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  • Oliver Hudson

Renewable Energy: Nature’s Friend or Foe?

Recently Built-ID has been using Give My View to understand community priorities concerning renewable energy. A full report of our findings will be published on the 9th December, but ahead of that I wanted to share something that’s surprised me about the early data.

I grew up close to many wind farms in Lancashire, and for the purposes of full disclosure, I should say that I’m a big supporter of renewable energy. It’s for that reason that I probably arrived at this piece of research with certain prejudices. When it comes to a renewable energy project being built in your area, I can understand communities having reservations over scale and disruption, but not environmental concerns. Renewable energy projects, I reasoned, are so self-evidently good for the planet that those who seek to prevent their expansion are probably climate change deniers.

But the truth is, as I began to look at the data and interrogate the reasons why those who oppose the development of new projects say they do, a very different picture emerged. The majority of people we spoke to who opposed new development recognised the significance of climate change and the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions; they just didn’t believe that popular forms of renewable energy really were that “green”. I’ve included a snapshot of some of the comments we received below:

“Renewables are an environmental disaster for the planet and cause more harm than good.”
“The renewable energy sector should start to be more honest about the huge size of their carbon footprint”
“Just don’t build them. They are an environmental disaster and the sooner everyone realises the better!!”

So, do they have a point? Concerns about the actual green credentials of renewable energy have been raised for some time, with hydroelectric power coming in for particular criticism. Large dams can block animal migration and disrupt natural river flows, wind power has been accused of negatively impacting habitats with spinning turbines responsible for 100,000s of bird deaths each year. The vast amounts of land often required for solar projects can create changes to rainfall distribution and shading which can alter the natural soil; and all of this is leaving aside the negative environmental impacts which can occur during the manufacture and transportation of renewable energy infrastructure.

The reality is, all forms of energy production can have negative environmental impacts but renewable sources have many benefits over traditional measures. Renewable projects produce significantly lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions compared with fossil fuels and they have a significant beneficial impact on air quality too. Fossil fuel combustion releases harmful pollutants into the atmosphere, something that renewable energy avoids. There is also a lot of misinformation out there, for example, the statistic about bird deaths; whilst it’s true that wind turbines can kill bird species the US Department of Energy estimates that deaths amount to less than 0.02% of the total population of songbirds each year and that bird mortality rates for collisions with turbines are less than collisions with communication towers and three to four times less than collisions with existing buildings.

Greater adoption of renewable energy will be essential for reducing our carbon emissions and preserving the future of the planet. We know that new projects are much more likely to succeed when energy companies take the local community with them and key to that process will be understanding where objections lie. We may each bring our own assumptions and prejudices to this process, but there’s no substitute for asking communities directly, and when you do it can throw up some very interesting results. The evidence we’ve seen suggests that clean energy providers need to directly address the green credentials of their developments and be clearer in their claims of the environmental benefits of renewable energy, their virtues are not something that is evident to all.

We hope to share more insights like this over the coming weeks and below you can read a selection of our early data on community priorities. A full report detailing our key findings will be published on the 9th December, get in touch ahead of that date if you would like advanced access.


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