Written by Philip Boucher,
The STOA workshop ‘Responding to public opposition to low-carbon energy technologies’ gathered academic experts, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), regulators and grid operators to share their perspectives on managing public opposition to and support for low-carbon energy technologies. The event also served as the launch of a new STOA study, which examined a broad range of academic perspectives on the issue. Despite the diverse experiences of the speakers, there was a consensus on the need to translate broad public support for renewable energy into acceptance of the infrastructural developments that are needed to deliver it. The panellists also agreed that public responses are more nuanced than simple support or opposition, and that the key factors for fostering support for infrastructural development are trust, transparency, fairness and cooperation.
Workshop moderator Jens Geier (S&D, Germany) opened the meeting with a reference to the urgent need to decarbonise society, highlighting that support for a clean energy transition is found across Europe, even in areas with a strong mining tradition. Introducing STOA, Paul Rübig (EPP, Austria) explained the importance of gathering evidence and examining all options, taking account not only of technical possibilities, but also of wider social, economic and environmental issues, including how these issues are communicated.
The first panellist – Antonella Battaglini – represented the Renewables Grid Initiative, which brings European NGOs and grid operators together to enable transparent collaborative development of the energy system towards a renewable energy future. She argued that opposition to local projects need to be considered in the context of longer-term issues, such as the future that is desired for the next generations and the actions that are required to achieve it. Environmental NGOs and grid operators need to work together, because clean energy requires infrastructural development, which in turn requires widespread cooperation and support. Her concluding message was that the best strategy cannot come from any single actor, but must be developed through collaboration.
Sarah Mander from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Manchester, is the lead author of the STOA study on ‘Understanding public responses to low carbon technologies’. In her talk, she showed that there is widespread support across Europe for low-carbon energy, while there is often local opposition to projects that could help to deliver it. However, as outlined in the report, characterising such opposition as a selfish ‘not in my back yard’ attitude or as misinformed judgement of the technology is both inaccurate and ineffective. Instead, she argued, responses are on a continuum with many shades of opposition and support for many different reasons, including cultural, symbolic and procedural factors. Often, opposition to specific development is rooted in wider dissatisfaction about citizens’ representation and engagement in wider social, political or economic decision-making. To overcome these issues, she highlighted the role of a ‘social licence to operate’, which goes beyond legal permission to achieve tacit acceptance of local communities.
Representing the European Commission Directorate General for, Catharina Sikow-Magny argued that the need to transform our energy economy is an opportunity for innovation and job creation, but effective transformation will require careful management, with transparency and fairness described as key factors in the success of projects. This is why the European Commission’s ‘projects of common interest‘ (cross-border infrastructure developments to link the energy systems of EU Member States) engage communities continually and provide reliable information to citizens on the expected outcomes of projects. Her concluding message was that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, so strategies for managing acceptance need to reflect the individual circumstances.
The next two speakers represented the Irish and Belgian energy grid systems. Rosemary Steen noted that, in her experience as Director of External Affairs at EirGrid, people will support projects that are genuinely in the common interest. Following the trend of consumers increasing becoming ‘prosumers’, more actively involved in decisions about how their energy is delivered to them, she argued that continuous dialogue is the best way to ensure common interest. As Director of Public Acceptance of the Belgian grid operator, Elia, Ilse Tant shared her experience of working together with citizens, mayors and other key stakeholders to design the infrastructure needed to deliver low-carbon energy. She showed how this kind of deep dialogue and cooperation was a constructive means of fostering both understanding and acceptance of the need for energy infrastructure projects.
Following the panel presentations, several interesting questions from the audience were raised, in particular regarding how to rebuild trust in institutions when it is broken. In response, the panellists highlighted that energy transition is not only a motivation to foster public support for low-carbon energy technologies, but is also an opportunity to change the way decisions are made, which could help to rebuild trust in wider institutions.
If you missed out this time, you can access the presentations and watch the webstream of the workshop via the event page.