The Social Complexity of Renewable Energy Production in the Countryside

Article excerpt

Keywords:

Renewable Energy, Energy Autarky, Energy Region, Rural Development, Germany, Europe, Social Research

Abstract:

Based on field studies in 7 cases rural renewable energy projects in Brandenburg (federal state of Germany) were analysed during an 18 month period (early 2009 to mid 2010). The study identified relevant social dimensions of renewable energy technology and classified them according to organizational complexity, technology acceptance, participation by locals and financing models. This research shows that social complexity that accompanies renewable energy projects can be equally challenging as economic or technical aspects.

Supporting material:

1. social_impact_of_renewables_in_the_countryside_for_e_journal.doc[download]

Supporting Material

social_impact_of_renewables_in_the_countryside_for_e_journal.doc

Introduction

An increasing number of studies and scholars agree that the era of cheap oil and abundant fossil energy1 is coming to an end (IEA, 2009; Scheer, 2009; Energy Watch Group, 2006;Energy Watch Group, 2007; Heineberg, 2007; Hirsch et al., 2005). Thus the way is made for a shift to renewable energy production. Even if political foresight and ecological responsibility cannot initiate a major change in energy politics, resource scarcity and roaming prices will likely be the drivers towards this transformation. Without conscious decisions, however, the transition will come at higher ecological costs (Henseling, 2008).

A decisive characteristic of renewable energy sources is their consumption of horizontal space; energy no longer comes from oil rigs that penetrate the vertical level (Altvater, 2008, p. 78).2 Instead, it consumes space directly (e.g. solar power plants), or indirectly as agricultural production sites for substrate (e.g. corn for bio-gas digesters). As space is re-established as a primary source of producing energy (UNEP, 2009, p. 20), social research ought to focus on the countryside where space is abundant.

The popular as well as scientific discourse on renewable energy in Europe emphasizes the potential to emancipate the countryside from its often peripheral economic situation ( Wuppertal Institute, 2010). Many villages and rural cities in Europe suffer from a continuous decline in population. The selective emigration of the young and skilled often leaves these regions with economic difficulties. Renewable energy production as a new economic branch may be a coping-strategy, as demonstrated by the case example of Güssing. Renewable energy production may contribute to a local economy in three different ways: by creating jobs, by creating local tax-income from sold-off energy, and by lowering energy costs (Busch, 2010, p. 29). All three factors contribute to regional value creation as a lower proportion of capital leaves the municipality's borders to import energy. Such a surplus of capital can potentially be reinvested in the region, creating more jobs. Regional value creation is defined as "a measure for productive economic activity. It is made up by the difference of the value of a unit of production minus the value of the consumed pre-product" (Wuppertal Institute, 2010, p.23).

A few pioneer regions in Europe began to invest in renewable energy production in the early 1990s. The often corresponding creation of regional value and positive economic development gave an encouraging example to mayors across Europe. Many local politicians are drawing an example from those early birds. In 2009 approximately 100 municipalities in Germany declared the political goal of satisfying the complete local consumption of energy in the near future from local, renewable sources.3 Amongst Swiss, Germans, and Austrians those best practice cases, which are serving as a point of reference, became known as "Energy-Villages" (Energiedorf) , "Energy-Regions" ( Wehnert & Nolting, 2010), or "energy autarkic" regions. …