Engineers and Social Acceptance of Renewable Energy

By on December 16th, 2017 in Editorial & Opinion, Environment, Magazine Articles, Societal Impact

Reducing carbon emissions does not necessarily make renewable energy (RE) socially acceptable. All energy technologies involve environmental costs and risks to public health. For example solar and wind technologies — which are the main focus of this piece — have environmental and health impacts such as land and materials use, biodiversity, wind blade recycling, and also may face community opposition. The notion that RE might empower individuals and enable environmental sustainability, but that it can also generate durable contention, becomes apparent in the size and design of projects themselves.

Indeed, unmet local concerns may entail costly project delays or cancellation. Thus strong political and financial incentives encourage state authorities and RE developers to address issues of social acceptance. For example, in response to a sharp decline in wind project approvals in the U.K. — from 70% in 2008 to 35% in 2012 — the British government took drastic measures to ensure that local concerns were seamlessly incorporated into the RE planning process. Correspondingly, intense public concerns are being expressed with regard to siting large solar and wind facilities in the southwestern United States.

Attempts by political authorities to realize RE projects despite low social acceptance (e.g., through speeding the permitting process) may only increase — not mitigate—community opposition. At another level, some proponents of solar and wind technologies believe that the roots of public support for RE versus resistance by individuals or local groups to such projects is explained by people endorsing RE only as long as facilities are not located “in their backyard.” Thus, perceived “Not in My Backyard,” attitudes or NIMBYism, can provide a rationale for not seriously considering social acceptance questions such as the role that communities should play in determining RE project scales, landscape-technology compatibility, and mitigation plans. Design frameworks for RE projects premised on community participation and community ownership may offer an alternative to both NIMBYism and fast-track permitting.

Historical Background

Renewable energy companies have learned the hard way that it is essential to consider social acceptance in wind and solar project design and construction. The early 1990s witnessed a large number of government funded, top-down implemented, wind projects in the U.K. that encountered significant pushback both from communities and from local governments. Meanwhile, local planning offices lacked experience entirely with siting wind generators, and opposition groups gained significant momentum. Many of the aspects that are currently considered part and parcel of community engagement in RE practice — notably participatory design methods — were in fact the criteria that determined whether a facility would make it through or not.

By the late 1990s, the National Wind Coordinating Committee (NWCC) in the U.S. had begun documenting the, purportedly empowering, procedures through which RE companies sought to structure wind project development in the U.S.. The NWCC argued that local community involvement was, by design, an essential constituent of engineering RE projects. Although there was no one clear approach to engage the public in wind siting, the industry’s imperative was to forge and sustain a participatory structure involving engineers and permitting agencies.

Throughout the wind industry’s later years, the precepts for a more fair and inclusive permitting framework were embraced by professional organizations, national governments, and project developers alike. This framework was to be integrated with academic research that verified the critical nature of early local involvement for successfully introducing RE engineering projects. For example, in early 2011, the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA) released its Best Practices for Community Engagement and Public Consultation, in order to bolster developers’ efforts in improving their work with local communities. In the same year, Australia’s Clean Energy Council created a new position for a Community Engagement Manager in collaboration with the national wind energy industry to address activism in opposition to rural wind facilities.

And a year later, in 2012, the British Department of Energy and Climate Change invited RE companies, utilities, and other organizations to examine how the question of community engagement is dealt with in the U.K. and elsewhere. In the U.S., National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) scientists reporting on behalf of the International Energy Agency (IEA-Wind) further contend — drawing on domestic case studies and academic literature — that efforts to engage communities in wind project development are shaped equally by responding to the political struggle between federal/state policy and local permitting tradition, and by addressing perceived notions of trust and procedural injustice. Furthermore, issues of social acceptance have recently presented the RE industry with a market opportunity. For instance, under the banner of community engagement, U.S. RE companies have created business models through which they are able to spread the economic benefits of wind facilities more widely — including not only to landowners that maintain generators on their properties, but also to the local communities at large.

Future of Social Acceptance of RE: Beyond NIMBYism

The early years of RE project development indicate that solar and wind technologies are highly complex systems with interrelated technical, socio-political, and economic dimensions. In this vein, pioneering studies by academics and industry/policy experts on local opposition to RE projects offer a critical general background. Recent research examines RE project development from the perspective of theories of distributive and procedural fairness — and suggests a starting point for exploring RE as it pertains to social acceptance.

Attempts by political authorities to realize RE projects despite low social acceptance (e.g., by speeding the permitting process) may only increase Ñ not mitigateÑcommunity opposition.

Two British-based academic projects (“Beyond Nimbyism,” and “Community Energy Initiatives”) and the resulting literature have carved out a new area of research that is germane to the nexus between RE and social acceptance. In 2007, Energy Policy devoted an entire issue to the social acceptance of renewable energy innovation. Moreover, the first published work, which investigates RE project development through the lens of social justice theory, is an article written by the Australian scholar Catherine Gross. Publications such as Gross’ article or the works which are coming out of the “Beyond Nimbyism” project reflect the particular RE policy climate in the authors’ countries of origin, as well as a constellation of policy and NGO-related initiatives taking place in the U.K. and Australia since the late nineteen-nineties.

Trust between the community and the RE project’s developer(s) is fundamentally important.

The recent literature’s premises can be summarized as follows: a) Community opposition to the construction of RE facilities has been proportional to the size of solar and wind projects and inversely proportional to the degree of community involvement in planning, permitting, and planning the facilities; b) Most RE developers believe that project opponents are NIMBYs, and that the ideal decision-making process should be kept unemotional and objective. NIMBYism, however, which is often considered the main obstacle to RE growth, does not capture the emotion, site-specific concerns, or multidimensionality of RE project opposition and social acceptance. c) Trust between the community and the RE project’s developer(s) — often associated by scholars with perceived fairness — is fundamentally important. d) The vision of RE community ownership is shown to have diverse social and economic potential in wind but also in solar energy. Businesses and communities could benefit from project ownership and become energy producers; they could also become consumers involved in defining the trajectory of the post-carbon energy system. The distribution of economic and social benefits would mirror the distribution of project ownership.

For international RE industry trade organizations, planning agencies, government entities, academic researchers, and rural communities, the notion of community engagement has been a platform for exploring — but also challenging — the social acceptance dimensions of RE permitting and siting procedures. Primarily, an organic framework of community engagement presupposes the ability of localities affected by technology decision-making to engage in defining such decisions. Secondly, it conceptualizes fairness in cognitive terms. Therefore a fifth premise may be considered that e) Community participation dictates that — besides ensuring fair participation in project dispute settlement — uncertain data quantity and quality must be considered proactively. To that effect, a potential design framework that integrates social acceptance in RE projects may advance the role of engineering experts in accessing knowledge by means of community-based methodologies.