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Social Acceptance of Renewable Energy

The basics


In the transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy, major attention has been devoted to quantitative issues. Clear targets for the reduction of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions have been set and provide the basis and direction for ambitious commitments and actions. EU countries have agreed on a renewable energy target of at least 20% by 2020, and to have 27% of total final EU energy consumption from renewables by 2030. By using more RES to meet its energy needs, the EU will reduce its dependence on imported fossil fuels and make its energy production more sustainable. However, in achieving these targets many challenges must be overcome, including social acceptance of renewable energy, especially at the local level. Although, social acceptance is of fundamental importance for the success of the energy transition in Europe, it has not been addressed sufficiently so far.


    The transition towards a low-carbon economy, based on a more sustainable energy mix and on a substantial increase of renewable energy is a challenge for society at large. Although energy generation has always been “local“, the decentralised character of RES allows for new and more sites of energy generation. As such, more communities directly experience the impact renewable energy production might have on landscapes, nature and quality of life. Therefore, it is often local communities that are asked to carry forward the overall energy transition. If these local communities do not accept their role as production sites for future renewable energy, it can be an obstacle for the overall energy transition. Therefore, social acceptance of local renewable energy is crucial for the success of the transition towards a low-carbon society.


    Local communities are always unique in their history, composition, needs and outlook for the future. Therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all way of promoting social acceptance of renewable energy. However, there is one key to the challenge of social acceptance of RES that can be applied universally: common welfare (or in other words: “common interest” or “public interest”). By defining what should be conceived of as common welfare, a local community can establish the conditions under which they are willing to accept a local production of renewable energy. This can include a range of examples such as sharing profits among the residents of an area, creation of local and regional value through more jobs and increased tax revenues, but also less immediate goals like fighting climate change. The character of common welfare for a local community depends on many factors and needs to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.


    According to studies focusing on public opinion in different EU member states (e.g. Finland, the UK or Germany), levels of support for renewable energy are generally very high in Europe (e.g. in the UK in 2012 79% of a representative sample reported support for RES). However, support for having a renewable energy production site in the vicinity is significantly lower (55% in the same survey in the UK). These results point to the main challenge of social  acceptance for renewable energy. While there seems to be a societal consensus that the share of renewable energy should be increased, implementation on the ground faces opposition.



    What is social acceptance?


    Firstly, it is relevant to point out that social acceptance is not the same as public acceptance, or public opinion. The latter looks at the sum of individual opinions as something that can be quantitatively measured through surveys. It is an important concept in politics and understanding public opinion, and having the public’s acceptance can be important for the implementation of RES. However, public acceptance does not recognise the role of actors in a community beyond their role as individuals. A community is more than just the sum of its individuals. It is the relationships, bonds, conflicts and shared history that make a community. Therefore, acknowledging that communities are not just the sum of their individual members but are made up of delicate social networks can help to better understand acceptance of RES.


    Secondly, social acceptance is not a negative term. Often, when discussing social acceptance of renewable energy, the focus is on refusal or objections. These are certainly crucial elements to consider. However, the term social acceptance does not only capture negative attitudes towards something. It is a neutral term that can express a whole range of attitudes, from total rejection to total approval. Therefore, one should be aware that acceptance is not a simple matter of yes or no, but a matter of different degrees of acceptance. Furthermore, one should not forget to examine why people agree with and support a certain idea or project. Understanding positive dynamics can at times be more helpful for fostering acceptance than looking only at objections.


    What are local energy conflicts?


    A lack of acceptance of renewable energy projects at a local level is often labelled as a NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) attitude. NIMBY means that a person does not object to something in general, but does not approve of its implementation in their direct vicinity. This term implies a protectionist attitude towards new developments. Although it is possible to find this attitude, reasons for a lack of acceptance are usually more complex and should be acknowledged.


    While renewable energy is generally associated with net societal benefits on a national or global level, such as a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions or a reduced dependency on fossil fuels, production of renewables can create measurable negative effects on the local level. These include concerns regarding effects on biodiversity, landscape, quality of life (noise, smell, etc.), but also questions regarding the distribution of profits or the political process leading up to the implementation of RES in a community – all of which can lead to conflicts. These conflicts are considered local energy conflicts. Solving or overcoming local energy conflicts is what fosters social acceptance of renewables.


    What is common welfare in an energy conflict?


    In order to solve a local energy conflict and therefore to foster acceptance of renewable energy, a community needs to define and implement their own understanding of common welfare. Moss et al. define common welfare as “the interest of all, or of the general public. It is thus contrary to the interests of individuals or groups.” Common welfare is therefore the way for a community to bridge differences and to find mutual ground in an energy conflict.


    However, the way common welfare is defined will be different for each community, since it is clear that there is no fixed definition of the interest of a particular individual or group. The definition of common welfare must be determined on a case-by-case basis, and the interests of those who lack the opportunity to participate in a social debate must be taken into consideration.  Furthermore, definitions of common welfare are more likely to be successful when they refer to local identities and include existing networks. Examples of common welfare can include a fair distribution of profits, regional development through employment and tax revenue, or mitigating the effects of climate change and global warming.


    To properly foster social acceptance, it is important that the common welfare, as defined by a local community, does not remain on an abstract level, but actually becomes part of RES implementation. One way of translating common welfare into action is by embedding it in the organisations which implement RES on the ground. Citizen collectives, energy cooperatives or municipal utilities can serve as expressions and anchors of common welfare in a community.





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