Renewable Energy Colonialism

In this episode we will discuss renewable energy colonialism, impact on local communities, and the NIMBY rhetoric.

  • Renewable Energy Colonialism in the Global South and the Global North
  • Impact of renewable energy projects on local communities
  • The Not in my backyard (NIMBY) rhetoric

Our guest Dr Susana Batel is an assistant researcher at University Institute of Lisbon , Portugal. For over a decade her research has focused on adopting a critical approach to examine the relation between re-presentation, identities, power, discourse and communication, and social change, namely regarding public participation in environmental issues, and public responses to renewable energy and associated technologies. She has 80+ published works and is a Co-Editor of the journal Papers on Social Representations.

Our interviewer Nyasha Milanzi is an undergraduate student in Electrical and Electronics Engineering at Ashesi University, Ghana. Her research focuses on developing low cost sensors for use in air quality monitoring and dust soiling on solar PV measurements.

Episode notes and references:

Music by: Ritesh Prasanna

Audio editing and transcripts by: Paras Singh and Raag Sethi

Podcast website:


SB: Susana Batel (Guest)

NM: Nyasha Milanzi (Interviewer)

SG: Shahzad Gani (Host)

SG: Welcome to Atmospheric Tales, a podcast that amplifies stories and experiences related to air pollution and climate change from around the world.

I’m your host, Shahzad Gani, and welcome to another episode of the Atmospheric Tales. Our guest today is an Assistant Researcher at the University Institute of Lisbon in Portugal. For over a decade, her research has focused on adopting a critical approach to examine the relation between representation, identities, power, discourse and communication, and social change, namely regarding public participation in environmental issues, and public responses to renewable energy and associated technologies. She has 80+ published works and is a co-editor of the journal Papers on Social Representations. I’m excited to welcome our guest, Dr Susana Batel.

Our interviewer today is Nyasha Milanzi. She’s an undergraduate student in Electrical and Electronics Engineering at Ashesi University, Ghana. Her research focuses on developing low-cost sensors for use in air quality monitoring and dust soiling on solar PV measurements. Welcome to the show, Susana and Nyasha!

NM: Thank you for your kind introduction, Shahzad. I’m excited to dive in our discussion. The shift to less carbon-intensive and more sustainable energy systems is centred around renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro, biofuels and others. According to the International Energy Agency, over 2022-2027, renewables are forecasted to grow by almost 2,400 GW equal to the entire installed solar power capacity of China today. This rapid expansion of renewables has brought us here in discussing about renewable energy colonialism with Dr Susana Batel. Welcome to the show, Dr Susana! I’m going to jump right into our first question on renewable energy colonialism in the Global South. In the Global South, renewable energy colonialism perpetuates power dynamics that prioritise the energy needs of the Global North over the energy needs of the Global South. Despite the fact that many countries in the Global South lack access to electricity (for example, 597 million Africans did not have access to electricity) and rely on harmful forms of energy, such as biomass for cooking (approximately 600,000 lives are lost each year in sub-Saharan Africa due to exposure to biomass smoke), the focus of renewable energy production in these regions is often centered around export to the Global North. This is evident in the case of green hydrogen, where the potential for energy poverty alleviation in Africa is overshadowed by the emphasis on export to the European market.  For example, I quote a statement from the European Investment Bank website—“Large-scale green hydrogen generation will enable Africa to supply 25 million tons of green hydrogen to global energy markets, equivalent to 15% of current gas used in the European Union.” Dr Susana, the followers of the podcast would like to know how colonialism mechanisms are at play here, and also, how can their governments and policymakers prioritize the energy needs in their respective countries before they can look into feeding the energy-rich countries, particularly in the Global North.

