Renewable energy seems to be the way of the future as energy companies search for ways to invest in both clean and renewable sources of energy. However, some of the regions of the world best suited to produce renewable energy, especially wind energy, hold cities, towns, and villages that oppose the harnessing of renewable energy on their land.
The best example of a local community opposing what is viewed as the invasion of wind energy lies in the Isthmus of Mexico. Cymene Howe, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Rice University, studies the ethics and ecologics of wind energy development in this region and presented her research and conclusions on renewable energy development in Oaxaca, Mexico on Jan. 24 as a part of the Hennebach lecture series.
“Energy transitions really compel us to take on a series of ethical considerations,” Howe said. Those ethical considerations include “local communities and local dynamics where energy transition projects are taking place” along with “larger climatological, geological and generational kinds of questions that we have when we think about climate change in general.”
Ethical considerations involving local communities impact much of the wind energy development in Mexico. Communities receive benefits from the companies that own wind farms that have sprung up on their land, but some say it is not enough.
“Local communities receive financial benefits ranging from 0.97 percent to 1.5 percent of the profits made from electricity generation,” Howe said. “This is supposed to be put toward projects or programs that benefit the entire community and some of this has occurred in the form of improved schools and cultural centers in the Isthmus. Individual landholders are also able to rent rights to roads and plots where wind turbines will be placed and they receive monetary compensation or rents for that.”
Though on the surface communities appear to benefit from wind energy, residents see a different side. “Many residents consider these works superfluous and the sums granted to communities to be a pittance compared to the profits that the companies themselves are making,” Howe said.
In addition to frustrations with compensation, local fishermen who survive off of their ability to fish in the sandbar, which divides the Upper and Lower lagoons of the Isthmus of Mexico and boasts some of the strongest winds in Central America, fear that installing turbines on the sandbar would destroy their livelihood.
“Fishing communities within the region are quite concerned about the more ambiguous and uncharted effects of the turbines once they are in operation,” Howe said. “Fishermen maintain that the vibration, noise, and blinking lights atop the turbines will scare off the fish, therefore taking away their ability to survive. Many are also apprehensive about the effects of electricity running through underground cables that would run beneath the very shallow lagoon through the sand to be taken to substations ashore. They’re concerned about the electrical effects that might occur.”
Howe mentioned the paradox that she, as a supporter of renewable energy, must deal with. Though she would love to champion the development of clean and renewable energy sources, she must also take into account the arguments of local citizens who oppose said development.
“Because renewable energy produces a global good it is much more difficult to challenge its ethical value in a local context,” Howe said. “Human rights paradigms have dominated much of our recent political discourse and ethical light and perhaps rightly so.
“Our collective ecological conditions make it increasingly difficult to separate human rights from environmental rights or ecological rights. The two are now, I would argue, intimately fused, though arguably they were not that far removed to begin with.”