Solar and wind energy: Driver of conflict or force for peace?

Dario Kenner (Why Green Economy?)                                                                                                         May 2017

There are growing calls to shift from dirty fossil fuels to clean renewable energies. These are likely to increase following the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and growing public awareness of the environmental crisis.

There are many positive reasons for switching to renewable energy, such as increasing energy access and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But I feel that sometimes the transition to these technologies is presented in an oversimplified way, e.g. to address climate change we need to stop burning “bad” fossil fuels and start using “good” renewable energy (the environmental crisis is more complex, we are on the verge of a sixth mass extinction of species meaning it’s time to recognise the limits to growth).

A more nuanced understanding is needed because sometimes there can be negative social and environmental consequences associated with these technologies that can trigger conflict in developing countries – contested land rights often result in protests by affected communities.

In March 2016 indigenous leader Berta Caceres was murdered for her opposition to the Agua Zarca dam in Honduras

In March 2016 indigenous leader Berta Cáceres was murdered for her opposition to the Agua Zarca dam in Honduras

Some organisations have recognised that renewable energy can be a driver of conflict, among them the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, the Corner House, Friends of the Earth International, and International Alert (see also their work on the links between conflict and climate change). For example, there is extensive documentation of human rights abuses and environmental degradation linked to large dams and biofuels. In 2015 alone Global Witness estimates that 15 environmental defenders were killed protesting against hydropower projects.

But my impression is that not enough attention has been paid to the link between solar and wind energy and conflict in the global south, even if there are a number of studies on this in the global north, and this is probably even more the case for geothermal energy. It is particularly important to know more about solar and wind because rapidly falling costs mean that they are increasingly competitive with coal and natural gas for energy generation, in some cases even when they are not subsidised by governments. Emerging economies, in particular China and India, have ambitious plans to scale up solar and wind, which implies that a huge amount of infrastructure will be built in these countries.

1) Conflict driver: Mining for inputs

Mining for key minerals and metals such as aluminium, nickel and rare earths can displace people and lead to water, air and soil pollution.

To produce solar panels and wind turbines requires large quantities of raw materials such as aluminium, copper, chromium, manganese, nickel, lead and zinc. A great deal of these resources are mined in the global south (especially in China) where mining has a long history of being a conflict driver, and is leading to high rates of killings of environmental defenders. As a 2013 report by Friends of the Earth International warned, “The mining, extraction and processing of these raw materials often involves land grabbing and other human rights abuses”.

Rare earth metals are crucial for the production of solar and wind energy. There are seventeen main rare earth metals which are the basis for key components in a range of hi-tech products. These include dysprosium and neodymium for magnets in wind turbines, and for semi-conductors in some solar panels. To date the vast majority of these rare earths have been sourced from mines in China, which has the world’s largest reserves (around 44 million tonnes).

These mines have led to conflicts between the Chinese state and local communities who have protested against the environmental pollution that has poisoned farmland and led to higher rates of skin disease and cancer. The Corner House found that: “Police and lawyers have to be mobilized to help dispossess peasants or contaminated communities who may have adverse views on the proceedings.”

There is also the impact of producing solar panels and wind turbines. In China this has led to violent protests against a solar panel factory in Zhejiang province in 2011 because of high levels of air and water pollution. Local people who live near the factory allege it is responsible for the large numbers of dead fish being found in a nearby river. The company says it is making efforts to treat its pollution. There are probably more conflicts of this nature but it is difficult to find information on this. A study has shown that the process of making a solar panel has twice the environmental impact (in terms of energy intensity and pollution) in China as in Europe.

“We don’t eat batteries” “They take the water, life is gone” Protest signs by communities living near lithium deposits in northern Argentina  

Lithium is a key component of batteries currently mainly used in electric cars, which will play a crucial role in enabling the scaling up of renewable energy. This is because battery storage will help to overcome obstacles such as the unpredictable generation of solar and wind energy. This will enable smart grids to flexibly match the intermittent supply of renewable energy with peak demand when and where it is needed.

However, mining for lithium has led to tensions with indigenous communities in Argentina, Bolivia and in the mountainous region around the Atacama Desert in Chile. Issues have included land rights, consultation and the signing of controversial contracts with mining companies. In this water-stressed area that has been hit by drought in recent years, key concerns have been the huge amount of water used and water pollution. The demand for the raw materials that make up ­lithium-ion batteries is predicted to more than triple over the next 10 years. For example, China has ambitious plans to expand battery production capacity six fold, from 28GW in 2016 to 174GW in 2020.

Climate change researcher Danny Chivers estimates that to provide 100% renewable energy from sustainable sources by 2040 would require 50 billion tonnes of aluminium, cement, copper and iron. To put this figure in context, he calculates that 1,850 billion tonnes of extraction would be needed for fossil fuels up to 2040.

Ways forward: As the experience from China and elsewhere shows, the aim should be to keep this mining to a minimum, particularly as it is virtually impossible to stop mining having a negative impact on the environment. Perhaps one way to do this is to design solar panels and wind turbines so that as many of the material inputs as possible can be reused and recycled along the principles of a circular economy, (although it would not be possible to recover 100%, which would mean that less and less would be reused each time). However, a report by International Alert warns that resource substitution alone could “simply shift increasing demand from one resource to another”, resulting in continued resource extraction that could lead to “livelihood insecurity and local resource conflicts”.

