In 2009, in rural Pennsylvania, as head of the Renewable Energy Center, I attended a heated community meeting with the Army Corps of Engineers about a proposed wind farm in Ogletown.
One by one, members of the community expressed their fears. Some believed that wind turbines cause cancer. One person was afraid the blades would throw mercury. Others wondered if the developers were profiting at their expense—both in terms of their health and their finances.
This kind of aversion to change, hostility to potentially beneficial technology, and susceptibility to rumor is far from unusual. When people are angry, anxious, or afraid, it becomes easier for them to believe what would otherwise seem outlandish, whether they live in central Pennsylvania or Central America.
Fortunately, there are proven ways to engage communities and bring them on board. A case in point is the USAID ProParque project in Honduras and its experience introducing small hydropower (15 megawatts (MW) or less in generating capacity) to highland communities.
ProParque, which ran from 2011 to 2016, was designed to conserve biodiversity, create jobs, and strengthen Honduras’ capacity for mitigating and adapting to climate change. As part of its natural resource protection mandate, ProParque began to promote small hydro. Most of the country’s electricity at that time was generated from diesel and oil, which for Honduras meant expensive electricity and exposure to price fluctuations. The Honduran government had pledged to reduce its dependence on imported oil and reverse its electricity generation mix from 60 percent oil and 40 percent renewables to 60 percent renewables and 40 percent oil. Between 2014 and 2015, it made headway toward this goal through a dramatic increase in solar and continued growth in hydro, wind, biomass, and waste. It now plans to have 95 percent of energy supplied from renewable sources by 2027.
Despite the potential for hydropower to support economic development—and the fact that distributed generation increases energy security locally and nationally—there were several barriers. One of the most important was local opposition. Communities were especially afraid of large hydropower projects, and it was commonly believed that hydropower causes cancer and even abortions—concerns that extended even to smaller hydropower projects.
Informing the Community
Community acceptance of renewable energy plants is critical. Indeed, in most countries, including Honduras, consultations with local communities are not just good practice, they are legally required. Local involvement at the project development stage can result in greater acceptance, and acceptance is easier when the communities are better informed. ProParque tackled this challenge head on.
For example, to improve the ability of supportive civil society organizations to advocate and negotiate with communities, ProParque produced a flip chart template and guide for teachers to develop educational campaigns about renewable energy. In addition, the team held workshops for 33 municipalities, seven government offices, three educational centers, and co-managers of national parks; and held 26 seminars on community education about renewable energy for 517 participants (196 of them women). Explaining hydro technology and projects in clear and simple terms, these materials also equipped local schools and municipalities to lead their own educational programs, via a training of trainers approach.
Community Benefits Are Key
Studies in the United States, Scotland, and Germany have shown that attitudes toward wind power are more positive among people who derive financial benefit from the projects and in areas with some degree of community ownership of them. Typically, local communities benefit from power plant development through payments for land or land use, local direct employment, local indirect employment through supply chains, and an increased tax base.
In addition to addressing communities’ concerns about new technology, it is increasingly common for renewable energy projects to offer an explicit social benefit to communities to win their support or at least mitigate their opposition. These separate and additional economic benefits range from ad hoc gifts—such as contributions to local sports programs—to legally binding annual payments. Social payments may in some countries be legally required to gain access to a resource. In Honduras, financial institutions will not lend to renewable energy projects without such a social element.
Another approach gaining ground internationally is to give local community members an ownership stake in the projects. Projects that pay only those people with title to affected property tend to run into difficulties from aggrieved residents who didn’t receive such compensation. Projects that provide a one-time give away, such as a sports field, find that two years later their contribution is no longer remembered or valued. However, if a broader swathe of local people owns part of the development, those owners have a long-term interest in its success.
Small, sustainably managed renewable energy projects present an alternative that can improve quality of life and bring new opportunities to people in hosting communities, while preserving the watershed. Ongoing collaboration between developers and communities helps deliver on this promise.
Gwen Andersen is a Principal Global Practice Specialist in energy at DAI. Gwen’s focus is on wind, solar, and small hydro but she has also worked on biomass power generation when managing a study for a 50-megawatt power plant at a cement factory in rural Pakistan. Her work has ranged from writing a guidebook on rural electrification and teaching safe installation of solar home systems to making presentations to policy makers and businesses on investing in renewable energy.
Mily Cortés-Posas is a renewable energy specialist at DAI. Mily Cortés-Posas has more than 15 years of experience in renewable energy and cleaner production, working for the last six years for DAI in Honduras as a renewable energy and cleaner production specialist. Mily has worked with a broad range of renewable energy alternatives, from improving the environmental sustainability of grid-connected projects to creating local renewable energy markets for off-grid projects. She has experience working with government officials, private developers, and community leaders on the improvement of conflict-solving capacities and the implementation of environmental management measures.