As a non-polluting and clean resource, renewable energy is key to a sustainable future. But beyond its environmental impacts, renewable energy can also contribute to social development, inclusion, diversity, and equity around the world.

In 2015, the United Nations Member States adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere. To achieve goal number seven: ‘Access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy’, countries must increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. But this is not the only way in which renewable energy will contribute to a better, more inclusive future for humankind.

INCLUSIVE DEVELOPMENT

By now, it’s common knowledge that the energy transition – from fossil fuels to renewables – will have a strong positive impact on GDP. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency’s latest Global Renewables Outlook, transforming the energy system could add a massive US$98tn to the world’s GDP – or the equivalent of two times the combined market capitalization of the entire US stock market.

But GDP growth only captures the economic gains, and renewable energy brings a lot more to the table. The deployment of renewable energy helps to diversify a country’s skill base, boost its industrial growth and support broad developmental priorities – as well as fostering positive environmental and health outcomes thanks to lower emissions and reduced pressure on ecosystems.

A FAIR SHOT

Around the world, under-resourced communities bear the brunt of climate change and emissions. In the US for example, the majority of Black neighborhoods experience higher levels of air pollution from fossil fuel electricity than majority-white neighborhoods, according to research by the American Lung Association

In addition, low-income families spend about three times more of their income on energy costs than other households, with Black, Hispanic, multifamily, and renter households particularly impacted.

Cleaner, cheaper renewable energy can not only stabilize these families’ energy bills but also clean up the air they breathe, helping to close the gaps between the haves and the have-nots in our communities.

“Solar can provide long-term financial relief to families struggling with high and unpredictable energy costs, living-wage jobs in an industry where the workforce has increased 168% over the past seven years, and a source of clean, local energy sited in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by traditional power generation” – the Solar Energy Industries Association

The growth of renewable energy also provides an unprecedented opportunity to address the challenge of unemployment in low-income communities. A recent study by the Brookings Institution shows that not only is employment in low-carbon energy fields better-paid than average jobs, but that it’s also accessible to workers who haven’t attained a college education, with clean energy workers at the lower end of the income spectrum in the US earning US$5 to US$10 more per hour than they would in other jobs. 

There is a place for everyone in the renewables industry, although there’s still work to be done: as is the case in many skilled trades, the gender balance of workers in the sector still skews heavily toward men. At Atlas, we see this as an opportunity to broaden the labor pool in the long run. A few of the actions we’ve taken include insisting that there is at least one female candidate in every recruitment shortlist, while our People team (traditionally known as Human Resources) provides regional staff with training to recognize unconscious bias, focusing on gender distinction as well as focusing on improving benefits to facilitate female reintegration to work after motherhood, as well as parental co-responsibility.

Out in the field, we’ve also developed a Female Workforce Program that aims to improve local women’s access to employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. This vocational program aims to upskill hundreds of women from nearby communities into qualified positions, both in our own operational supply chains and within other industries in our area of influence.

BEYOND THE SOCIAL LICENSE

Renewable energy projects are often built in rural and remote locations, which means that as well as being clean and green, they also have the opportunity to be at the forefront of best practice human rights and social impact due diligence. Solid guidelines – like the IFC Performance Standards and the Equator Principles – already exist to assist renewable project developers in implementing best practice procedures for stakeholder engagement.

Renewables development paves the way for environmentally and socially responsible companies to shine. When developers work hand in hand with local communities to ensure renewable energy projects will be good neighbors, the multiplier effect is immense – and we saw this first hand at our Guajiro plant in Mexico. Instead of parachuting in with a generic corporate social responsibility program, we sat down with the local communities to understand their needs, and co-created plans that would provide a shared purpose for everyone’s benefit. For Guajiro, this meant prioritizing local suppliers for services needed during the construction, which created a circular economy effect, creating significant economic opportunities in the community. We also partnered with The Pale Blue Dot, a Mexican organization that promotes the use of technology in schools and community centers. The implementation of this program gave 699 students from nearby communities internet access and an educational platform, helping to reduce the educational gap and promote digital literacy. 

Gaining a social license to operate goes beyond getting the permissions to build reliable energy infrastructure. Making a positive impact on local partners gives a project legitimacy, credibility, and trust – which means that more and more communities will welcome the development of renewable sites, for the benefit of all.

A JUST AND FAIR ENERGY TRANSITION

The rise of renewable energy brings clear socio-economic benefits, from greater workforce diversity, social inclusion, and better community health outcomes, and an increasing number of stakeholders want to see this potential reached to its fullest extent. In recent years, we’ve seen how project financiers now look at community engagement and outcomes when considering funding a project, while large corporations entering into long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs) are keen to find developers who are in alignment with their diversity and inclusion values. 

We know that clean, renewable, sustainable energy is the future. As the energy transition gathers pace, we believe it’s time for the conversation to shift from a sole focus on economic and environmental aspects towards maximizing the social benefits that renewable energy can bring to bear.