News outlets over the past year have reported heavily on China’s growing renewable energy investments, particularly in solar power. This news, in a global arena where governments have reignited climate skepticism movements, seems very positive. However, a recent article by China Dialogue, showed that solar PV projects may not always benefit local residents. Renewable energy farms and grid systems are large infrastructural projects that require extensive planning, budgeting, and assessments–community interests must be incorporated into these processes, too.
In October of 2016, China’s National Energy Administration announced a list of PV poverty alleviation projects, part of a programme started in 2015. This programme aims to distribute solar energy for 2 million homes and provide them with an income from the sale of surplus power. But the report conducted by China Dialogue revealed that a pilot project in Guinan, Qinghai Province, ran into many challenges.
Plant managers and local households hold different interpretations of the payment scheme in the plan, developers are unsure if they can profit, a surplus of electricity may delay use of the new solar energy plants, and local herders are concerned about the impact of these farms on land use and pasture access. This programme in theory should be lauded—a nation-wide environmental programme that aims to alleviate poverty is rare. But this programme also brings up concerns about the social and multifaceted impacts of renewable energy systems on communities.
For instance, Northwest China has already seen environmental programs with negative social consequences. For preservation of rangelands and the Sanjianyuan region of the Tibetan plateau, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of nomadic herders were forcibly relocated. These relocations even caught the attention of the Human Rights Watch. Initiating further environmental programs, like the solar PV project, may cause more relocations and further loss of livelihood and traditions of pasture-reliant communities. Is the Chinese government prepared for these consequences—societal unrest and creating more social assistance programmes and housing developments for the unemployed, relocated rural residents?
Renewable energy projects are notorious for causing relocation of communities. China’s Three Gorges Dam, for example, displaced over a million people for its construction and flooding from the reservoir. Other social effects of renewable energy projects include boomtown creation, where project construction involves influxes of people and causes social chaos, and loss of cultural heritage assets, which may be a problem on the Tibetan Plateau, which is sprinkled with spiritually significant sites.
Other social and financial costs of renewable energy products are in maintenance. When these systems are not maintained, communities receive no power and lose time chasing down officials and trying to fix the issues themselves. The longer these projects go without fixing, the harder and more costly it becomes to fix them. Broken down physical infrastructure can become public eyesores and safety hazards, as well as contributing to waste buildup and job losses. A video about a failed solar program in India illustrates this problem. A village was given solar powered lanterns and solar panels. The lamps frequently break, but local people do not know how to fix them, and when the panels were not working, villagers angrily commented on how they have tried multiple times to contact local officials and engineers who say they will come to fix the problem but never arrive.
With that said, renewable energy projects should still be encouraged, but, as with other large physical economic investments, social consequences should be weighed and incorporated into the budget and strategy. This is especially true for developing countries, which may have more environmental and social challenges to face than developed nations. As stated in previous blogs, climate change may only make these social changes worse; so trying to tackle both ideas at the same time is ambitious and necessary. China’s renewable energy investment and potential for further use of these technologies grows day by day. Harnessing this energy while paying close attention to all stakeholders will lead the way for the country’s sunny renewable energy future.