All that is solid melts into air
: exploring alternative approaches to wind rights drawing on lessons from the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands

  • Robert Wade

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The harvesting of renewable energy resource flows such as wind, solar and geothermal energy to fuel the low-carbon transition raises questions about how these resources are managed and controlled, and how benefits are distributed. The dispersed and seemingly abundant materiality of these resources suggests that more decentralised and/or democratised forms of ownership might be possible. Yet, most discussions of ownership and control in the energy transition focus on the technologies used to harvest or transport this energy and not the resources themselves. For example, ‘community energy’ usually refers to local ownership of wind turbines/solar panels and the electricity generated by them. Instead, this thesis adopts a resource-based lens to ask how the renewable resource flows which are harvested by these technologies are owned and controlled – with particular attention to wind resources. It is comprised of three main parts:

Part I develops the notion of ‘wind rights’ to identify and unpack the roles of various actors who have rights or claims to use and benefit from wind resources. By reviewing and expanding the (predominantly legal) literature on wind rights, this research highlights that, in many instances, wind resources are de facto privatised/enclosed via ‘proxy wind rights’ for landowners. Adopting a Marxist rent theory perspective, it is argued that landowners are enclosing the ‘windy commons’ on a massive scale to extract ‘wind rents’ from monopoly wind rights. This has profound (but undertheorised) distributive and structural ramifications for energy transitions.

Part II combines these high-level insights from Marxist rent theory with Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework to investigate the operation of proxy wind rights for landowners in the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands. Drawing on semi-structured interviews and quantitative analysis of landownership data, this thesis traces the processes, practices and interactions in these proxy wind rights regimes and retroduces six outcomes stemming from them. It is found that, in both cases, proxy wind rights contribute to distributive injustices; procedural injustices; symbolic disconnect from the energy transition and place disattachment; irrational spatial coordination of wind energy production; hostile conditions for more citizen-led energy initiatives; and insufficient support for the energy transition. All of this is underpinned by a power imbalance based on property relations.

Finally, Part III builds on this analysis to consider the potential long-term benefits of alternative, socially orientated property rights arrangements, including community wind rights or nationalisation of the wind resource. By fundamentally shifting the balance of power in energy transition dynamics, these social wind rights arrangements could play a key role in securing a more rational, just and widely supported decarbonisation pathway.

Date of AwardDec 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsEC/Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions
SupervisorJohn Barry (Supervisor) & Geraint Ellis (Supervisor)


  • Landownership
  • rent
  • wind rights
  • commons
  • energy transition
  • political economy

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