Public engagement with, and acceptance of, energy transitions

Energy transitions underway in the UK, and many other countries around the world, have been fuelled by the need to address climate change and the sustainability of energy systems while maintaining affordable energy services. This implies significant changes in terms of how energy is produced, consumed and governed.

To better understand the technological and societal transformations required to achieve secure low-carbon energy systems, decision-makers often develop different energy scenarios using expert modelling and stakeholder input. However, public perspectives are seldom explored – even though they actually matter a great deal. Members of society can help shape energy transitions through their roles as consumers and producers of energy, voters and taxpayers, and as active adopters of and protesters against energy technologies. A greater understanding of public views on energy change could therefore improve dialogue, encourage more robust decision-making, and highlight potential points of contention. Understanding how people engage with the ideas embedded in energy-system change can also help further participation and improve communication as energy transitions take shape.

Public perspectives on energy-system change

Several projects carried out by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) used innovative qualitative and quantitative research methods and tools to engage diverse members of the public with the idea of energy transitions. All the research activities showed that the public wants and expects changes to how energy is supplied, used and governed, and is positive about the need for energy-system change. More specifically, the public demonstrated a strong commitment to improving energy efficiency and reducing energy demand through investments in renewable energy, a shift away from fossil fuels, and the development of technology and infrastructures to support lifestyle changes. These findings are in line with much other research examining people’s attitudes towards specific energy technologies and ways to reduce energy demand.

However, the research also finds that people’s positive attitudes towards the need for change do not automatically lead to acceptance of the many changes that might occur. The research shows that public acceptance is conditional upon a set of values – factors that people think are important when considering energy transitions and the processes through which they are delivered. These values include:

  • Efficiency and not being wasteful: A system that does not involve wastage and/or producing waste products, and that is efficient. A system that does not waste opportunities arising from energy-system change and capitalises on the resources and capacities of the UK (e.g. wind and tidal energy).
  • Environment and nature: A system that uses and produces energy in an environmentally conscious way (including addressing climate change) and does not unnecessarily interfere with, or harm, nature.
  • Security and stability: A system that ensures access to energy services in terms of both availability and affordability. A system that produces and delivers energy services reliably and safely.
  • Social justice and fairness: A system that is developed in ways which are mindful of the implications for people’s abilities to live healthy lives (including consideration of vulnerable groups and their access to energy services). A system that is fair and inclusive, and in which all actors are honest and transparent about their actions.
  • Autonomy and power: A system that is developed in ways that do not overly threaten autonomy, infringe freedoms or significantly compromise abilities to control personal aspects of life.
  • Process and change: A system that is developed with a focus on long -term trajectories rather than short-term solutions; one that takes into account system interconnections and interdependencies, and represents improvement in terms of both socio-technological advances and quality of life.

These interconnected set of values can help researchers and communicators understand how people make sense of complex topics, such as energy-system change, which include unfamiliar and uncertain aspects. People use the values above to anchor their understandings and make sense of new ideas and the changes associated with energy transitions. In that sense, the values indicate the concerns citizens bring to bear on a decision-making process about potential energy pathways.

The researchers therefore suggest that the acceptability of any particular aspect of an energy-system transformation will, in part, depend upon how well it fits into, or strives to be consistent with, this social value system. People want to see evidence that these values are being considered by those making decisions about potential future energy scenarios.

The importance of process

One thing that is clear from the research is that the public should be engaged not only in considering the outcomes of energy transitions (e.g. by being asked what technologies we should use) but also in considering the processes through which energy transitions are delivered. Treating people with respect and involving them in transparent decision-making processes is something that is likely to be especially important. A particular challenge, then, is the finding that members of the public deeply distrust many energy-system actors (e.g. energy companies and government) and do not believe that they will act in line with the values outlined above. The important implications this has for communication and engagement need to be carefully addressed if transitions towards secure low-carbon energy systems are to be achieved.

Burning questions

  • How do specific values play out and become important as particular aspects of energy transitions become a reality (e.g. smart meters and demand-side management, energy-storage technologies, electric cars etc.)?
  • How can communicators and decision-makers effectively engage people when they deeply distrust those who currently operate the energy system?
  • How can we better incorporate public values and perspectives in decision-making about energy futures?

By Dr Christina Demski, Cardiff University

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