2) Conflict driver: Location

Large-scale solar and wind energy installations can lead to land-use change and displacement, which can restrict access to food and water.

As Hannah Blyth and J.J. Messner note, while clean energy does not produce the carbon emissions associated with oil, gas and coal, a “solar farm, a wind farm, or a hydroelectric dam can be just as large in terms of infrastructure and scale – and are just as likely to impact local communities – as their carbon-based counterparts”.

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has been tracking human rights violations and land disputes related to wind energy and dams. They have just published a briefing warning investors of the risks involved and their responsibilities to respect human rights and carry out full consultation with impacted communities.

One of the cases mentioned is the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project in northern Kenya, which is projected to be the largest wind power project in sub-Saharan Africa. Local communities say the project developers did not carry out proper free, prior and informed consultations with them. A report by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs emphasised that the project could exacerbate social conflicts and affect the livelihoods of local communities, who depend on the free movement of their livestock. Although the project is expected to be completed in a few months’ time, it has been delayed for years by legal challenges from indigenous communities concerned about how the wind farm will impact their access to their land.

“Moving away toward carbon-free forms of energy will never be just a question of plugging “greener” energy sources into the existing electrical power system. “Greening” an ever-growing economy would require the replacement of much of the world’s existing energy generating and distribution system, the seizure of vast land areas, the retrofitting of old buildings on a historically unprecedented scale and the redesign of whole cities. Conflicts over landscapes and livelihoods are inevitable”Corner House

The case of the Kinangop wind project in central Kenya highlights the consequences of not addressing the concerns of local farmers and landowners. In 2016 the project was cancelled. This followed protests in 2015 which turned violent and in which the police shot one man dead and injured many others. Local people were worried about being displaced, and angry about mixed messages over compensation.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, where the government has ambitious targets to treble renewable energy capacity by 2018, there are several cases of land rights conflicts. This is especially the case in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico, where 21 wind farms are in operation. There are reports of a lack of adequate consultation, restricted access to farming lands and fisheries, and also of violent intimidation and death threats. The environmental impact has affected bird migration and disrupted fragile ecosystems. Local indigenous communities have signed contracts without knowing they were giving up their land rights, and have also seen their groundwater disrupted by cement foundations. Indigenous communities are angry that the energy generated by the wind turbines does not to go to the local communities; instead it is used by companies such as Coca-Cola, Walmart and Heineken, who have purchased it.

A previous conflict in the same area between local residents from San Dionisio del Mar and the Mareña Renovables consortium saw the cancellation of what was due to be the largest wind farm in Latin America. The community blocked all access for construction and the state responded by sending 500 troops, who used violence in an attempt to move them. Opposition leaders reportedly received death threats and the community claims that it was not told of the project’s potential environmental impacts. In response the state government announced the project would continue in other areas of the Tehuantepec Isthmus.

Other examples include conflicts over the large Ouarzazate solar project in Morocco, and a wind farm in Andhra Pradesh, India.

“If we allow the clean energy revolution to bypass the poor, we can expect increased social unrest, violence and refugee crises on a hotter, less stable planet” Meg Wilcox, Ceres

Ways forward: These conflicts highlight the need for governments and companies to adopt a conflict-sensitive approach to solar and wind energy. Conflict-sensitivity in renewable energy generation would mean, at a minimum, doing no harm by “guarding against increasing grievances and inequalities among groups and displacing poor and marginalised communities from land essential to their livelihoods” (NB/ companies might need a strong business case to do this). But clearly they should go beyond this to fully engage and compensate communities (e.g. carry out free, prior and informed consultation with indigenous communities) and establish dispute resolution and grievance mechanisms.

B&HRC renewable energy investor briefing coverThe Business & Human Rights Centre has detailed recommendations on what the private sector should do, including adhering to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. As their briefing points out, companies have the option to go beyond consultation and instead directly support community-based renewable energy. The Ixtepec wind project is a community-owned wind farm in Oaxaca, Mexico. The company involved, Yansa, did an environmental impact assessment and ensured minimal impact on agriculture. Half of the earnings from the wind farm, which sells energy back to the national grid at a fixed price, will be used by the local community to compensate land owners and fund community programmes.



3) How can solar and wind energy contribute to peace?

Even though so far I have highlighted some of the negative outcomes from deploying solar and wind energy, I strongly believe we need to shift as soon as possible to an energy system based on these renewable energies. The point of raising these difficult questions is that, given the huge amount of solar and wind infrastructure that would need to be installed to achieve the transition to a “greener” economy, it is crucial to engage with these complex issues now and to find ways to address them. As Shreya Mitra of International Alert argues, “Renewable energy is not just an environmental and climate change issue. It has implications for conflict and peace.” For the sake of clarity, I am not saying the aim is to prevent all conflict, since change only takes places when the status quo is challenged.  The aim is to prevent violence and to address core grievances. How could solar and wind play a positive role in building long-lasting peace? This is a really rich area to explore further but there is not much research or evidence yet on this. So for now here are a few comments.