SB: Thank you, Nyasha, for your question, and also Shahzad, for the introduction and the invitation, to both of you, to be here. So, that’s a very good question and actually, this focus on green hydrogen is a very relevant one. And, actually, even here, in Portugal, from where I’m speaking, we’re also having a Valdez rush into this new gold, so say, of the green hydrogen as a key solution to resolve climate change. And actually, even if we are in the Global North, but still in the south of Europe, so a peripheral region as well, that is also shaped by correlations with other Northern countries. And so actually, we’re also having exactly the same debate. And also, green hydrogen, is it green, first off—and that’s what I will get to in a minute as well—so the way it is produced, can we really say it is green, and also for whom is this national strategy being proposed and enforced? So thinking about Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa specifically, and again, also this now run for green hydrogen, a lot of issues come to play here that make us think of it as this renewable energy colonialism. So one of them is precisely even starting, as I was saying, by this notion of renewable energy colonialism, allowing us to think for whom is this being produced, as I was saying, is also the case for Portugal. So if we look at the rhetoric behind these efforts and agendas to foster the production of green hydrogen, we see that, precisely, a lot of it is with a view towards economic growth and towards exporting it to the Global North. So local regions and communities where it will be produced, and also their local resources, based on which their livelihoods depend a lot, such as water, land, agricultural land, and so on and so forth, they will be damaged and taken for this purpose, but with most of the benefits then to be exported, as you said, to other countries and other regions of the world, specifically in the Global North. So that’s already a key aspect, obviously, of what makes it renewable energy colonialism. And, what that first aspect brings to the fore as well is precisely this issue that it is being sold as green, but actually, for instance, as you also highlighted, it uses water to produce this green hydrogen. And this means, in turn, that you should be in a region to produce it, that’s very, there’s very abundant water. And if not, you’re not only probably contributed to further desertify that area, but even to, there’s also uncertainty, what will be the consequences for water resources in the area as well, out of this process for hydrogen, green hydrogen production. The other key issue that is being debated as well also related then with this renewable energy colonialism, is precisely that then for it to be green, it implies that the electricity generated to part this water and make the green hydrogen, it needs to come from renewable energy sources. And what this often implies, is then that there will have to be built large scale energy infrastructures, such as big wind farms, or solar plants, and so on and so forth, that will then feed into this green hydrogen production, which in turn these plants as well, they also have often, they also come with a lot of local impacts and impacts for communities, and if they are not deployed in a way that involves everyone and the local communities, regional communities, national communities, etc., then those harms will for sure, be even more no, so, often what happens is precisely that is that there are no benefits for the local communities, and there are only detrimental effects. So it’s often done through this top-down, technocentric and extractivist perspective and approach. And that means precisely that who benefits then from green hydrogen and all its components, so to say, is mostly the big corporations that often are financing these infrastructures, and also sometimes, the national governments that allow for it for these to happen in their territories. So, in this sense, I think that if we think about how can governments and policymakers then prioritise the energy needs of local communities and citizens in their respective countries before they look into feeding energy-rich countries is precisely by contesting this type of rationale and process that leads to the deployment of these large energy infrastructures, and feed these big agendas for green hydrogen as it is being done. So I think, precisely, what needs to be done is thinking more in a decentralised way, in a way in which thinking about how can we give electricity to everyone and to all communities, is done involving those communities and involving people and therefore thinking about, and for the country and the region where these governments and these communities are located, instead of just thinking about economic growth at a national state level, let’s say no, so that is really for the state and not for its citizens.

NM: Wow, thank you, Dr Susana, for your answer, and I think you did a great job in analysing this question. And I would just like to highlight like some of the points that you brought up, which includes like for example, we don’t talk about, let’s say, if we deploy these huge amounts of energy infrastructures, which will require abundant water with them in the case of green hydrogen, is going to lead into water scarcity in many regions in Africa; there’s already water scarcity because of climate-induced drought in recent years. So, it’s important to look at also the after-effects and also talk about asking a critical question, like who are these infrastructures built for? Are they built for the local community, or for other people, and how ethical is that? And I think it also answers our second question that we were going to ask you on the Desertec project. For our podcast listeners, I’m just going to briefly read what it’s supposed to be: the Desertec project was originally designed for wind farms and solar plants to be deployed in the North of Africa and Middle East to feed the European grid, which is an unequivocal example of the renewable energy colonialism in the Global South.  So with that, I think you also talked about how this is also at play even where you are from, in Portugal, where I didn’t even think that any renewable energy colonialism could also happen in the Global North. It is important to know that renewable energy colonialism extends beyond Global North-South relationships, and also operates through power dynamics between core and periphery regions. Dr Susana, can you provide an example of renewable energy colonialism that is not specific to Global North-South relations, and how do our core-periphery power dynamics come into play in these cases?

