Public acceptance: the energy sector's biggest headache

June 16, 2011 | 00:00

Public acceptance: the energy sector's biggest headache

Plus: a practical guide to winning public support for energy projects

These days no energy project can succeed without public backing. This holds true not only for nuclear, coal-fired and other power stations, but also for grid expansions, carbon capture and storage projects, shale gas developments, wind power schemes and even energy efficiency programmes, such as smart grids. Policymakers and energy companies may have the grandest of plans, a simple "no" from a local community can put all their efforts to naught. Sonja van Renssen, EER's correspondent in Brussels, discusses how the energy sector can overcome the biggest hurdle it is facing today - public acceptance.

At a conference earlier this year, I heard a story about the death penalty in the United States. Researchers had asked people in Texas about their views on this. After doing so, they provided them with lots of information, giving them the opportunity to ask questions, access independent experts, read relevant literature and above all, discuss. Did this cause people to change their mind? Well, it had been 50% in favour and 50% against at the start of the project, and it was 50% in favour, 50% against afterwards, the storyteller told me. But here’s the clincher: they were not the same 50%! Most people had indeed changed their mind.

This story was told to me at a conference on carbon capture and storage in Brussels, where it felt more than appropriate. Today energy projects of virtually every hue are running into public acceptance issues of some kind. ‘We’ve always talked about the energy trilemma of sustainability, security of supply, and competitiveness’, says Jesse Scott, energy and climate programme director at international research institute demosEUROPA. ‘But there is really a fourth pillar: social acceptance.’

For the energy sector the issue is crucial. The EU is mapping out a transition to a low-carbon future with secure, affordable energy supplies. This will require radical changes in how we produce and use energy. Making this happen depends crucially on bottom-up public support. Based on work by experts on this issue, we can distinguish five steps in the public acceptance process:

- One, there must be a strong political message.
- Two, there must be support from key civil society groups.
- Three, there must be clear and adequate communication and information.
- Four, there must be public engagement, before the decisions are taken.
- Five, there may need to be local compensation for any inconveniences or damage caused.

But that’s only the theory of course. In practice, processes are never as clear-cut as that. Ask the nuclear power sector.

King divider – nuclear power

Clearly the biggest divider of all – and the energy issue perhaps most similar emotionally to that of the death penalty – is nuclear power. The attempt by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to restart Italy on nuclear power after 20 years of abstinence failed dramatically on Monday 21st June, when no less than 57% of the Italian people showed up at the polls to vote 96% in favour of not embarking on a new nuclear programme. It was the first referendum in 16 years where enough people showed up (the minimum is 50%) for the vote to count. It was intended perhaps as a slap in the face for Berlusconi himself, yet the red light for nuclear was hard to ignore.

So what is the future for nuclear energy in Europe? The only thing that the well-known anti-nuclear expert Mycle Schneider and pro-nuclear industry body Foratom appear to agree on is that public acceptance of nuclear power really depends on what country you’re looking at. Apart from that, Scheider

'We've always talked about the energy trilemma of sustainability, security of supply, and competitiveness. But there is really a fourth pillar: social acceptance'
says nuclear was already on a downward trajectory before Fukushima. Even in France, he says, it was the subject of a ‘political party consensus, not public consensus’. Today even the former is broken. He ascribes the current willingness of the British and Polish governments to pursue nuclear power to ‘political positions’, not public support. ‘I bet all will change from the moment someone says I put a shovel in the ground here’, Schneider predicts.

Foratom, in contrast, says nuclear acceptance was on the rise in Europe before Fukushima. It sees a future for the industry, of course, and applauds the systematic, consultation-rich approach being taken by the UK and Poland to build public support. The industry wants to sell nuclear power as just another energy source that can fulfil a useful function as we set out to decarbonise by 2050.

But can it be that simple? Dr Anne Bergmans, a researcher at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Antwerp, describes nuclear waste as a ‘complex, technology-driven and unwanted by-product of a socially contested activity’. Urban planners, she says, call such waste a “wicked problem” – there is no straightforward technical fix, it cannot be solved in our lifetime, and both the problem and the solution depend on your viewpoint and political judgement, never mind continuing scientific uncertainty.

