Land–(Renewable) Energy Nexus: History
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The need to understand the connection between land and energy has gained prominence in the calls to opt for renewable energy as part of the climate change mitigation actions. This need derives from the fact that renewable energy resources are site-specific and require rightful access and use of land. The impacts on landscape, land tenure, and land-use patterns of constructing energy facilities are significant, and they may subsequently undermine the authority of local communities. Still, the connection between land and energy is not yet part of integrated development policies and political debates when deciding on renewable energy projects.

  • renewable energy
  • solar energy

1. Introduction

Achieving sustainable development is the key challenge of the 21st century. Energy is vital for this. With rising critical concerns to meet the energy demand and needs of present and future generations on a global scale and a long-term vision, the exploitation of renewable energy resources and technologies appears to be the one of the most efficient and effective solutions to help shift towards a low-carbon energy system [1,2,3]. This increasing environmental pressure has made the world’s energy landscape change rapidly over the past decades with an expanding deployment of renewable energy projects. Although renewables have proved their significance in reducing air pollution and increasing countries’ energy security by decreasing their fossil fuels dependency, it is yet important to take into consideration their dependency on land. The use of renewable energy requires the use of and access to land. In fact, larger areas are needed to collect the incoming energy from renewable sources such as solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, and biofuels [4,5]. It is, indeed, more than a simple revolution of the energy sector based on technical innovations; it will also be a complex transformation that will deeply affect economies and societies [6]. Renewable energy development is also triggering a multifaceted dialogue, engendering evolving economic, social, and environmental concerns, and competing pressures at the different scales—from global to local—at which these operate. Such a discourse is more than the apparent choice over siting; it also involves the development and exploitation of renewable energy, with land at the center of many debates [7].
Over the last few decades, countries across the globe have set ambitious targets supporting the widespread development of renewable energy projects, especially for electricity supply, helped along by supportive policies and falling technology costs. Their deployment is part of the actions taken to mitigate climate change and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015, as energy is the dominant contributor to the global greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for almost 60% of its total [8,9]. Global and regional trends indicate that energy demand will soon be mainly covered by these renewable energy sources. According to the IEA forecast, the global green electricity production is expected to grow by 305 GW each year between 2021 and 2026, which represents an increase of practically 60% when comparing this with the renewables’ expansion of the previous five years [10]. Energy and land were always intimately connected. In a powerful, synergetic association, the generation, operation, and use of energy requires land, and simultaneously, the human use of land requires energy. The rise of renewable energy over recent decades and their wide deployment to manage energy needs and consumption have been the root causes of some severe land conflicts, with planning systems and siting processes struggling to deal with complexities of both fundamental and procedural issues [7]. The production of electricity from renewable technologies is characterized by a significant spatial and temporal variability. These resources are site specific: this implies they have a higher potential for disturbing land-use patterns and engendering land-use conflicts than resources that can be more easily relocated such as oil or coal [11]. Renewable energy development also implies the use of larger areas of land per unit of generated power than the traditional nonrenewable energy forms (power density W/m2) [12,13]. This means that for delivering the same power as fossil fuels, renewable energy is considerably more land intensive. Hence, the means and the ends of this energy transition is a disputed space by conflicting interests, ethics, and future outlooks that will only intensify the global competition for land and beget social conflict [1,14].
There is a significant volume of empirical literature concerning the power of renewable energy and their achievement in addressing global warming and fossil fuel phase-out issues, and acknowledging the growing interests of experts and the general public in the subject. However, there is a lack of empirical literature addressing the land footprint of renewable energy production and its potential impacts [14,15]. The pertinence of land requirements for renewables is a prominent topic within a broader concourse, as land availability and accessibility are considered to be a pertinent biophysical constraint that might restrict the achievability of this transition within the current socioeconomic framework. Since renewable energy sources require the mobilization of substantial amounts of land, one can expect a growing number of both tensions and conflicts as a direct consequence of such mobilization efforts. Similar to other land mobilization projects, such tensions and conflicts can reflect the multiple voices of landowners and users and associated sociospatial power rearrangements [16]. Combined, they result in major societal transformations on the one hand, and the need of a better balance in land and energy allocation, as part of a trajectory towards sustainable development, on the other. A quick scan of the literature shows in a scattered form that there is some sort of relation between land (right, use, restrictions, and requirements) variations and the variations of energy requirements. This relation is most visible through the spatial concepts, such as power densities (for each type of energy source). Yet, the specific details (in terms of site specifications, the interaction between certain land management and certain renewable energy choices, the degree of interdependency and proven correlations) of the land–(renewable) energy nexus are not yet sufficiently clear. This lack of clear relations makes it difficult for practitioners to assess the effects and impacts of their choices. Hence, there is a need for a more elaborate review of the inter-relations. In view of this, the main goal of this article is to understand how the spread of renewable energy is shaping the land–energy nexus, and how the maturing renewable energy technologies are evolving and interacting in different regions of the world. Especially in the Global South, there is a need to understand land concerns, the nature of the challenges that renewables offer for land management, and the responses and reactions which are being made by focusing on these three interdependent themes: land requirements, environmental impacts, public opposition, and planning policy.

