Renewably Energized ‘Urban’scapes: What Now After the Innovations?
If we could imagine a world in which urban landscapes are energized entirely with renewables… what would this world look like? Beyond traffic stalled with only electric vehicles, repairmen visits for home battery units, glinting solar panel roofs and windows, turbine dotted hills and shores…is it possible to realize our visions of how these alternatively energized landscapes will look? And if so, how can we achieve them not as individuals or nations, but as a global society?
A recent article in the Washington Post on energy sources for cities in the future shares research evaluating innovative concepts and technologies that could change urban landscapes. The changes implied through this research demonstrate that progress is not only being developed but is already implemented through examples ranging from the solar cell level to the Eiffel Tower level. The path towards maximizing renewable energy generation, while somewhat coarse, is smoothing out as businesses, institutions and governments investigate innovations to improve the duration of renewable energy production or storage. At the same time, these same innovations such as transparent solar panels or “nearly silent” turbines that camouflage with its structure offer the chance to seamlessly integrate renewable technology into urban and infrastructural design. Another recent renewable energy innovation is CultNature or the landscaped “energetic reuse” and aesthetic redesign of brownfield sites with combined solar, wind and biomass renewable energy production as regional strategies. Compared to other innovations, CultNature endeavours to not just blend renewable energy into individual units of urban design, but use it to beautify urban landscapes through substantial green infrastructure.
Motivated by challenges specific to the Ruhr region in Germany, the originators of the concept were compelled to integrate renewable energy innovation with economic revitalization for regions struggling with industrial decline, low quality of life and high unemployment rates. By taking advantage of existing infrastructure, they propose regional scale creation of biomass landscape parks that could be tailored for specific sites within urban and peri-urban settings. (For more details on this project, check out my article in the June edition of GIPC Quarterly)
Naturally, larger scale innovations such as CultNature are contextualized by progressive policies such as the Energiewende in Germany. The significant number of nations that signed the climate change agreement in Paris at the end of last year show that technological advances and socio-political gains championed by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel through a shift to clean energy are no longer inspirations but also solidifying as standards for other countries. With leaders such as President Obama and President Xi Jinping following suit and announcing domestic policies that facilitate renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gases, the question of ‘if’ renewable energy landscapes could be commercially and politically be possible is now replaced by ‘how’ civil society will embrace or reject such a transition. As the country that has made the most headway with developing and implementing renewable energy, Germany recently demonstrated that renewable energy is not only a reality for reducing emissions, but also an affordable reality for the market as for the first time this month ‘power prices turned negative during several 15-minute periods’. But what does this increase in global momentum for renewable energy bode at the ground level?
This increasing ease with which renewable technology blends into landscapes and mainstreaming of national commitment to clean energy beg us to investigate, in parallel, locally rooted concerns that could jeopardize and ultimately reject renewable energy. The massive subsidies that governments continue to funnel into renewable energies are investments that should not be lightly squandered. Instead they are strategies for the future that require as much assistance with implementation as well as policy and technological guidance. While technological development and policy frameworks can delineate how we realize these futures, societal acceptance and ownership are necessary to assist communities to habituate to these innovations and integrate into surrounding landscapes but also lifestyles. Community initiatives such as The Energy Co-op and the Local Energy Scotland already exist to help facilitate renewable energy transition at local levels. The support that they bring to energy projects is substantiated in research on factors including trust, social acceptance, and the social dynamics that manifest in either successful implementation or complete obstruction. The latter more commonly takes shape in ‘NIMBYism’ which describes the phenomenon when local citizens protest against planning projects they do not want in their own backyards – thus ‘Not In My Backyard’ or ‘NIMBY’.
In an attempt to facilitate responses to these accompanying factors, a 2015 German study explains that negative visual, auditory, and olfactory externalities motivate local resistance. The research demonstrates that life satisfaction and well-being expressed by individuals (identified through their postal codes) in proximity to renewable energy projects are significantly impacted. This growing body of work on externalities and factors facilitating community acceptance and ownership reveal the more subtle challenges behind flashy headlines and aggressive policies. So while the development of renewable energy continues to blend even more comfortably and attractively into urban landscapes, and while policy makers sign off on agreements with increasing detail and teeth, it is even more significant that we continue to consider and better integrate locally and community-based factors into designing and implementing renewable energy innovation. If we don’t, then our visions of renewably energized landscapes will remain exactly as they are – visions, and not reality.
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