SB: Yes. So obviously, I think this renewable energy colonialism idea departs from Global North and Global South relations, and from historical colonialism. But, I think it is also very useful then to think about, if not equal, obviously, because colonialism as it is, it has, again, a specific history and is based on specific structural power relations. But I think it’s very helpful precisely to make us think as well, if again, if not equal, but similar processes are happening also in the Global North. And what we see more and more also today and also actually historically, so already for some centuries, is this continues and even increasingly exacerbated power dynamics between urban areas and rural areas, in which basically, rural areas are seen more and more as just a place for resource provision, and to provide to urban areas no, and urban areas as the consumers. And so, it creates these core-periphery dynamics that, again, are the basis as well of renewable energy colonialism between the Global North and Global South. And what we see for instance, again in Portugal, but also in other countries in the Global North, is that that is happening also in the relation between then urban and rural territories, in which basically, as I was discussing regarding green hydrogen, and the deployment of large scale, renewable energy generation infrastructures in these more rural areas, what happens is that, now is that rural areas are almost the sacrifice zones that get all the costs and all the negative impacts of the construction of these infrastructures, and they don’t get any benefits that, they’re not involved in deciding about those projects. They do not allow them, even for local communities, even sometimes to stay in their communities and to thrive in those communities in the long term. So it’s a similar type of dynamics that happens here as well. And for instance, here in Portugal, I’ve been accompanying it regarding wind, hydropower plants and how actually, throughout the last century, this has been the case now; these large, huge really, infrastructures with a lot of impacts have been constructed and deployed in rural areas, inland territories, with a lot of impacts for the local communities. And often even what happens is that they are deployed based on discourses and rhetoric or vocal socio-economic development. And they are even sold almost as these promises and bits of development that people then aren’t attracted to, because, precisely, they want to stay in the places where they live, and they like to live, and they want to be able for future generations to also be able to stay in those territories and to thrive there. And so, people tend often even to accept these infrastructures as a sign of hope almost to towards that future. But actually, then what we see is that often, that’s it, that’s just rhetoric from the developers, from the politicians and governments that support these infrastructures, and those promises then actually tend not to materialise then. So what happens is that these infrastructures even further contribute to the desertification and depletion of these areas, in terms of local socio-economic development, and then the people that managed to stay at and live there. So in that sense, I think that this idea of renewable energy colonialism also as an analytical lens, some say, so as some glasses to look at the renewable energy transition, and which inequalities is easy to create in as well, and which types of further discrimination and injustices is it reproducing and creating anew—I think it’s very important then, both in relations between the Global North and the Global South, but also within the Global North.

And I think for that also something very important, that is important as well for the case of the green hydrogen which you were bringing to the discussion earlier, is precisely also this idea that with globalisation and the new liberal capitalist system that we live in, what contributes also to this colonialism, and these power relations is precisely these big corporations, large corporations that are often foreign to the countries where they are exploring and extracting these resources, and exploring these communities, and therefore they really don’t have their interests at heart, no? So it’s often deployment of this infrastructure, and these extractive activities in a very, well, colonialist and extractivist way, with no connection and no concerns for local communities.

NM: Okay, thank you so much. So yeah, so I think in Portugal, it is all the hydro energy that is a great example of what you’re just describing, energy colonialism in Portugal. And with that, I think I’m going to ask you a question in relation to the USA. So given the significant amount of land that will be required for wind farms to meet energy or consumption needs, how do you think we can balance the need for renewable energy with concerns around the land use and ecological impacts?

SB: Yes, so that’s a very good question. And I think that also, again, it links to the first question that we were talking about, and, and I think it’s really going forward, what we need is also a more degrowth mindset and economy and perspective, no? So I think the even when we think about, you know, the right to have access to energy, and that everyone in the world can access that, that needs to be thought about through also considering that some people in the world and specifically in the Global North, really need as well to reduce their consumption of energy and the modern way of life or as some others put it, no, this imperial mode of living that is typical of the Global North. And, if you look even at some of the Sustainable Development Goals, and some of the policies that European Union is supporting towards the green and digital transitions, actually, they don’t want to change that that imperial mode of living. So they want to just continue with business as usual and renewable energy technologies within this format, within this logic will just be, you know, continuing this economic growth model no, and that for sure, it will, again, reproduce existing inequalities, it will reproduce energy poverty. So the ones that were previously poor in different dimensions will most probably continue in being poor, because precisely the modus operandi, so to say, exactly the same as our fossil societies that are anchored and based in structural colonialism and inequalities, racism, sexism, and all of these structural, again, inequalities that are constitutive of this model of our society. So therefore, I think the problem that needs to be tackled is precisely that is to always think about these issues in conjunction. And so, thinking that, we really need this degrowth perspective to allow us as well, for moving forward with the really renewable energy transition, but in a way that is more equal to all, and that also allows for more participation and engagement of everyone in that process. And for that, we need more decentralised models for the energy transition, we need to take decisions closer to communities that will be affected by that, we need to think precisely about energy transitions that can be done more at that community and regional level, because even that’s what allows us to prevent this Global North Global South renewable energy colonialism, right? Because the problem here is often that no, that we, in the models we use nowadays, we can be producing and extracting resources and energy from certain places that are very far away from the places where they will be consumed. And so obviously, that also helps with losing the trace of the negative impact, that even for instance, getting rare earth minerals that are needed for wind farms have for local communities that are far away from where those wind farms are going to be deployed. So again, I think the key might be precisely in thinking more about renewable energy transitions through this logic of degrowth on one hand, and decentralisation and these ethics of care for everyone at a global level and at the local level, all at the same time in an integrated way.