2. Theorizing the Land–Energy Nexus

The concept of land is multi- and transdimensional. It is simultaneously an environmental unit, an economic asset, a productive resource, a territory, an accommodation, a sense of place, an identity, and symbolic scenery. Sustainable land use refers to the rational development, use, and preservation of land resources based on a particular spatial and temporal context, while adopting appropriate mechanisms and organizational instruments [17]. Making rational choices needs, however, to recognize that land (use) is part of a complex system. In their latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that land provides the principal basis for biodiversity, ecosystems, and human livelihoods and well-being including the supply of food, water, and energy. Human use directly affects more than 70% of the global, ice-free land surface. Land ecosystems and biodiversity are vulnerable to ongoing continuous climate and environmental change and extreme weather events to various degrees. In addition to the complexity of the physical system, there is complexity in the institutional system. The rationality of allocating, regulating, and administration is bound and guided by national and subnational laws, norms, and rules, which are difficult to align [18]. If land management has to contribute to reducing the negative impacts of multiple stressors, including climate change, on ecosystems and societies, it has to be multifunctional and multidimensional. There is additionally a high urgency, as land is increasingly becoming a scarce resource. The global competition among its different uses is becoming acute, and conflicts related to this are becoming more frequent and more complex, thus asserting the need for innovative land management and more efficient planning [19].
Having identified that managing land is already complex, the allocation of land for energy sources specifically is equally complex. It brings another factor into the equation, namely the need to rely on a clear conceptualization of renewable energy, both conceptually and spatially. The International Energy Agency (IEA) defines renewable energy as resources “derived from natural processes” and “replenished at a faster rate than they are consumed”. The IEA definition of renewable energy includes the following sources: “electricity and heat derived from solar, wind, ocean, hydropower, biomass, geothermal resources, and biofuels and hydrogen derived from renewable resources” [20]. The booming of renewable energy is at the root cause of the major changes that have been influencing and conditioning the energy policy of several countries over the last decade and it is often neglected that these projects, such as solar power plants and wind farms, are considerably more land-intensive, and that their siting process and their perception is frequently disputed [7,21]. Together, land and energy represent two major interconnected forces driving anthropogenic, global change. We define the land–energy debate as the diverse views, interests, and principles expressed by the different active voices in the discussion in regard to the expansion of modern renewable energy as part of the climate change mitigation actions and to support a decarbonized economy. This includes both the activities, relations, powering and brokering mechanisms, and co-ordination applied between international institutions, governments, land administrations, environmental organizations, scientific bodies, technical experts and managers, social structures, and local communities.
Due to the expansion of renewable energy projects, scholars utilize different approaches and case studies to categorize the multiple storylines and narratives. The construct of the land–energy nexus is therefore a transdisciplinary construct, emerging from different concourses. Scoones [22] argues that the implementation of renewables, as part of the transformation to sustainability, arises from the junction of technology, market, government, and citizen-led processes, with a focus on the different political dynamics. Huber [23] argues that developments in critical social theory suggest that concerns for a conversion to renewable energy must put space at the focal point of the discussion, as it requires new spatial arrangements and new spatial vision. Wolsink [24] debates that the principal issues connected with effective implementation and execution of policies concern the socioeconomic institutions that are contingent to spatial planning and energy strategy, both informed by environmental policy. Huber et al. [25] suggests that future implementation of renewable energy infrastructures will lead to eventual alterations with current and future land-use, landscape, and related ecosystem services. Within this multifaceted roadmap, the land–energy nexus exhibits a pattern of similar discourses and narratives, suggesting that there exists a dual tension between those who support the rapid expansion of renewable energy projects, and those who oppose particular deployments due to concerns over land pressure and social impacts. Theoretically, we consider this dual tension as embedded in a wider environmental and social debate. As a consequence, the land–energy nexus construct can be specified in relation to two perspectives. The first perspective is rooted in the ecological modernization paradigm, and the second is part of the environmental and social justice paradigm. These two angles undoubtedly enlighten and embody the modern land–energy nexus. Nevertheless, evolving narratives are gradually giving way to new theoretical framework and empirical arguments.