Nevertheless, despite the German and Italian debacles, the nuclear sector can take heart. Not all nuclear projects are doomed to failure. In Sweden, for example, two communities, Forsmark and Oskarshamn, have actually competed to host a long-term nuclear waste disposal site. How can this be? Well, there were benefits to be had: investments in local infrastructure, high-level employment opportunities and the prospect of turning the region into a nature reserve (as no building will be allowed on top of the repository). In addition, the authorities approached the process very thoroughly: it took 35 years of public engagement before Forsmark was selected as the winner! And even so, the losing side, Oskarshamn, will get considerable financial benefits – as compensation for taking part in the process.

Construction of the repository in Forsmark will start in 2015. It will store some 12,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel from roughly 2023 to 2070, according to Swedish nuclear waste management company SKB. Other European countries such as Belgium, Spain, and Finland, have studied the Swedish example and are starting to follow suit, says Ewoud Verhoef, deputy director of COVRA, the Dutch national nuclear waste management agency.

Bergmans says the whole energy community must shift from a “Decide, Announce, Defend” approach to an “Announce, Discuss, Decide” approach. And be transparent! 'There is a negative perception of geological disposal as justification for nuclear new-build', she suggests.

Making money

If it is possible to get communities to compete to store nuclear waste, then surely less controversial projects, such as in grid infrastructure, should be a piece of cake? Well, not exactly.

The European Commission estimates we need to spend €1 trillion on expanding, upgrading and strengthening Europe’s ageing electricity grid from now to 2020. In its influential ‘Roadmap to a low-

'Nuclear waste is a complex, technology-driven and unwanted by-product of a socially contested activity'
carbon 2050’, the European Climate Foundation (ECF) last year said a fully interconnected grid is key to decarbonising the EU electricity sector. One interconnector in particular is of exceptional importance, the ECF said: a giant 47 gigawatt connection between France and Spain is required, as Spain is expected to provide most of Europe’s solar and wind power.

But it has taken 20 years to agree on just a tiny interconnector between these two countries, thanks to a handful of local opponents in villages in the Pyrenees on either side of the border, who did not want their landscape spoiled. At long last today, the dispute appears to have been resolved, with a big chunk of the 100km-long connection now planned for underground, out of sight.

This does little to improve the overall picture however: the connector has doubled the capacity for electricity exchanges between Spain and France (read: the rest of Europe) from 2% to just 4%. At least 10% is needed for a supergrid to start emerging, says Ana Aguado, CEO of Friends of the Supergrid, a lobby group in Brussels that is promoting a pan-European electricity network. The solution moreover comes at a price: underground electricity transmission lines cost at least double and sometimes as much as five times those above ground.

‘It’s going to cost money’, says Aguado, ‘We have to tell citizens that too.’ According to Aguado, key to building public support for a European supergrid is political support. The message must be that Europe’s energy system is going to be transformed: it will no longer be business as usual. ‘We have to exploit what we have in Europe and what we have is renewables’, she says. ‘And we need this [grid] infrastructure to optimise their use.’

But history is not on the side of policymakers when it comes to selling the grid, says Antonella Battaglini, executive director of the Renewable Grid Initiative (RGI), a broad coalition advocating grid development. Before unbundling, the grid was owned by large utilities and the perception persists, she says, that it’s run by companies that are making lots of money and would love to build more infrastructure just to make more money. ‘Renewables today present an entirely new driver for grid expansion but this connection has never [yet] really been communicated’, laments Battaglini.

Highly controversial

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is another crucial technology in most of the roadmaps to a decarbonised future – and it is almost as controversial as nuclear power. A report for the EU has found that public opinion is a key success factor for CCS projects. The World Resources Institute (WRI) has carried out a comprehensive study into public engagement on CCS and found that such engagement is a key success factor for CCS projects.

'It’s going to cost money. We have to tell citizens that too' (illustration: part from a Shell advertisement)
According to the WRI, public acceptance of CCS depends on involvement and local context. The source of CO2 can play a role – will it come from a yet-to-be-built coal plant or is an existing plant being retrofitted? Policymakers, project developers and host communities must all be involved in a dialogue that captures the global and local dimension from the start. ‘It’s not about acceptance or opposition, it’s about engagement’, explains Sarah Forbes from the climate and energy program at the WRI.

