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Rural and urban energy conflicts

by Dave Elliott

In my last post, I looked at how cities would have to rely in part on imported green power, given their spatial constraints and high energy use, if they want to be fully sustainable. That may worry some environmentalists. It also has social implications for cities and for rural areas, and their interactions, as I will explore in this post.

A recent report from Greenpeace argues that perhaps 70% of energy in most places should be generated from local projects, with only 30% being imported from larger more remote schemes, so as to enhance local control and avoid extra grid links.

That degree of local autarchy may have social and environmental attractions but, depending on exactly how ‘local’ is defined, it would make balancing locally variable supplies and demand harder. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that some longer distance imports will be needed from a range of more remote sources, including perhaps from other countries, via supergrid networks. That could help balance local variations in supply and demand across wider areas, by linking to areas with better, more reliable resources. So a 70%/30% local/remote split may not be suitable in every case and certainly seems unlikely to be possible for most cities, even given strenuous efforts to reduce demand. A 50%/50% internal/external source split may be a good challenging target in most cases.

Whatever the proportion of internal and external generation, it remains the case that some renewable energy will have to be imported into cities. This should not be surprising. Cities have always had to rely on rural areas, and also maritime communities, for food. In many cases cities also rely on rural areas for water. Most of their energy has also in the past come from sources and power plants outside their borders. That may change significantly: a switch to sustainable energy may require cities to be more reliant on rural and coastal areas.

Although the technologies involved will have less impact than large conventional power plants, mines and so on, there will be some impacts, as rural areas house more large-scale wind and solar farms, along possibly with biofuel and biomass plantations. That may of course lead to conflicts. Some of the energy generated will be used locally, as is the case, for example, with some biogas generated on farms. However, rural communities may resent the imposition of what they may see as intrusive projects which, given that there are more people in cities, will mainly benefit urban dwellers, with power exported by the grid. There has certainly been local opposition to some wind farms in the UK, as well as to some solar farms.

Nevertheless, rural communities have always serviced cities and some of them have earned a living from doing so. Assuming that the economic benefits are better spread (e.g. by a shift to local ownership of rural wind and PV projects), there may be less conflicts. That is certainly evident from Denmark: locally owned wind projects are usually welcomed. There is of course a range of factors shaping how easy it is to move to local ownership, including the availability of suitable support schemes and local orientations.

Perversely we may even see opposition to these projects by city dwellers, who may want the countryside to remain ‘unspoilt’ as a recreational resource and, in some cases, to protect views from their second homes, while rural communities may object to the way city dwellers use and perceive the countryside. Clearly there may still be some conflicts between urban and rural value systems and economic interests.

Large-scale hydro is perhaps one of the harder issues to resolve. While small hydro projects may be less of a problem, and can be locally developed and owned, large hydro projects are major investments and can have significant local impacts. Offshore wind, wave and tidal projects may reduce some of the conflicts associated with land-based renewables, but there can still be issues related to the disruption of cherished seaside views and, although there can be substantial local economic and employment benefits, local community ownership of these usually large projects is more problematic.

As reliance on renewables expands, these conflicts and issues will have to be dealt with. In his analysis and advocacy of sustainable cities, Herbie Girardet has talked of the need for a ‘regenerative city’ approach, seeking to address not just urban renewal on sustainable lines, but also improvements in ‘the relationship between cities and their hinterland, and beyond that with the more distant territories that supply them with water, food, timber and other vital resources’. That should clearly include energy resources, with the main issues being economics and the equitable distribution of costs and benefits, along possibly with changed attitudes and awareness.

Few people, wherever they lived, have in the past shown much interest in where their energy came from. Coal mines and power stations are not exactly tourist venues and for most people what mattered was the cost of what came out of the socket in the wall or the pipe to their house. That will have to change if more sustainable approaches to energy generation and use are to be developed. What’s more, as rural renewables begin to take the strain in supplying cities with energy, a new relationship between urban energy users and rural communities may have to develop. If the proportion of the population living in urban areas continues to grow, this may become increasingly hard. However, initiatives related to ethical and sustainable organic food sourcing suggest that at least some city dwellers can develop an interest in what they consume and where it comes from. It is true that energy is more intangible, but wind farms do get many visitors and it is conceivable that new forms of social interaction and even empathy could emerge.

All that said, for good or ill, more likely is a change in the economic relationship between rural and urban areas and populations. For the moment that will only affect a limited number of people in rural areas. Only a small minority of people living in rural areas now work on or are connected with farms, but the expansion of wind and solar farms, as well as biomass plantations, will perhaps involve more, and will certainly impact on more, even if they are just commuters. However, if and when more people in rural areas are able to take over more control of the renewable resources in their area, via local co-ops and the like, the economic base could change. It is already the case that rural areas in the UK, and elsewhere in the EU, are changing, in part due to the worsening economic returns from farming for food production. That may be lamentable, but certainly farmers increasingly look to renewable energy projects as an alternative or supplement. If other members of the rural community also get involved, in the same way as may happen with some local energy projects in cities, that would open up a range of interesting new social and economic issues and potential interactions.

Clearly, the expansion of the use of renewable energy in cities, although possible if helped by imports from rural areas, should not be at the expense of rural communities, but it may be that social and structural changes, new patterns of ownership and new attitudes can avoid conflicts. However, as more cities embark on ambitious programmes, with high targets for renewable energy use, these issues will have to be addressed and the necessary changes supported.


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