Energy Justice from the Bottom Up: A Capability Approach to Community Acceptance of Wind Energy in Southern Mexico

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Velasco Herrejon, Paola  ORCID logo

Adopting ambitious renewable energy targets has profound social, economic, and environmental implications, at local and global scales. Indeed, these targets have raised deep questions about social justice in capitalist societies attempting to pursue clean energy transitions. To understand how these transitions occur, we must understand dynamics of community acceptance that are linked to the politics of local approval of siting Renewable Energy Technologies (RETs). As a result, it is vital to identify links to justice as an important explanatory factor affecting community acceptance of RETs. Wind energy offers an emblematic case of these dynamics, highlighting the tensions between the technical and the social. At a technical level, the efficiency of wind energy technologies has rapidly improved, becoming a relatively cheap renewable resource central to many energy transition and climate change mitigation strategies. Nonetheless, despite widespread public support for wind energy, low success rates in planning applications are threatening the expansion of wind energy production. This is because wind farm developments often face strong social opposition. While this puzzle has been studied in high-income settings, there is little work that adequately explains the sources of this resistance in developing countries. This research thus explores the factors affecting whether and how communities accept wind energy developments in Southern Mexico. It does so by drawing together three lenses: the energy justice framework, the capability approach, and power analysis. These lenses help examine how shifting actions and power relations maintain or transform conflicts around RETs in developing contexts. This study looks at the case of wind energy siting in three Indigenous communities neighbouring wind installations in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca state, Mexico. The three localities offer a valuable comparison, as they have low, medium, and high levels of wind farm community acceptance. The study draws on fieldwork conducted between September 2017 and June 2018, primarily consisting of 103 semi-structured interviews and a medium-size questionnaire-based survey (N= 382). Operationalising the capabilities approach, this data helps understand local perceptions and concerns regarding capabilities and wellbeing, and links this to three elements of energy justice: distribution, recognition and procedures. Two intertwined findings emerge from this research in the case of wind energy in Southern Mexico, with broader significance. Firstly, just energy transitions require recognition of locally-valued forms of justice. Energy infrastructure siting processes and outcomes must incorporate these understandings of well-being. Secondly, it is essential to understand the power relations in renewable energy processes. Community acceptance entails bundles of changing actions and positions, shaped by internal power relations and those between communities, the state, and wind energy developers. Importantly, these power dynamics can create barriers to expanding valuable capabilities for some stakeholders, thereby reducing the social acceptance of wind energy, and diminishing the possibility for a just energy transition. Together, these findings contribute to Latin American case studies on social dynamics around wind energy, which has significant implications for theorising about energy justice and sustainability pathways from the Global South. This study offers a bottom-up perspective to just transitions by emphasising the capabilities that local people have reason to value, in the context of power dynamics between developers, governments and communities.

Denyer Willis, Graham
Ibrahim, Solava
Pérez Niño, Helena
Comim, Flavio
Capability Approach, Wind Energy, Energy Justice, Power Analysis, Mexico, Indigenous Communities
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (the National Council of Science and Technology) CONACYT