Best of all, of course, is to end up in the situation of our two Swedish communities competing to store nuclear waste. This was, in fact, achieved in the US with the FutureGen CCS project. The WRI report lists ten such case studies, with an analysis of public engagement on each. There is no one size fits all formula, but there are lessons. A CCS project in Jamestown in the US for example was highly controversial because it was – like nuclear waste often is with nuclear plants – irrevocably tied up with the construction of a new coal-fired power plant alternatives to which had never been studied.

The failure of the planned CCS project in Barendrecht, the Netherlands, has yet to be fully analysed. The problem appeared to be information provision, not engagement, says the WRI. In other words, the old “Decide, Announce, Defend” rather than “Announce Discuss, Decide” approach was followed. There were concerns over devalued property, environmental pressures, no 100% safety guarantee and testing an unproven technology close to a heavily populated area. The situation was not helped by a much-resented March 2009 law that made it easier for the national government to overrule local decisions on projects of national interest – a useful lesson here for the European Commission in October, when it will propose an accelerated permitting procedure for grid infrastructure projects of European interest.

Other CCS projects, such as one in Otway, Australia, had strong local support from the start. Comprehensive impact assessments, a two-way consultation plan, and community liaison team all contributed, as did this particular town’s considerable oil and gas experience. Yet even here, the developers had to invoke the law to clear up some issues. The UK is regarded by many as a frontrunner when it comes to involving the public. In a simulation of the permitting procedure for a big CCS project like the one planned for Longannet, Scotland, the Scottish government found that several public consultations would be needed to secure the 50 or so different permits required to build it. It developed a regulatory toolkit based on the dry-run study.

Energy future

Nuclear power, grid expansions and CCS are no exceptions: all future energy developments will depend on public engagement for their success. Shale gas is yet another example. As a replacement for coal, it can help fight climate change and it can enhance security of supply, but it could also pose a serious threat to local water supplies. What will matter most to locals?

Even for energy efficiency projects, for which one would expect to get enthusiastic support from the public,

'It has taken 20 years to agree on just a tiny interconnector between France and Spain, thanks to a handful of local opponents in villages in the Pyrenees on either side of the border'
the situation is far from simple. Policymakers often simply assume that people will “play the game” of energy efficiency, embrace smart meters, and happily start reducing their energy consumption. But studies show there is a huge gap between theory and practice: are we really all going to become energy traders with our smart meters? There is a social dimension here that demands urgent attention.

As Europe embarks on its journey to a new energy future, the public acceptance question will loom ever larger. The public will need to be engaged, but as the Texas death penalty experiment showed, the outcome of such processes is far from certain. The alternative however, is certain failure. As another delegate at the same CCS conference said: ‘What have we got to lose?’


A practical guide to winning public support for energy projects

In speaking to experts and stakeholders about the public acceptance issue, EER has drawn some obvious and some not-so-obvious lessons for the energy sector. Here we present some of our conclusions.

1. NGO-support

NGOs play a vital intermediary role between policymakers and project developers on the one hand and local communities on the other, says Antonella Battaglini, executive director of the Renewable Grid Initiative (RGI). NGOs telling their local followers that this is a good idea ‘will help incredibly’.

Ecologists have generally opposed new infrastructure on the grounds that we should make better use of what we have and avoid disrupting natural habitats as far as possible. Climate and energy policy have increasingly come into conflict with nature protection policy. During Slovenia’s EU presidency in 2008, its economy minister said his country faced an impossible situation: it had to meet challenging renewable energy targets for 2020 but could not build any wind power farms because all the best sites were in protected areas.

But according to Battaglini the energy sector can take heart: green NGO’s are increasingly supportive of infrastructure projects, she says. ‘Up to recently, environmental NGOs opposed any infrastructure development. Now, most NGOs are ready to go public [with support for it], provided the environment is protected.’ For example, WWF is a member of RGI.

2. A sound regulatory framework

One of the keys to getting the support of environmental NGOs is a sound regulatory framework to assess the potential impacts of infrastructure development. The EU provides a legal framework through its 1997 environmental impact assessment (EIA) and 2001 strategic impact assessment (SEA) laws, which require impact assessments for projects and policies respectively.

According to Marc Pallemaerts from the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), this legal basis is not a bad instrument, but he does question the way it is implemented by many policymakers. ‘The problem is not with the legislative framework, the problem is with the creativity of policymakers and planners in making use of it’, he says.

