Public support in the energy transition

Last month, British oil and gas company BP announced their plan to reach 50 gigawatts of renewable energy in its portfolio by 2030. Their focus on renewables comes in a moment where “european oil firms are under pressure from activists, banks, investors and some governments to shift away from fossil fuels and are trying to find business models that offer higher margins than the mere production of renewable energy would generate.”, as the  World Economic Forum states.

A sustainable energy system requires the support -and pressure- of every sector and everyone, even citizens. In 2019, global climate strikes and opinion polls revealed rising public demand for a shift away from fossil fuels, according to the Renewables 2020 Global Status Report (GSR).

climate strikes

There’s a correlation between the extent to which renewables gain public support and are able to attract adequate private or public investment. Social acceptance affects directly on their deployment -or lack of-. Henner Busch, researcher on Sustainability Studies at Lund University and actual contributor to the Citizen Participation chapter of the second Renewables in Cities Global Status Report, reflects on BP’s announcement and the challenge of building trust with the community. He states that when it comes to big companies, such as BP, involving the citizens becomes essential for the success of the project.

Chiagozie Udeh, Global Focal Point of SDG7 Youth Constituency, explains it: “You need to be humble enough to know that you are dealing with people in the community and if people don´t accept what you are doing, it’s not going to work.” Consideration of the range of reactions related to the public response to renewables can help build support for these technologies and ultimately encourage broader inclusion and participation.

Public support beyond politics

Citizen participation does not solely rely on acceptance. As the GSR shows, in many parts of the world, communities have assumed more direct involvement in energy projects. In some cases, public ownership is considered to be an instrument for energy democratisation, because of the accountability that elected officials have towards citizens and their mandate to protect the public interest. In addition, the decision-making processes that are developed around community energy projects in many cases can be used also for non-energy projects resulting in strengthening local democracies.

 

However, a number of opportunities can also be seen outside the political sphere. Through public ownership, citizens become more aware of the co-benefits associated with the deployment of renewable energy projects. Rather than simply putting more renewables energy into the system, Teis Hansen, another Renewables in Cities contributor, explains that renewable energy project engages also with other aspects of the life of each individual within the community called co-benefits.

What are the co-benefits of public support?

According to Busch and Hansen, they are the benefits that are hidden, such as local development. Starting to produce energy locally means that jobs are being created and it enable a sense of community. Since people need to come together in order to make decisions, they can strengthen their relationship with their neighbors.

As for the citizen itself, there’s also a number of co-benefits that would change their routine, notes Busch. “If you are part of a community project and engaged, that might also mean that in other environmental-related parts of your life you are more conscious”, he says. However, the expert highlighted local pride as an important aspect that gives the community a sense of identity from accomplishing a project. “This is something that you experience when you talk to people who are engaged in these projects.”

What needs to be done to increase both citizen participation and energy uptake?

Asma Rouabhia, Regional Focal Point of SDG7 Youth Constituency, suggests that one way would be to integrate renewable energy into the educational system as is currently being done with sustainable development. In many countries, the integration stars from the primary-level because “It´s important to educate citizens from a young age” since it´s a “job for everyone to be engaged in the energy transition, all stake-holders not only government and industries”.

On the other hand, Beniamin Strzelecki, Global Focal Point of SDG7 Youth Constituency, states that by providing citizens with the necessary information they become more aware of what are the real costs of different energy sources and fossil fuels´ consequences on the environment. With examples around the world, awareness campaigns also aim to encourage changes in energy use and “climate-friendly” behaviour, as the GSR demonstrates.

Strzelecki states that learning about the components of energy pricing such as to costs of fossil fuels, lack of level playing field and also what do the alternatives offer would really go a long way in changing people´s perception. Especially it would contribute to citizens understanding what would serve them best, both financially and socially and environmentally.

Overall, approaches to greater public engagement in energy systems such as the ones proposed can increase social acceptance and can lead to more equitable socio-economic outcomes.