Integrating Planning Theory with Energy Planning in Developing Rural Areas: A Critical Assessment of the Energy Intervention Programs in Rural Hainan, China
Energy intervention programs have gained prominence in governmental policies and development agendas as a prevailing practice of improving rural livelihoods and protecting local environment and resources in developing rural areas since early 1970s. In spite of the increasing evidences of small-scale renewable energy systems being advantageous over traditional ones towards rural sustainability, the introduction and diffusion of the new energy systems in many developing rural areas has suffered program ineffectiveness in terms of slow construction, limited utilization, and high risks of being idled or abandoned by the adopters. While there are substantial studies documenting the challenges of rural energy planning, few scholars have devoted to the processes and efficacy of the planning practice. Literature has obvious gaps between planning theory and rural energy planning practice as no prior academic efforts were uncovered to use planning theory to examine the rural energy planning practice and to provide directions to future practice. Meanwhile, literature suggests that the integration of efficacy-oriented and context-dependent principles of planning theory into the energy planning processes can contribute to the effectiveness of rural energy intervention programs. Vital to the integration is the conduct of a study that critically assesses the rural energy planning processes against the insights drawn from planning theory and then provides policy implications for bridging the gaps between theory and practice. A review of literature on energy, planning, and community development in relation to sustainability led to an evaluative framework containing 24 criteria which were aggregated into six groups of principles, i.e., equity, flexibility, efficiency, participation, continuity and reflectivity. The principles were coupled respectively focusing on the operationalization, implementation, and monitoring processes of rural energy planning. Employing a primary case study design, the researcher conducted the field study in southern China’s Hainan province to examine whether the aggregated criteria were upheld and performed in local practices. In the field research, the author collected relative information and data through interviews, surveys, secondary sources, and direct observation. The data were analyzed in a mix of inter-related qualitative and quantitative methods. Where possible, the author used triangulation to limit individual and methodological biases. Hainan’s rural energy intervention programs of introducing and diffusion renewable energy systems such as anaerobic digesters and solar heaters in developing rural areas were significant contents of the provincial eco-village program and eco-province strategy. Although the energy programs had satisfactory effectiveness sporadically in a few villages, the majority of the programs suffered from problems like slow construction, limited utilization, and high risks of being idled or abandoned by the adopters. A number of challenges were recognized and mentioned by the administrative interviewees, including financial, technical, social, cultural, institutional and other constraints that support and conform to the discussions in literature. The study advances the understandings by identifying the gaps between planning theory and local rural energy planning practice in Hainan. Specifically, the equity principle was recognized but not totally fulfilled; the flexibility principle remained contentious and singularly executed; the efficiency principle was accepted but performed without enough scrutiny; the participation principle was emphasized but challenging; the continuity principle was aware of but not compulsorily executed; and the reflectivity principle was vague and overlooked. The author further analyzes that there will be barriers at the micro, meso, and macro levels to impede the integration of planning theory into rural energy planning practice. Extending the findings to a broader discussion on planning for development projects in developing rural areas, the author highlights a number of external and internal problems that harm the program effectiveness and calls for immediate and meaningful attention to ensuring program effectiveness. Several suggestions are provided for policy reconsideration and reorientation.
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