Social costs of energy systems

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Here you can see a scenario in the foothills of the Alps with a high number of w
Here you can see a scenario in the foothills of the Alps with a high number of wind turbines and a high number of ground-mounted PV systems. (Photomontage: Reto Spielhofer & Ulrike Wissen Hayek (2017)).
Developing wind and solar infrastructure in the landscape can be tricky and often associated with resistance to arise among the population. Thanks to a new study by the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL, in addition to the spatial and ecosystem-related costs, also social costs in form of people’s preferences can now be considered when siting for new solar and wind power plants.

Boris Salak, you have investigated which locations are suitable for renewable energies in Switzerland and which costs need to be taken into account. What did you find out?

Our study, conducted jointly with ETH Zurich and TU Wien, shows that different planning priorities entail different spatial, environmental and social costs. We have found that there is no one "right" planning priority, but that this is a process of balancing priorities. Optimizing for social aspects is a good compromise between the other two priorities. This optimization brings the lowest social costs, i.e. the highest acceptance, is spatially as effective as optimization according to energy efficiency but shows a significantly lower loss of ecosystem services.

What does this mean about the federal government’s current energy strategy?

The federal government’s energy strategy took a turn last year. Until now, it was inconceivable to place photovoltaic systems in the landscape in quantities relevant for an energy transition. Now the framework conditions have changed. To some extent, this was already predictable, which is why we have calculated the scenarios mentioned in this study both with and without ground-mounted systems. The potential for land consumption, as well as the relevant costs to ecosystem services and social aspects, are higher if the energy transition proceeds without ground-mounted systems, maintaining the priority of ’roof-first’ installations. However, this does not mean that all the required systems will be installed in open spaces. Two-thirds of the energy must continue to be generated with PV from buildings, around a quarter from ground-mounted systems, and the rest from wind turbines.

How did you investigate which locations the population prefers?

We conducted a representative survey throughout Switzerland. Participants were shown two scenarios. The pictures showed wind turbines, photovoltaic systems on roofs or in open spaces and high-voltage power lines. The respondents were then asked to decide which image they found most appealing or whether none of the energy scenarios shown appealed to them. These preferences show how well certain landscapes fit in with different energy systems. Together with information on ecosystem services and energy production, this social information is integrated into an optimization program. A comparison of all planning priorities shows that some places are nominated as the most suitable by all strategies. These locations are significant for the Swiss energy transition.

Which places are these?

The energy transition will primarily take place in the agricultural and urbanized areas of the Central Plateau from St. Gallen to Geneva, in the main urban Alpine valleys, such as the Rhone Valley, and in the Alpine landscapes characterized by tourist infrastructure, for example in ski resorts. Although these locations are sometimes associated with high costs from an ecosystem service and social perspective, they are so crucial for a successful energy transition that they cannot be adequately replaced. Our study also shows that there are locations for energy plants that have a high level of acceptance among the population, are spatially efficient and have the least possible impact on the environment. However, this requires a paradigm shift in planning and participation in the decision-making process. It is not just about finding technical optimal solutions, but also about understanding and integrating the ecosystem service and social dimension of the energy transition. This seems the only just way to achieve the target of 25 terawatt hours of renewable energy per year.

Researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL, ETH Zurich and TU Wien have developed an innovative approach for selecting sites for renewable energy installations (RES). First author Boris Salak (WSL/TU Wien) and his colleagues Felix Kienast and Marcel Hunziker (WSL) as well as Adrienne Grŕt-Regamey, Ulrike Wissen (ETH Zurich) and Reto Spielhofer (ETH Zurich/NINA Trondheim) are moving away from traditional methods that primarily take technical and economic factors into account.