NM: Thank you so much. Portugal is at the front of the renewable energy transition. In 2021, 5066 GWh of electricity was generated in Portugal (of which 88.5% from renewable sources and including roughly 45% generated by hydropower, mostly large-scale dams). Can you give examples of community contestations against hydropower plants in Portugal, and also some examples of health-related harm, or psychological harm, provoked by hydropower infrastructures?

SB: So, as I was saying, with some colleagues, I was doing some research on hydropower plants, projects and how they were deployed throughout the last century, and so that means throughout the dictatorship that was imposed in Portugal for several decades, and then from there through to the democratic period that we that started in 1974, and still today. And what we see is precisely that something similar in the deployment of these infrastructures, throughout these different socio-political regimes, is that they are deployed in this logic of progress and all economic growth that is characteristic of capitalism. And it is that logic that also makes it obviously, the very big differences between the socio political-regimes or individual freedoms and practical ideals and rights, but that transversal aspect of capitalism makes it precisely then, that these infrastructures are similarly deployed in a way that these regards to the impacts they have for local communities for local socio-ecological systems as well, and therefore, they create obviously, a lot of psychosocial negative impacts as well in the communities living nearby them. It was interesting, for instance, because a lot of this research to look at psychosocial impacts in the beginning of last century for instance, we had to go to archival materials to see how these psychosocial impacts were documented. And it was interesting, for instance, to see that in the 1950s, or even 1960s, for instance, these dams now were completely non-existent idea for local communities, and so local communities have thought of them as a cut now in the river, which is quite interesting to think about that that’s precisely what it is, is having like this wild river that lives in harmony with the communities, nearby them, and that is being almost cut and slaughtered in a way by these large dams. And so in a lot of this work, we’ve documented precisely that type of psychosocial impact that happens a lot, obviously, when dams have large fields, villages, and that has happened also, even in Portugal’s recent history, that entire villages had to be relocated somewhere else, because of the construction of these dams. But dams affect also other local communities that even if they don’t have to relocate, or their houses are submerged that live nearby them, though, because they really affect the local environment, and the livelihoods therefore, that are dependent on it, all the surrounding local communities. And then what we managed to do with this archival research as well, which was very important too, was precisely to also then unearth almost, no, so bring to the fore, and give voice to actually, to these contestations to these hydropower plants, that somehow also happened during the dictatorship, so many decades ago, even if obviously, in a very different way, than what they could be or how they could happen in the democratic period. But again, through these almost oral history materials, we managed to identify that there were communities and people that were against these things now, and that would like to contest the construction of these dams then, and that has continued again, from then to nowadays, not only with hydropower projects still that are presented, often in public policies, and by the Portuguese government as renewable energy. But again, more and more activists and academics have contested that notion precisely because we know nowadays of the many socio-environmental impact, negative impact that large dams can create, and so more and more, they are less considered, at least in these contexts, as renewable, as renewable energy. And, but on top of that, also, more recently, we have witnessed the same type of impact by wind farms, and more recently now by solar power plants. So now, the push in Portugal is, as I said, also for this green hydrogen idea, but that hasn’t really started yet, at least in a more material way. But also what has been happening more in the last years, is the deployment of these large huge solar plants as well, and that has also been very contested by communities precisely because, for instance, we have this case in Alentejo in the south of Portugal, where a community started to develop and implement this idea of a renewable energy community and which you, so as a community, you try to make it self-sufficient from an energy point of view, by having solar panels say, that are at the community scale, or even at the household scale, that are enough to make that community self-sufficient. And, so they picked up on this idea of renewable energy communities that is also being, trying to be fostered in Portugal and at European Union level, through specific legislation and all that. And then, soon after, they started to try and develop and implement this renewable energy community, they just heard that a huge solar plant, precisely to feed into this green hydrogen idea or it will be one of the purposes of it, at least it could be, this huge solar plant would be built also very near where this renewable energy community was trying to be developed, and obviously dismayed, this community contested that solar plant, precisely because what often local communities want is the more smaller scale decentralised options, and not these large scale infrastructures that ruin the landscape, ruin the symbolic and cultural relations that they, and attachments that they establish in those places and those landscapes, and also sometimes even farming lands and other uses of the land that are significant to the local communities, and to local livelihoods.