Pallemaerts notes that ‘the scope of the 2001 directive is rather ill-defined’. This allows member states to interpret it in a minimalist fashion, in order to save time and money. He warns that this is a short-sighted policy. ‘A few years down the road, when planning, you will have problems’, says Pallemaerts. ‘You have not anticipated a whole range of interests affected.’

Battaglini of the RGI fears that the rules currently in place could be superseded by the Commission's regulation on an accelerated permitting procedure for grid infrastructure projects of European interest, which is expected in October. RGI is working on model guidelines it will publish in September and submit to the European Commission. Battaglini hopes they will be considered by the Commission as part of its proposals. ‘Our model will be the benchmark below which you should not go’, she says. ‘Otherwise you will lose the NGOs.’

More generally, the Commission is currently reviewing all of its environmental impact assessment legislation, but major changes are not expected. EU environment commissioner Janez Potoènik has insisted that the rules will not be weakened.

3. Local engagement

In Europe, infrastructure strategy may be set by Brussels and decisions come from national governments, but construction plans must generally get the go-ahead at local level and here they can run into serious problems.

Public acceptance is hugely tied up with local context and culture. There are some broad trends, such as that poor at-risk communities are less likely to protest than rich, secure communities who can afford to be picky, but on the whole local context is all-important. Canadian representatives from Alberta for example, rich in elsewhere controversial oil/tar sands, say the local population is keen on their development because there is a history of oil and gas activity in the region. An EU flag on a project may be helpful in Romania, less so in the UK.

For many energy projects, an elaborate public consultation is becoming part of the norm, but in other cases it remains complicated. Transmission system operators (TSOs) for example, are a profit-regulated sector – unlike electricity generation – and companies may not always be able to cover their costs if they pursue an elaborate, expensive public consultation.

4. Compensation

Compensation can be an essential part of getting a local community on board. In Spain, for example, says Ana Aguado, CEO of Friends of the Supergrid, landowners get say €1000 a month if they agree to host a wind turbine. For grid development too, compensation should be part of the total cost calculation, Aguado argues.

Compensation can take the form of investments in a local sports centre or library. Another, more innovative idea, is that instead of paying income tax where its headquarters are, a TSO pays tax to those communities its transmission lines cross. The government of the State of Brandenburg in Germany, for example has proposed that TSOs should pay around €40,000 per kilometre of new line to the surrounding communities, as compensation for disadvantages. The proposition has yet to be accepted.

A European Commission sponsored project called REShare investigated a whole range of benefit-sharing mechanisms that allow local citizens to take a stake in renewable energy projects. In Brandenburg, many inhabitants of the village Feldheim have shares in the company “energiequelle”, so nobody has something against the 47 wind turbines near the village run by this company, explains Steffen Streu, spokesman for the state’s ministry for economic and European affairs. Similar thinking underpinned a project nominated for a European Commission ManagEnergy award in Brussels this year: in the Hvidore Offshore Wind Turbine Cooperative project, a utility constructed an offshore turbine off the coast of Denmark in close collaboration with local citizens, who could buy shares in the project.

The REShare project also illustrates the limits of financial compensation: money can help offset the pain of a devalued house perhaps, but health issues for example are a different a kettle of fish, says Bart Budding from consultancy RebelGroup, which led the project. Experts agree that public acceptance is not a substitute for compensation, but they note that the reverse is also true: compensation is not a substitute for public acceptance.

4. Some practical steps

There are other practical steps policymakers and project developers can take to minimise the risk of public opposition to energy projects. We have already discussed one: situating transmission lines underground. Another, currently the subject of a European study, is to fit new energy infrastructure alongside existing infrastructure such as railway tracks, to minimise the impact on virgin areas. In Germany, Deutsche Bahn is the country’s biggest landowner, notes Jesse Scott, energy and climate programme director at international research institute demosEUROPA.

Transparency also makes a world of difference, says Battaglini of the RGI. Lots of people feel they are imposed upon with infrastructure projects. Information on why a new transmission line is needed and who will profit from it will have to be made available, she says. ‘Right now most of this information is available but not accessible.’

Meanwhile, Scott suggests the energy community could do with some external expertise from the world of urban and spatial planning. These are the people with experience of building infrastructure – roads, railways etcetera – that is often harshly divisive for a local community.


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