Energy transition is increasingly regarded as a promising opportunity for the economic development of rural areas. This possibility is associated with the siting and (co-)ownership of decentralized (small-scale) renewable energy facilities. The underlying productive link, however, has been taken for granted, rather than conceptually and practically cultivated. Thus, while renewable energy-based rural development has been stated as a desired by-product of energy transitions, its potential has remained largely unfulfilled. This review aims to illuminate the ambiguous interplay between renewable energy and rural development in the context of the current trajectories of the energy transition. In doing so, we first examine different ways renewable energy may contribute to rural development and explore how the synergetic conflation of renewable energy and rural development has played out in Denmark and Scotland, as two countries that have forged ahead with renewable energy in rural areas. Second, we draw on the different experiences in the two countries to critically discuss policy-related mismatches that hamper a more efficient contribution of renewable energy to rural development, and sketch out some thoughts about the need to bring rural matters and rural communities into the discussion if the synergies between energy transition and rural development are to be taken seriously.
In recent years, rural areas have become significant battlegrounds for the implementation of energy transitions. Not only are they meaningful as the location for the siting of renewable energy (RE) facilities, but they also hold a great potential for the creation of significant synergies for sustainable rural development (RD) (e.g. Benedek et al., 2018). Hence, at the overall policy level, the development of RE has received explicit acknowledgement as a promising means for advancing RD and supporting rural economies (OECD, 2012; ECA, 2018; IEA-RETH, 2016). In particular, the EU policy framework for RE has stated the desire to foster RD through the designation of specific funding programs (ECA, 2018) and focus areas (ENRD, 2014). Policy documents identify potentially positive impacts of RE on RD; the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and its recast RED II include references to the opportunities renewables may have for employment and regional development, “especially in rural and isolated areas” (ECA, 2018, 18). Similarly, several evaluations and supranational policy briefs indicate that RE projects can be developed in a way that benefits local interests and sustainable RD (IEA-RETH, 2016; OECD, 2012; Nordregio, 2017). In order to maximize the economic benefits of RE deployment for rural areas, the evaluations generally underline the need for an approach to RD that is well adapted to local conditions and focuses on the competitiveness of rural areas. However, while policy strategy papers claim and envision positive effects of RE-based rural development, it is less clear as to how these are reasoned and realized, and how they relate to the current politicaleconomic conditions of the energy transition. An overall finding from international evaluations suggests that most countries have not developed strategies for linking RD and RE (OECD, 2012; Pedroli and Langeveld, 2011; EESC, 2016; ECA, 2018). An EU audit straightforwardly concluded that synergies between RE policy and sustainable RD remain mostly unrealized (ECA, 2018). Similarly, other studies raised the observation that RE does not automatically translate into RD (Pedroli and Langeveld, 2011; OECD, 2012, 3; IEA-RETD, 2016; Taylor, 2019). For example, an OECD report concludes that the productive linkage of RE production and RD in terms of economic development, job creation, human capital, infrastructure, and rural empowerment cannot easily be taken for granted and instead requires a complex and flexible policy framework, a long-term strategy, and a realistic appreciation of the potential gains from RE deployment (OECD, 2012).