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Opinion: Renewables in rural world

By Olatz Ukar Arrien

Recently, in addition to the threats of the global pandemic and the shortage crisis, there have been added threats of possible fuel shortages, the increase in the price of electricity and a possible large-scale blackout. Just imagining a possible generalised electrical blackout makes us tremble, since practically everything we use requires electrical energy.

Figures in Spain show that in the last year there has been a certain flow of population to the towns and a decrease in population in the cities. However, data on a global scale show that the population is increasing exponentially in urban settings, which implies a change not only in the environment but also in the available resources.

In the same way, despite the stagnant demographics in Europe and North America, the world population is growing steadily. In this context, it is also necessary to consider the effects that this will have on climate change and environmental degradation, which represents a threat to the future of people.

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Energy Model

Everything points to the fact that we are in a historical moment in which international agreements are needed more than ever. Two examples are the European Green Deal and the 2030 Agenda. These agreements are key to promoting cultural and behavioural changes aimed at reducing energy consumption and favouring more and more the use of renewable energies.

However, achieving, as shown in the goals of Sustainable Development Goal 7, universal access to affordable, reliable, modern and clean energy by 2030 does not seem to be easy. According to the World Bank, despite the progress made in recent years to achieve the SDG targets, 840 million people still do not have access to electricity.

To date, no one doubts that promoting renewable energy is a necessary strategy to achieve sustainable development. Renewable energies are essential to guarantee global energy security, without entailing a serious impact on the environment or on the needs of future generations.

Thus, the United Nations has historically promoted the use of these energy sources, giving more and more importance to promoting the use and production of green energy.

Energy Security

Half a century ago, in 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm and, for the first time, the use of renewable energy sources was linked to sustainable development. Since then, environmental protection and renewable energy have been an integral part of the international community’s agenda.

From a technical-economic point of view, rural areas are at a disadvantage compared to urban areas. Large rural areas do not have connection to the electricity grid yet. Others that do have it are not usually very efficient and their improvement is not profitable, so getting out of that circle is very difficult.

In this sense, it should not be forgotten that it is not the same to speak of a rural area in developed countries as in developing countries. Although in the first case there are less infrastructures than large cities, there are not the enormous difficulties of access to technology and electricity that occur in less favoured territories.

Analysing this problem from a new business point of view, the energy transition appears as a promising opportunity for the economic development of rural areas. However, the relationship between renewable energy and sustainable rural development is not clear. Although many reports have been published that collect cases in which renewable energy has helped rural development, a methodology has not been established to determine to what extent investments in renewable energy have allowed the development of rural areas.

Community Projects

Depending on the type of renewable energy project, the social and economic impact on the environment in which it is located is different. When projects are large, it is easier for them to favour local employment both during construction and during operation and maintenance. This is not always the case for smaller projects, as they do not require as much labour.

On the other hand, it is easier for rural development to take place when the ownership of renewable energy rests with a community of neighbours. In this way, the income can be reinvested in local initiatives, so that these contribute to the social, economic and environmental improvement of the rural community itself.

The collective energy projects can be promoted both by non-profit groups as formed by local residents. Likewise, the projects can be simply for self-consumption or they can be larger-scale installations that are collectively financed.

However, the co-ownership scheme tends to benefit individuals who can afford to buy shares, and the return of these benefits to the community is not always realised. On the other hand, it is true that when the profits are reinvested, a huge social benefit is created, new capacities and abilities are created in the people who participate in these projects, community spirit, identity and cohesion grow, as well as the autonomy of the community.

Keys to Local Development

Thus, when rural areas face their most unfavourable situation, either because their industries are obsolete and in decline, or because they are isolated areas, investment in renewable energy can be an opportunity for development. A clear local strategy for the implementation of renewable energy depends on the identification of possible economic and social benefits and the urgent need to act.

Local ownership and control of renewable energy projects can facilitate their acceptance and maximise local benefits, generating wealth in traditionally impoverished environments.

Likewise, it is the rural areas themselves who must identify and take advantage of their strengths, both in terms of available renewable resources and the local economic context. But it is also true that an Administration is necessary that facilitates the procedures, and provides a legal framework and stable support over time.

Finally, a key element in advancing this type of initiative is the pioneers themselves, who should be helped to share their experience. In this sense, aid must be given to entrepreneurs and companies that wish to open new lines of business around renewable energies for their implementation and exploitation.

In this way, renewable energy projects can contribute to global development, but must include local stakeholders for sustainable rural development to truly occur.

The author is Professor at the Faculty of Engineering, University of Deusto. theconversation.com

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