New research has shown that potential renewable energy projects in England are more likely to be rejected if they are targeted at areas where residents are politically engaged and well off.
This in turn leads to these developments, mainly wind farms, instead being built in poorer areas. And it’s this dynamic that the Economic and Social Research Council, which funded the study, believes is one of the causes of the UK’s poor performance on renewable energy compared to other parts of Europe.
The ESRC now wants the renewable energy sector to think again on the type of business models it uses and focus more on community-owned projects.
The research found that while the vast majority of people in the UK support renewable energy in principle, many renewable energy projects developed by the private sector have suffered from strong local public opposition.
The ESRC examined renewable energy initiatives outside the private sector, including ‘third sector’ initiatives, often referred to as social enterprises, which have the primary purpose of providing ‘social profit’ to their target community.
The EU countries that lead on renewable energy development tend to have strong support for community involvement in renewable energy projects, including formal ownership and benefit sharing.
Renewable energy policies should encourage more community-owned projects to avoid a concentration of commercial power plants in poorer areas, argues Dr Dan van der Horst of the University of Birmingham, who led the research project.
An analysis of wind farm applications in England shows that rejection of wind energy projects is connected to areas with high political engagement and high life expectancy.The current trend shows that many technically suitable locations may remain unused because of the threat of effective local resistance by people who are relatively privileged.
Planning delays and rejections encourage commercial developers to instead focus on remote or deprived communities as sites for new power plants. In areas of economic fragility, commercial plants are more easily established without having to provide many benefits for the local community.
“Policymakers should embrace policies to encourage a wider sense of ownership of projects,” said Dr van der Horst. “There should be structures to ensure that more benefits flow to local communities in economically fragile areas, and encouragement for residents to invest in local projects – especially in more privileged areas.”