We overlook how renewables can bring people together

What’s the main reason that people turn to anti-establishment politics? It might be due to a loss of contact and feelings of isolation. Community energy projects encourage people to take pride in their towns and make government work for them, says Craig Morris.

The energy transition can have a positive impact on democracy, reviving communities (Photo by MrRenewables, edited, CC BY-SA 3.0)


Martin Patzelt, a conservative Christian Democrat politician in Germany, defeated a top AfD politician in the September elections. The AfD, Alternative für Deutschland, is Germany’s new anti-establishment party. It represents everyone who wants to break government, not tweak it to make it work better.

Patzelt drew attention to himself by cycling across his district to meet voters in person. The region is depressed; locals feel like decision-makers never think of them. But Patzelt discovered something else: one reason for anti-establishment sentiment is “the loss of direct contact” (in German). People not only think politicians have lost touch with normal people, but that they themselves are losing touch with each other.

Loneliness is a thus driver of anti-establishment resentment. Strengthening communities and neighborhood networks (not social networks online) reduces loneliness.

Community renewable projects do just that. Germany now has some 1,000 citizen cooperatives for renewables. The country’s energy transition is often discussed in terms of carbon emissions and cost but less often in terms of its impact on democracy.

In the Bavarian village of Larrieden, citizens decided to develop a biogas unit, two district heat networks, and a giant modern wind turbine along with several solar roofs. The decision was made shortly after the last bakery and bar had closed. The villagers no longer simply bumped into each other.

So a small group founded a community renewables initiative. Suddenly, everyone had a reason to get together regularly, share ideas, talk about costs, and figure out laws and permitting procedures. And get to know each other. “Saving the planet was not the main objective. Saving the community was,” explains Stefan Bayerlein, a local who now manages the project. Germany has a long tradition of such cooperatives, and citizens have been a major player in renewables for three decades.

Across western democracies, anti-establishment sentiment is growing. President Trump received some 46% of the popular vote, and 52% of the British voted for Brexit. Likewise, Le Pen got 34% of the vote in France this year. But anti-establishment sentiment is relatively weak in Germany; the AfD “only” got 13% of the vote nationwide in September. Likewise, only 13% of the vote went to Gerd Wilders in the Netherlands. Both of these countries have strong citizen-driven cooperative movements that allow citizens to feel like they can become successfully involved in their political system. They haven’t stopped believing that government can work for them.

The Dutch have a long history of working together locally to protect their land from the water. “Polders” were built: land parcels surrounded by dykes. This cooperative spirit is what the Dutch call their “polder mentality” – their community can-do spirit. In 2017, it led to a gigantic citizen-owned wind farm: 93 turbines worth 400 million euros. “The government basically insisted that farmers get together and agree on what the rules for land used as wind farms should be,” says Siward Zomer, who heads the new citizen wind farm that resulted. “Up to then, different people had negotiated different terms, and the general feeling was that the result was unfair.” So the Dutch came together to discuss – for four years – what would be fair.

In the US, France, and the UK, citizen-driven renewable energy projects are less common. Suburbia in North America looks a lot like struggling rural German villages like Larrieden: quiet homes with no social life on the street, little infrastructure in walking distance, and little occasion to casually bump into your neighbors. “We increasingly just waved to each other while driving by to go shopping,” Bayerlein describes a situation that many American will be familiar with. Small town America and rural Europe both need ways to compensate for the increasing isolation people experience.

Of course, community renewables is not a silver bullet against anti-establishment feelings. The option of building your own wind turbine does little good if you have no spare change.

Furthermore, it is hard to measure the positive impact of citizen renewables against all other factors. The closing of a school or regional train station probably leads to more resentment than any citizen solar roof could repair. So the benefits of community renewables should not be overstated.

On the other hand, citizens need ways to participate productively in government and experience that can be made to work for them. Community renewable energy projects bring people together. It’s not about agreeing on everything, but about finding ways to overcome differences amicably. At the very least, community renewables is a step in the right direction towards making people feel that they can make their government work. And you get to bump into your neighbors again.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

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Craig Morris

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

3 Comments

  1. Hear, hear. An economic factor favouring energy cooperatives is that biogas, wind and solar have very limited economies of scale onshore. (Offshore wind is different and inherently large-sale.) The American public lab NREL modelled this for solar – IIRC there is little cost reduction above 1 MW or so, the size of a utility string inverter. The panels are the same from rooftop up to giant farm. The optimum size for an onshore wind turbine is about 2.5 MW (heading for 3 MW), and big projects just consist of lots of the things. Big developers can borrow money more cheaply and raise risk equity capital more easily, but these gains are reallocations of rent not true economic efficiencies. So why not support cooperatives?

    One argument against has been the low capacity factors of early German wind farms, many built by cooperatives. Some were badly sited, others inefficiently run, others used unreliable or too small equipment. All these teething problems should have gone away by now with experience. It makes sense for cooperatives to contract out design and O&M to specialists for a fee rather than trying to do it themselves. It they do that, there should be little difference in operating performance compared to Big Solar and Big Wind.

  2. S. Herb says

    The other side of this is how these projects fit into public regulations and utility rules, and how these can be modified to be more encouraging to the community scale projects. I am very ignorant of these things but I think that it can get pretty complicated and sometimes expensive (I am thinking especially of the US). Financing can also be problematic since lacking PPAs (or FITs as in Germany) it is impossible to predict income 15 years from now, and at some point there is too much solar at noon. Self-consumption off-grid is usually not a good model. So there are a lot of problematic issues here and there will have to be some experimentation to come up with combinations of regulations and community project structures which will work going forward.

  3. Is “anti-establishment” really the right term here? That word has a way too left-wing ring to it; it makes me think of the kind of people who protest against corporations-favouring international trade deals or who chain themselves to train tracks to stop nuclear waste transports (and who might have harbored some sympathies for terrorists like the RAF). I.e. the people who might vote for the Pirates, or who do vote for the Left despite the stubborn refusal of the Western wing to work with other left-of-center parties, or would if the Left hadn’t proven to be unable to really change anything while in (Eastern state) governments. “Anti-establishment” certainly doesn’t make be think of the kind of people who want to outlaw immigration and abortion – which are goals not diametrically opposed to what the current conservative establishment wants (i.e. the Christian-capitalist government party, even if Ms. Merkel herself doesn’t fully support the party line on social issues), just different in degree of severity. “Ultra-conservative backlash” or “counter-revolution” (to the social revolution since 1968) seems to be more what’s going on right now.

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