Knowledge-based Impact Assessment for Renewable Energy Transition

Canada has committed to an electricity system that is largely non-emitting by 2030. But energy transition can be slow. Meeting this target will thus require significant investment in renewable energy sources, including new generation and distribution infrastructure. This new infrastructure will involve environmental, social, and economic impacts that may be very different than the familiar impacts of fossil fuel-based energy projects.

Environmental impact assessment, or impact assessment (IA), is the primary instrument for identifying, assessing and finding ways to manage the impacts of energy projects. There is a history of IA research and application in the fossil fuel sector. The problem, however, is that very little is known about the impacts of renewable energy systems and whether the IA process provides the knowledge that communities, industry and governments need to plan for, invest in, and manage renewable energy transition. In response, the overall goal of this research is to strengthen the knowledge base for impact identification and management for renewable energy development, and provide a resource to support IA processes for renewable energy transition.

Our work is focused on wind energy -- Canada's fastest growing electricity sector -- but the project is broadly applicable to other renewable sources and technologies. Our objectives are to: i) identify the recurring impacts associated with wind energy projects, and the known strategies that reliably reduce adverse impacts; ii) determine the high-risk impacts of wind energy projects, for which significant uncertainties exist, that should be the focus of IA reviews; iii) establish the typical policy- or strategic-level issues raised when wind energy projects are proposed that need to be addressed prior to the IA process; iv) mobilize knowledge through the development of an open-access toolkit for the IA community to better plan for and manage wind energy projects; and v) advance the theoretical understanding of IA as an approach to energy transition management.

Our research approaches IA as a niche for innovative practice in facilitating energy transition, providing a novel theoretical framing for IA research. Methods will involve an analysis of wind energy project IA applications from across Canada to identify and classify impacts, management solutions, and enduring strategic- or policy concerns that can pose as barriers to renewable energy development. We will engage project proponents, IA practitioners, interveners, and government regulators in semi-structured interviews to identify project impact and policy solutions, and conduct a participatory workshop to discover how best to communicate impacts and impact management solutions to the IA community.

The results of our work are directly relevant to the renewable energy and IA communities, and valuable to those communities potentially impacted by renewable energy projects. An immediate product will be an open-access toolkit that allows users to identify typical impacts and determine appropriate and proven impact mitigation strategies drawing on knowledge and experience from across Canada's wind energy sector. Our guidance produced for governments on strategic issues that typically emerge during wind energy IA will allow provinces and communities to better plan, and prepare for energy transition prior to inviting project applications. As a longer-term contribution, this research will address a significant gap in the scholarly literature about the impacts of renewable energy, and the need for informed, knowledge-based approaches to impact management to support renewable energy transition.