First, there is an increasing number of conflicts accompanying the
accelerated dissemination of renewable energies. This is an indirect
result of government support for renewables, particularly in those countries (such as Germany) where feed-in tariffs guaranteed by the Renewable Energies Act are combined with technology-specific rates of digression, that is, year-by-year feed-in tariffs for newly installed wind turbines, solar panels, etc. decrease at a fixed rate. These tariffs can be regarded as incentives for producers and operators to minimize their costs and to maximize the energy efficiency of wind turbines, biogas power plants, and solar panels. In addition to several other possibilities, one way of reducing costs is to set up large-scale power generation, for instance by building huge wind farms or solar power plants consisting of hundreds (or thousands) of solar panels; however, the ongoing spread of large renewable power generation facilities may lead increasingly to problems relating to public acceptance or to other kinds of conflicts. The growing conflicts caused by large outdoor solar power plants and wind farms, as well as by planning applications for geothermal power plants and huge offshore wind farms (in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea) are a clear indicator of this (see Bakewell 2012, Byzio et al. 2005, Devine-Wright and Howes 2010, Snyder and Kaiser 2009, Vagiona and Karanikolas 2012).
One predominant type of conflict caused by renewable energies can be described as a local or regional clash of interests. This often occurs in the case of competing interests regarding the utilization of specific areas (onshore and offshore). One example of this is the competing interests of offshore wind farm operators and the coastal tourism industry (Byzio et al. 2005: 63—80). In this context, the notion that offshore wind farms are generally less controversial than onshore projects is also challenged by evidence that local people often attach symbolic meanings to coastal areas and feel closely identified by them (Devine-Wright and Howes 2010). In many other contexts, the classical contrast between different perceptions of pros and cons has also played a major role, which includes the role of aesthetics and visual impact, the scope of benefits expected in comparison to the risks, and the role of public involvement in the planning process (see Byzio and Mautz 2006, Haggett 2011, Jepson et al. 2012, Pasqualetti 2011). The location of wind turbines in close proximity to residential areas, for instance, is regarded as a source of serious health problems by some people — an accusation normally rejected by wind farm operators.
More generally, many people who live in the neighborhood of wind farms, biogas power plants, or large solar power plants fear a negative impact on their quality of life. In the case of wind turbines, for instance, people are afflicted by noise problems (including subsonic noise) or by visual disturbances (e. g. by the so called “disco-effect” caused by the rotating blades). In the case of biogas power generators, people who live nearby often feel disturbed by the offensive smell. And large-scale outdoor solar power plants provoke some critics to complain about the disfigurement of the rural landscape (see Mautz 2007). In the case of deep geothermal energy, the main adverse side effect appears to be what Paul Slovic (1987) once called “dread risk.” Due to an assumed lack of influence on decision making, fears about far-reaching consequences (including induced seismic activities) and a lack of clarity regarding the distribution of adverse effects and potential benefits, many people are wary about renewable energy sources from below the ground. In the case of deep geothermal drilling operations, the highly visible presence of a large drilling infrastructure along with a dependence on abstract expert knowledge can also easily lead to an erosion of trust.
In addition, the expansion of renewable energies has been a cause of conflicts within the ranks of the environmental movement itself (see Byzio etal. 2005: 108—65). The results of environmental research, the relevance of efficiency factors, evidence generated by risk assessments and the like are all subject to varying interpretations, and this has led different organizations and individuals to set different priorities. Wind turbines, solar panels, geothermal drilling operations, and biogas power plants are widely seen as technology and not as “nature” — they often intervene in nature by disturbing birds and other animals or by impacting negatively on landscapes and seascapes (see Eichhorn and Drechsler 2010, Krauss 2010, Nada’i and Labussiere 2010), causing environmental “costs” that have to be balanced with the ecological benefits renewable energies can provide (Dehnhardt and Petschow 2004, Meyerhoff and Petschow 1999). In the case of wind energy, the conflicts that have arisen around its use have led to a tightening of the legal requirements for wind energy sites. As a result, land for wind farms is increasingly becoming a scarce commodity and is fuelling existing debates about convenient locations and the replacement of existing wind turbine generators with more efficient equipment. Such improvement strategies, however, in turn generate more sustainability problems. Thus the expansion of renewable energies has led to conflicts within the environmental movement that generally follow the fault lines of two guiding principles, both of which play an important role in it. One guiding principle can be described as the ecological modernization of the energy sector, undertaken to protect the environment and the climate. The other guiding principle is conservation for the protection of biodiversity and endangered species.
These conflicts narrow the range of possible locations for renewable energy power plants, thereby exerting pressure on planners and operating companies. However, they are also an integral part of a learning process in society in which the opportunities and limitations of a socially acceptable expansion of renewable energies become apparent. Indeed, given that different individuals and organizations are involved in each particular case, it is highly unlikely that there can be any single, universal solution. Nonetheless, the experiences and learning processes of those concerned about the negative impacts of renewable energies can be expected to help shape broader opinions around the following questions: under what circumstances do people perceive living in the vicinity of these technical artifacts as problematic? Under what circumstances do they perceive it as unacceptable? What kind of solution should be applied in such a case? And which model of participation should be applied in order to ensure a fair process of consultation? To some degree, the viability and transferability of the solutions found (e. g. compromises that are accepted by all sides) will determine whether or not the development of renewable energies will be strongly supported by government policy and society in general in the future (Byzio et al. 2005, Byzio and Mautz 2006). With regard to conflicts within the environmental movement, the prospects of finding productive solutions are good, not least because of an increase in mediation efforts within environmental organizations and the lessons learned from conflicts that have been successfully resolved. However, the large environmental organizations are still faced with the difficult task of reconciling their members’ diverse preferences and guiding principles, and, depending on one’s point of view, this can be considered either as a necessary corrective or as a serious obstacle to the energy transition.