2.1. Ecological Modernization

The ecological modernization perspective reflects the image and the vision of international institutions, national governments, energy corporations, and environmental organizations supporting the development and deployment of renewable energy as one of the most efficient and effective technological answers to tackle climate change and solve energy problems, but also as a chance to promote sustainable business and a decarbonized economy, especially in the rural areas of the involved countries [26,27]. This narrative originates from the ecological modernization paradigm, where environmental protection and economic progress have compatible and nonopposite principles through innovative technologies’ development, productivity enhancement, competitive markets, and governmental involvement [1,28]. From this perspective, renewable energy projects are drawing a powerful image of nature and modern technology working together in harmony, and social opposition is generally described as an obstacle in the development of an energy system that is cost-effective, environmentally desirable, and technically reliable [1]. In this sense, land is seen as an economic asset for renewable energy siting and development.
However, literature on renewable energy technologies has also exposed that it is clearly insufficient to generate clean energy depending on economic assets and financial support, and that it is also necessary to deploy the technology within a social context where it will be collectively accepted in its implementation, including its various impacts. Additionally, in environmental social science research, the main critics of this paradigm have argued that ecological modernization does not redress overall injustices, especially environmental and social injustice [28]. In fact, many scholars have genuinely interrogated these beliefs in regard to their pro-poor effects, acknowledging significant social impacts and risks for local rural livelihoods, especially due to the absence of land-tenure security among the rural population, the weakness of legal systems pledging property and occupancy rights for community members, and the way that land use is considered in energy planning [29,30].

2.2. Spatial Justice

Contrary to the ecological modernization perspective, which is dominated by economic thinking and scientific reasoning, the spatial justice as a second perspective prioritizes sociospatial dialectic values over environmental ones. As a starting point, this perspective advocates a fair, just, and equal spatial distribution of socially valued resources, benefits, and opportunities. Spatial justice in this perspective is both an outcome and a process, and it can furthermore be seen as an evaluative framework that empowers actions that can help achieve sustainability [31]. Spatial justice is the principal morality of social and political institutions and resource management regulations that should be receptive to everyone’s need. It conceptualizes the relation between the geographical distribution of goods, resources, and services and its social just/unjust repercussions [32].
From this perspective, renewable energy projects are perceived as drivers of transforming the rural scenery into a large, open-air industrial energy production factory and as leading factors in depriving local vulnerable communities from accessing their land and sustaining their livelihood. The spatial justice framework contributes to the need for a critical analysis of the land–energy nexus, and to the necessity of emphasizing the potential social and spatial consequences over and above simple technological and financial aspects and discloses a more controversial political power of renewable energy and land. This idea additionally emphasizes institutional perspectives towards resource conflict, resulting from competition over ineffectively characterized or inadequately administered real properties. Underneath this reasoning persists the hypothesis of scarcity and inescapable conflicts of interests over resources [33]. A large body of literature describes the causes and impacts of land-related conflicts in countries that have inherited a particularly disparate land ownership allocation scheme [34].

This entry is adapted from the peer-reviewed paper 10.3390/land11060767

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