Today’s post is from Kate Lancaster, editor in charge of publications on regional development at the OECD.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but what about its worth in cows? Behind this simple photo of a jolly tourist trolley stand a herd of 16 proud Vermont dairy cows, happily producing waste to help power this trolley. To be clear, their manure isn’t shoveled directly into an onboard furnace. Rather, the cows and the vehicle represent start and end points in a renewable energy success story.
This trolley runs thanks to “Cow Power”, a Vermont programme that gets dairy farmers to convert bovine waste into fuel, through the use of bio digesters. The digester produces methane gas, which fuels a modified natural gas engine, which in turn powers a generator to create electricity. Heat generated from this process keeps the digester warm, offsetting the farm’s fuel purchases. And the electricity generated is fed into the local energy utility’s system for distribution to customers.
To date, the programme has generated $1.8 million per year for Vermont farms, supporting a sector that has struggled, but which is of economic, cultural and historic value to the state. There are environmental payoffs too: Converting cow manure into methane biogas instead of letting it decompose reduces greenhouse gases. And together, eight Vermont cow power farms have the potential to eliminate 24 000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. The programme also benefits the electric utility, as consumers agree to pay a higher rate when they choose to use cow power. A final bonus? The processing of the waste makes the final solid byproduct a whole lot less smelly than manure straight from the source, something that the farmers and their neighbors alike appreciate.
But “cow power” is only one of the myriad renewable energy options being deployed in rural areas around the world. Many OECD governments have invested large amounts of public money to support renewable energy development and are requiring significant quantities of such energy to be sold by energy providers, deriving from biogas, wind, hydropower, solar power, or other natural sources. A new OECD report, Linking Renewable Energy to Rural Development, asks what the true economic impact of these policies and investments is, based on case studies in 16 regions across Europe and North America. Can renewable energy really help develop rural economies?
Renewable energy is being championed as potentially significant new sources of jobs and rural growth, and as a means of addressing environmental and energy security concerns. However, there can be significant trade-offs among these three goals. For instance, large biomass heat and power plants can generate employment in rural communities, but may increase CO2 emissions due to changes in land use and the transportation of feed or livestock. Or consider that small-scale renewable energy installations typically use labour and equipment from international suppliers, thus limiting local job creation.
Can such trade-offs be mitigated? The authors think so, if renewable energy policy is well-thought out, flexible and carefully adapted to local conditions, cultures and opportunities. Renewable energy strategies should not be imposed from above, they suggest, but rather embedded in local economic development plans and undertaken with community involvement. Programmes such as the Community and Renewable Energy Scheme (CARES) – overseen by Community Energy Scotland (CES) – not only help provide greener sources of energy, but also build community cohesion, develop local confidence and skills, and support local economic regeneration.
It is equally important to be realistic about what projects will work in a given place and economy, particularly if subsidies are limited or removed from the equation. Investment should be in those projects that are appropriate for their setting and viable on the market, or close to being so. Choosing relatively mature technologies such as heat from biomass, small-scale hydropower, and wind, is advisable. The Italian region of Puglia, for example, although long a producer of coal energy, has also invested in mature solar and wind technologies, and is seeing economic and environmental benefits.
Will cows soon be powering your buses? Will sheep be mowing your lawn? Such ideas are charming – and working, in certain communities. But the wider reality is that viable renewable energy policy is complex, and there are no shortcuts to rural development.