Social Acceptance of Renewable Energy
Stakeholder management and building alliances
When navigating local energy conflicts it is crucial to know and understand the landscape of actors affected by the conflict. Stakeholder analysis and management offer useful tools to understand and classify the stakeholders and to act appropriately.
One of the most basic and therefore most used stakeholder mapping techniques is the power vs. interest grid. Due to its general character it has found wide application also in strategic planning for the public sector or non-profit organisations. It is a grid in which the y axis measures the interest of the stakeholders in the issue at hand. Interest here is meant as interest in a “political sense” and not in terms of curiosity or inquisitiveness. The x axis measures the stakeholders’ ability to affect the issue at hand. From this analysis four categories of stakeholders emerge and each group should be dealt with differently. However, the power vs. interest grid is only a heuristic tool and should therefore be only used as such. Local contexts tend to be more complex than a two dimensional grid could show.
Image: Peter Ulrich, ICLEI Europe
Stakeholder groups in local energy conflicts
Examples of different groups of stakeholders in a local energy conflict could include any of the actors mentioned below. This list however, is not exhaustive and can merely serve as a starting point for a stakeholder analysis in a specific context.
- energy market actors (RES developers, established energy suppliers, industry, consumer associations, investors, etc.)
- politics and administration (national government: ministries, regulatory bodies, etc./ regional government: spatial planning, economic development agencies, etc./ local government: spatial planning, economic development, public utilities, etc.)
- related stakeholder groups (environmental associations, agricultural actors, etc.)
- wider public (electorate, social or geographical communities, etc.)
Visionaries and dreamers
Having outspoken support by role models and leaders in the community can be a crucial element in creating acceptance for RES. The role of these visionaries and dreamers should not be underestimated. In cases where a community has managed to successfully overcome a local energy conflict, it is often reported that specific individuals played a central role by painting a positive image of the future including RES. Such visionaries can be found in any kind of stakeholder group. They can be elected officials, part of a civil society group, and ordinary citizens. Even if there is no individual that can fulfil the role of visionary, experience shows that positive visions are important elements for fostering acceptance.
Despite good intentions and a willingness to openly and constructively work on a local energy conflict, a group of diehard opponents who cannot be swayed under any circumstances may remain. If an opposing group proves unwilling to work together, the only option is to “isolate” their discourse from other parts of the community. Fundamental opponents should not be able to influence and affect the moderate opposition under any circumstances, because this would mean the end of any discussion and possibility to constructively solve a conflict.
However, diehard opponents are not always easy to identify and will not always display their fundamental opposition publicly. A reason for this behaviour is that opposition to a RES project is not always aimed at the project itself. Often, hidden agendas are pursued under the guise of an energy conflict. In such a case fundamental opposition will be disguised with seemingly objective arguments, although the opponents do not really have any intention to concede under any circumstances. Although this scenario is an extreme case it should be kept in mind as a realistic challenge.
One strategy can be to link the common welfare to financial benefits for the community. Different ways of allowing the community to share in the profits of a renewable energy project are the following:
- Community fund: a developer gives money directly to the community, e.g. the municipality. It is then up to the community to decide how to use this money.
- Benefits in kind: a renewable energy developer directly invests in or funds a project or infrastructure agreed on beforehand with the community (e.g. a kindergarten or new roads).
- Local contracting: if and when possible the development of a RES project will employ local contractors and therefore create jobs and revenue in the region.
- Local ownership: giving members of the community the possibility to buy shares of a RES project and therefore to become owners.
- Direct financial compensation: certain members of the community, ideally those suffering most from the implementation of a renewable energy project, get paid directly.
However, one should be careful not to put too much emphasis on financial benefits. Firstly, money as an incentive can quickly reach its limits compared to other more emotional motivations. Secondly, RES projects will not necessarily generate tremendous amounts of revenue that can be shared with the community. Therefore, financial incentives can be important, but are not the only solution.
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Putting renewables into a larger context
Another strategy is to put an RES project in the frame of a larger development. When put in the context of a larger development, renewables can benefit from the pull that these developments create. An example could be to attach the implementation of renewables to the process of refurbishing a school or another public building. By attaching renewables to a development that is without doubt in the common interest, an RES project can benefit from the established acceptance of the overall development.
Aside from attaching renewables to larger developments, it has also proven beneficial to embed a RES project in the local culture of a place. For example, this can be achieved by presenting and discussing plans for a project at an annual neighborhood or village festivity. Another option is to frame renewables in the context of local history – e.g. stories of autonomy, defiance or independence. Generally, acceptance of renewables will be higher if a project is not simply presented as a technical and financial venture, but embedded in a discourse about the common welfare of a community.
An open process of discussion and participation is of crucial importance for defining the common welfare in a community and therefore fostering acceptance of renewable energy. If the aim of a participation process is merely to get the developer’s predefined goals approved, the process will most likely be identified as a cosmetic step and fail. The risk of such a failed participation process is that it will create opposition to the planned RES project. Stakeholders want to be taken seriously. Therefore, defining the common welfare in a community and working on acceptance needs to take place openly and transparently. In order to ensure such an open process there are a few guiding principles that should be kept in mind.
- Openness: a developer needs to be open and transparent about their plans. This information needs to be shared with the community in an understandable, correct and timely manner.
- Inclusivity: all stakeholders need to be involved and consulted. The opinion of those that do not have the means to participate in a debate need to be taken into account.
- Responsiveness: being open and approachable for the community and listening to their concerns.
- Accountability: being open and honest about possible negative or positive effects during the life cycle of an RES project.
- Flexibility: being prepared to make changes based on the outcome of a participation process.
The time after
Lastly, when implementing RES in a community one should be conscious of the time after a successful implementation. Because neighbours will remain neighbours it is important not to push for a successful implementation at all costs. Even if one side should win a disagreement in an energy conflict, the losing side should still be allowed to play a role and partake in the future development. Burning bridges between different parties in a conflict should not be in anyone’s interest and will certainly not foster acceptance of renewable energy in the future. We are in this for the long run, and this attitude should continue after implementation.