industrial revolution, carbon dioxide levels were at 280 parts per million. Intense burning of fossil fuels is the primary reason for increased emissions. Scientists warn that to reduce the human impact on the environment and hold temperatures steady, carbon dioxide should be kept at a level of 350 parts per million.

Solutions have been identified and backed up by policy commitments and investments

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is needed to avoid reaching planetary tipping points that cannot be reversed. Numerous reports have communicated the urgency of the climate situation, one noting “The window is closing! The world is not on track to reach the Paris Agreement goals and global temperatures can reach 2.8°C by the end of the century.” Phasing out traditional energy fuels (coal, oil, and gas), increasing renewable energy capacity, and improving energy efficiency have been identified as potential solutions that need to be scaled up quickly in this decade to keep open the option of limiting warming to 1.5°C. Despite these technological solutions, the human aspect of technology acceptance has not received adequate attention. 

Recognizing its part as one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world, the United States has set a goal of 100% clean electricity by 2035, a crucial foundation for achieving decarbonization no later than 2050. To reach this goal, the Biden Administration has enacted several cornerstone bills that constitute the largest investment in energy in US history. Through the President’s Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Federal agencies are making historic levels of investment to advance the renewable energy transition, giving consideration to the principles of environmental justice. One specific program is the Justice40 Initiative, which mandates that 40% of the overall benefits of federal investments be distributed to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution. The Initiative requires that community stakeholders are meaningfully engaged with developers in discussions that determine program benefits. 

Community opposition to renewable energy siteing

Despite these bold actions, renewable energy developers still meet opposition from local communities. Very often support for wind or solar exists, but it’s not “a simple story”; that is, many projects get delayed or blocked because of local opposition. Community Benefit Agreements (CBAs) are valuable tools for fostering collaboration between renewable energy project developers and local communities, thus helping accelerate the transition to a carbon-neutral future. 

Empowering communities to shape their own energy future

CBAs are voluntary agreements, negotiated between developers, community-based organizations, and other stakeholders, regarding proposed projects. They aim to ensure community priorities are reflected in project development and implementation and that project benefits are extended to the community hosting the project. CBAs have been known to increase project support by fostering a sense of ownership and responsibility among community members and by engendering trust between the community and the developer. When communities are involved in the decision-making process, they gain a voice and agency in shaping their own energy future. 

Community Benefit Agreements have a long history of success: the Danish example

CBAs have been utilized successfully for many years in different countries and with various technology types. In Denmark, where wind and solar supply 50% of the country’s electricity, wind cooperatives have successfully harnessed community involvement. For example, as a result of local input, the Middelgrunden Windmill Cooperative arranged 20 wind turbines in a graceful curve that adorns Copenhagen’s coast, serving as a symbol of Denmark’s community-centered approach to renewables. The project has enjoyed remarkable popular support since its inception in 1993. Over 50,000 residents took part in the project planning, helping shape all the logistics. Residents were invited to buy shares in the cooperative; thus 8,500 Danish citizens raised €23 million euros—half the project’s total cost—and became equal partners in the new wind farm, and now receive 50% of the revenues.  “Today, we have all the money back and you get about seven percent every year,” said Hans Christian Sørensen, who sits on the cooperative’s board. “People are quite satisfied with this because it is much better than having it in a bank, and at the same time, you are doing something positive for the environment.” Because of the success of collective project ownership, starting in 2011, the Danish government mandated a minimum of 20% community ownership of all new wind farms.

Job creation and economic opportunities: the first US offshore wind project

CBAs also provide social and environmental benefits. They have the potential to generate employment opportunities and stimulate economic growth within communities as they transition to a net zero economy. In some cases, CBAs can require developers to prioritize local hiring during project construction, maintenance, and administration, provide job training programs, and support the growth of green industries. 

An exemplary case is the first US offshore wind project, the Block Island Wind Farm situated 3.8 miles off the coast of Rhode Island. The project, which began operations in 2016, marked a significant milestone in the US offshore wind industry and also demonstrated the effectiveness of CBAs. The developer, Deepwater Wind, negotiated with local stakeholders and committed to a CBA that included substantial community investments and employed close to 300 workers during project construction. This resulted in increased employment opportunities, support for local businesses, and infrastructure improvements, showcasing the tangible benefits of collaborative agreements.

Delivering on the promise of energy justice and equity

Moreover, CBAs can be instrumental in addressing environmental justice concerns. Historically, marginalized communities have borne a disproportionate burden of pollution and environmental degradation. CBAs provide a framework to rectify these disparities by ensuring that environmental and social benefits are distributed equitably. To better reflect the US  Department of Energy’s commitment to equity-centered climate solutions, DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm announced a name change for one of its offices—the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity. Starting October 31, 2023, the Office was renamed to Office Of Energy Justice and Equity.

Conclusion: pathway to success—empowering and educating communities

Finally, CBAs can include provisions that support educational programs, workshops, and campaigns aimed at raising awareness about climate change, energy conservation, and sustainable practices. By fostering a culture of environmental responsibility and equipping community members with knowledge and tools, CBAs empower individuals to make informed choices and actively contribute to reaching net-zero targets. The future we all strive to have relies not only on designing and developing clean energy technologies and solutions but more importantly on solutions that are implementable, here and now. This means equitable and just solutions, embraced by local communities; solutions that leave communities better off at the end of the project life, rather than worse off; solutions that provide local benefits and invest in the well-being of the project hosts.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

Did you enjoy this illuminem voice? Support us by sharing this article!
author photo

About the author

Maria Petrova, PhD is a Program Director at Georgetown University. She examines public acceptance of wind and wave energy. Raised on the Black Sea, she focuses on just and equitable energy transitions, food and water availability and access, and sustainable solutions.

Other illuminem Voices

Related Posts

You cannot miss it!

Weekly. Free. Your Top 10 Sustainability & Energy Posts.

You can unsubscribe at any time (read our privacy policy)