NM: Thank you so much, Dr Susana. So another interesting dimension to the renewable energy acceptance is the concept of NIMBY. Can you briefly talk about the concept, Not In My Backyard (NIMBY)? How are developers, policymakers, the media and active protestors using the NIMBY rhetorically, and what are the consequences?

SB: A lot of the research that I’ve done has been precisely looking at how this NIMBY idea, no, is used by developers and politicians, the media as well sometimes, to basically accuse these local communities that oppose these infrastructures, of being just irrational and ignorant, and selfish. So it’s a way for them to delegitimize that opposition by saying, well, you’re only opposing that solar plant, for instance, or that hydropower plant, because you are a NIMBY now, because you are being selfish, because you live next to it. Now, if it was being built somewhere else, you wouldn’t care about it. And actually, what research has been showing more and more is that NIMBY doesn’t stand out, no, as an explanatory framework. So say, for local opposition, for local communities’ opposition to this renewable energy infrastructures, it actually doesn’t fit, no; it’s not it’s not a good explanation, precisely because what research has shown more and more is that what is at stake, is the fact that these processes are made in a very top-down, imposing and even dictatorial way, so to say, so they are not up for discussion, they don’t involve conveniently the local communities and all the other stakeholders that will be affected by these projects. As we’ve already discussed, a little bit here also, what happens is that even when there are some public consultation processes, those are very tokenistic. So they actually, you know, might then involve some slight little changes in the project, but not, for instance, a real discussion about if a project should go ahead or not, in that specific location, or somewhere else, and so on and so forth. And so in this way, that people in local communities, obviously they feel powerlessness, and they feel disempowered, even from, deciding about their own life, no, their own communities, sometimes even in the case of the submersion of villages from hydropower plants, as we’ve seen, even they lose the control and the autonomy of their own houses and households. So obviously, it’s all these dimensions of injustice that create local opposition and that’s what activists and researchers have been increasingly making more clear, no, and showing that it is not about NIMBY, it is not about people not knowing what can be the benefits of hydropower plants, or just reacting emotionally because it’s being built close to them, but it’s about them knowing what is important for them and for their local communities and for their culture.

So researchers are, all even more recently, no, being more aware also of the dangers of using NIMBY as an explanation and again, actually, even for researchers, as I’ve also highlighted in a lot of my work, that move is only now starting to happen. But for developers and even for, as I said, politicians, governments, local authorities, media, NIMBY is very often used to just dismiss when local communities oppose these infrastructures and obviously, it is very helpful for them to precisely dismiss and delegitimise local communities’ opposition. And so that’s why I think it is helpful to more and more not use the concept of NIMBY, or only use it to show how actually we are talking about issues of injustice when people oppose energy infrastructures, and trying to engage policymakers and local authorities and developers more and more through this lens of injustice and the inequalities these projects often create.

NM: Thank you, thank you, Dr Susana. It was really wonderful having you here, on this episode. I really enjoyed talking to you and discussing about energy colonialism in the global South and in Global North as well. I would really like to thank you for taking the time to come and share your over a decade of experience with us.

SB: Thank you so much, Nyasha; it was really great to discuss these issues with you. And yeah, thank you for all the very important questions that you brought to our conversation as well.

NM: And, thank you, Shahzad, for hosting us today.

SG: With that, I would like to thank our guest, Dr Susana Batel, and our interviewer, Nyasha Milanzi, for joining us on this episode of Atmospheric Tales. Thanks to all our listeners for tuning in; make sure to subscribe and share!