Cecilia Cassidy
Climate & Energy
Climate Change
Maria Petrova
Spring 2024

Revisited: Harnessing the Power of Community Benefit Agreements for Net Zero Targets

By Maria A. Petrova, Program Co-Director of the Masters of Science in Environment and Sustainability Management, Georgetown University

For our one-year anniversary issue, this piece is part of a series revisiting past contributors to Common Home. In our fourth issue, Petrova offered seven reasons to learn about energy, with corresponding policy and individual action items. In this piece, Petrova argues for the importance of Community Benefit Agreements (CBAs) in fostering collaboration between renewable energy developers and local communities.

Dr. Maria Petrova is the Academic Co-Director of the Masters of Science in Environment and Sustainability Management program at Georgetown University. She also serves as the Associate Director of the Earth Commons and teaches as a Professor of Environmental Science, Sustainability and Energy Policy. Prior to Georgetown, Petrova directed the Coasts and Communities program at the University of Massachusetts Boston, an interdisciplinary offering for PhD and Master’s students.

For the online version: You can find Petrova’s past contributions here

Illustration of windmills and otters in a big ocean with CBA written on top. Design by Cecilia Cassidy.

The importance of transitioning to net-zero emissions in order to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and comply with the Paris Agreement is well-established

Nevertheless, the warning signs of irreversible climate change have been quickly emerging. In May 2022 the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded a key milestone of 421 parts per million, which is more than 50% higher than pre-industrial levels. The urgency of the climate situation has been further communicated in numerous reports, with one from the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) noting that global temperatures could reach 2.8 degrees Celsius by 2100. 

Phasing out traditional energy sources (coal, oil and gas), increasing renewable energy capacity and improving energy efficiency have all been identified as potential solutions. However, each must be scaled up quickly in this decade to keep the option of limiting warming to the Paris standard of 1.5 degrees Celsius open. 

Recognizing its role as one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world, the United States has set a goal of achieving 100% clean electricity by 2035. This is a crucial foundation to allow for complete decarbonization by 2050. To meet this goal, the Biden Administration has enacted several cornerstone bills which constitute the largest investment in energy in U.S. history. 

Despite these bold actions, renewable energy developers are still met with opposition in local communities. We often hear that there is support for solar, but it’s not such a “simple story” — that is, many projects are delayed or blocked due to local opposition. 

As a result, Community Benefit Agreements (CBAs) are valuable tools for fostering collaboration between renewable energy project developers and local communities, thus helping accelerate the transition to a carbon-neutral future. 

CBAs are voluntary agreements, negotiated between developers, community-based organizations and other stakeholders, regarding proposed projects. Their purpose is to ensure that community priorities are reflected in project development and implementation and that the project benefits are extended to the host community. 

Furthermore, CBAs have been known to increase project support by fostering a sense of ownership and responsibility among community members and engendering trust between the community and the developer. When communities are involved in the decision-making process, they gain a voice and agency in shaping their energy future. 

For many years, CBAs have been utilized successfully in different countries with different technologies. In Denmark — where wind and solar supply — wind cooperatives have harnessed community involvement at a high degree. 

For example, as a result of local input, the Middelgrunden Windmill Cooperative arranged 20 wind turbines in a graceful curve that adorns Copenhagen’s coast, serving as a symbol of Denmark’s community-centered approach to renewables. Consequently, the project has enjoyed remarkable popular support since its inception in 1993. Over 50,000 residents took part in the project planning, helping to shape the logistics. Residents were also invited to buy shares in the cooperative; thus, via purchases by 8,500 Danish citizens, 23 million euros were raised, totaling half of the project’s cost. The shareholders became equal partners in the new wind farm and today, earn a 50% share of the revenue.  

“We have all the money back and you get about seven percent every year,” said Hans Christian Sørensen, who sits on the cooperative’s board. “People are quite satisfied with this because it is much better than having it in a bank, and at the same time, you are doing something positive for the environment.” 

Thanks to the success of the project, the Danish government has mandated a 20% minimum community ownership in all new wind farms since 2011.

In addition, CBAs provide social and environmental benefits. They also have the potential to generate employment opportunities and stimulate economic growth within communities as they transition to a net zero economy. In some cases, CBAs can even require developers to prioritize local hiring during project construction, maintenance and administration; provide job training programs; and support the growth of green industries. 

An exemplary case is the Block Island Wind Farm, the first U.S. offshore wind project located 3.8 miles off the coast of Rhode Island. The project, which began operations in 2016, marked a significant milestone in the U.S. offshore wind industry and has demonstrated the effectiveness of CBAs. 

The developer, Deepwater Wind, negotiated with local stakeholders, committing to a CBA that includes substantial community investments and employed close to 300 workers during project construction. This resulted in increased employment opportunities, support for local businesses and infrastructure improvements.

Moreover, CBAs can be instrumental in addressing environmental justice concerns. Historically, marginalized communities have borne a disproportionate burden of pollution and environmental degradation. CBAs provide a framework to rectify these disparities by ensuring that environmental and social benefits are distributed equitably. To better reflect the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) commitment to equity-centered climate solutions, DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm announced a name change for one of its offices — the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity was rebranded the Office Of Energy Justice and Equity on October 31, 2023.

Finally, CBAs can include provisions that support educational programs, workshops and campaigns aimed at raising awareness about climate change, energy conservation and sustainable practices. By fostering a culture of environmental responsibility and equipping community members with knowledge and tools, CBAs empower individuals to make informed choices and actively contribute to reaching net zero targets.

climate change
Community Benefit Agreements
Renewable Energy