Existing conflicts

Johan Galtung, one of the leading academics in the field of peace studies, has suggested there could be projects to build solar farms on the coastal borders between Israel and Gaza to share the Mediterranean sunshine for shared production of solar energy, part of which could be used to distil water which both sides could benefit from. The organisation EcoPeace Middle East is currently in the pre-feasibility stage of a Water-Energy Nexus project to create a “state of interdependence” between Israel, Palestine and Jordan. This is how it could work: “A combination of solar and wind energy will be harvested mainly in Jordan and to a lesser extent in the West Bank. The energy will then be transferred to desalination plants along the Mediterranean, including Gaza. The desalinated water will finally be transferred back to Jordan and the West Bank, creating a win-win situation and eliminating any possibility of political blackmail.” The Israeli solar entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz argues that a massive uptake of solar power in the West Bank would be “key to regional stability, Israeli-Palestinian relations and energy independence”.

While none of this might seem realistic at present in view of the deep-rooted tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, it offers a glimpse of how renewable energy could contribute to resolving conflict. As Galtung asks: “Where are positive ideas? Where are the ideas about how to convert the challenges, such as climate change, into cooperation for mutual and equal benefit?”. He argues that the urgency to deal with the threat of climate change could potentially “foster a sense of shared responsibility between all sectors and enable dialogue, coordination and cooperation”.

The Onion: Understanding different stakeholders positions, interests and needs to find common ground

The Onion conflict mapping tool: Understanding different stakeholders positions, interests and needs to find common ground

As the amount of solar and wind energy increases over the long term, is there potential for it to transform protracted conflicts? Energy access and reliable supply are a common interest across different groups as they are crucial to securing livelihoods. Solar and wind power, especially if they are combined with battery storage, have the potential to facilitate this through energy provision wherever it is needed (whether via a centralised grid or decentralised mini-grids) which can make possible:

  • Jobs: e.g. small businesses can also operate at night;
  • Water: e.g. power to pump water for irrigation and to bring water up from deep wells;
  • Health care:, e.g. refrigeration of medicines;
  • Communications and education: e.g. electricity for computers and mobile phones.

In these ways solar and wind energy could contribute to increased human security, food security and poverty reduction. Of course providing energy by itself will not comprehensively resolve all components of a complex conflict. But maybe if access to clean energy was seen as the common goal it could facilitate progress on other diametrically opposed positions in order to move a conflict from a zero-sum scenario to win-win outcomes? More analysis of renewable energy projects is needed to confirm whether solar and wind have this ability to transform conflict.


Sustaining peace is very difficult. For example, it involves reintegrating people and healing divisions. Approximately 1.1 billion people in the global South lack access to electricity. How could increasing access to clean energy build peace? Around forty different ethnic communities live in Eldoret town (320 km from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi), which has seen inter-ethnic violence, particularly following the 2007 elections, when an estimated 1,000 people died and another 300,000 were displaced. Not all the tensions have been resolved, but one project is using solar lamps to strengthen unity and reconciliation.

The common goal is reducing dependence on expensive and unhealthy kerosene fuel. Different ethnic groups are working together to generate resources to purchase more solar lamps that are having a number of positive impacts, ranging from reduced indoor air pollution (there is less of a need to burn firewood for cooking and lighting) to increased incomes (from savings on buying kerosene and charging mobile phones), which allow for higher spending on education.

Secure and dispossessed book cover

This book seeks to find answers to difficult and uncomfortable questions such as: Who really benefits and loses when “action” is taken to tackle climate change?

The Eldoret model has now been taken up by others throughout Kenya. What began with 14 families in 2013 is now the Solar for Peace Initiative, with around 900 families in 16 out of Kenya’s 47 counties participating in 2017. The initiative has now expanded to community tree planting, acquiring farm land and facilitating education opportunities for residents, all of which are aimed at strengthening relationships across ethnic groups. A key aspect for more projects like this to be successful will be listening to end users to ensure that the type of energy delivery model meets their needs and wants.

What is so interesting about the Solar for Peace Initiative (apart from the fact that it could be easily replicated in many other countries) is that it shows the importance of meeting the ‘other’. Often conflicts (especially violent ones) rely on the dehumanisation of a particular group based on ethnicity, religion and nationality. By coming into face to face contact with each other over the common need for clean energy the different ethnic communities in Eldoret have questioned the us and them dynamic.

Final thoughts

There is a pressing need for a more nuanced discussion based on exploring in more detail the links between conflict and solar and wind energy. At the very least, actors promoting solar and wind should do no harm (conflict-sensitivity). There is scope to look more at how solar and wind power can contribute addressing structural causes in order to build long-lasting peace. A key part of this will mean moving away from the goal of “energy security”, which has the potential to be used to justify the “expansion of renewable energy in a way that ignores concerns about human rights, democratic governance, or energy access”. Instead, the shift to renewable energy is an opportunity for a broader perspective, to “think about how we manage energy provision in ways which build and sustain peace and development”.

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