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Turning NIMBY into YIMBY: How can society get involved in energy transition?

Hontomin CO2 storage facility, Spain, picture courtesy of Fundación Ciudad de la Energía

Awareness of the importance of reducing CO2 emissions is rising but the transition towards a low-carbon society is slow and complex. The much needed fundamental change requires extensive research and involves many civil society stakeholders, each with vested interests that are often not aligned. In this article I will present three examples of public engagement campaigns that bring these groups together in a variety of ways.

A dialogue between research and civil society, including industry, NGOs and public authorities, is essential to move towards sustainable low-carbon energy production. Engaging society in projects aiming for sustainable solutions could thus significantly accelerate the transition. There have been multiple examples of how the lack of such an engagement can lead to stalling various undertakings. An example often mentioned is the CCS project in Barendrecht in the Netherlands, where the shortcomings in the communication between stakeholders and the local community caused an advanced CCS project to be cancelled.

There are also plenty of positive experiences out there, which show how a close relationship between civil society, industry and other stakeholders can lead to very positive solutions. Three such examples are showcased below. These demonstrate the variety of avenues to public engagement and diversity of motivating factors behind successful engagement strategies.

Bottom-up: A Scottish local community calls for more wind turbines

Fintry Renewable Energy Enterprise (FREE) is a community development trust based in the village of Fintry, Stirlingshire, Scotland. Its aim is to promote the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency within the community to reduce CO2 emissions and the effects of global warming. FREE has agreed with the developers of a local wind farm that an additional turbine for the village would be built as part of the development. Four residents carried out the negotiations, forming FREE. They implemented an extensive community consultation through leafleting, meetings and local newspapers. With the very supportive mandate of the community the Council pursued ownership of a turbine and the significant income it would create.

The group bore the full initial cost of the turbine (£2.5 million) to be paid back over the first 15 years of operation. The wind turbine’s installed capacity is 2.5 MW. The income to the community is used to cover the loan and fund green solutions/initiatives in the area.

The dual aims of the project were:

  1. a desire to do something with renewable energy as a result of increased awareness of global warming, and
  2. as the prospect of a wind farm development on their doorstep was inevitable, this project was a means to ensure that the local community would benefit directly from such a development.

Fintry is now working with two other local villages which will have wind farm developments sited close by, to facilitate constructive discussions with the developer so that these villages may benefit from the wind farm in the same way as Fintry.

Communication and reasoning: How Ciuden involved the community in a CCS project

Hontomin is a large-scale R&D and pilot storage site for the Compostilla Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) Project in the province of Burgos, North of Spain. CO2 from Compostilla power plant will be transported and injected 1500 m deep in a carbonate saline formation.

In parallel with preparing the scientific part of the undertaking, the CIUDEN team (with Hontomin Council, and the assistance of funds from the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT)) created a cultural education program for the local community. It includes activities, community science and innovation events focused on explaining CO2 storage.

The approach, rooted in the appreciation of how important it is to build and maintain the trust of the local community who will be living near the project, was carefully planned. A significant amount of time was spent understanding the local community. Hontomin Council worked hard to raise awareness of the Hontomin facility, the properties of CO2 and CCS more generally. Thanks to a carefully rolled out variety of activities the initial concerns about onshore CO2 storage were largely addressed.

The comprehensive program of engaging the local community involved workshops and technical meetings, an educational program, press releases, TV micro documentaries, face to face meetings, open days, informative videos etc. Through this transparent and inclusive public engagement process that was planned and undertaken in an adequate time schedule, there now appears to be widespread community support for the operation of the project.

Top-down and bottom-up meet in the middle: How the Danish government initiated a self-sustained community on Samsø Island

In the Danish Action Plan of 1996, it was decided that the government should work on the designation of a local area which would change its supply of energy to local renewable resources. As a result of this commitment, the government held a competition to find one Danish region to become a model renewable energy community. The island of Samso was submitted as one of the contestants and won. Starting form 1997, 100% of Samsø’s energy supply was to be sourced from renewables within 10 years.

In 1997, Samso was entirely dependent on imported fossil fuels. By 2005 the island became energy self-sufficient, ahead of schedule. Since then, Samsø has increased its self-sufficiency to 140%. The spark created by the government-organised contest was the beginning of a bottom-up method of building citizen involvement from the beginning of the project. It was (and still is) a rather flexibly organised scheme, ideas and methods have grown with time. After an initial stage of reservation and conservatism among the citizens, slowly the dynamic started changing. All the while, citizens were invited to participate in work groups for the planning and development work and involved in choosing the technologies to be used in the project. They later could make financial investments to these technologies. The main purpose of this method was to create local people’s “ownership” of the developed solutions. It resulted in 11 onshore wind turbines that are able to fulfil 100% of the island's electricity demand. 70% of Samso’s heating demand is obtained from solar power and biomass. With time, energy issues became a local hobby, a subject of friendly rivalry among the ‘Samsingers’.

As seen above, sustainability is already a part of some communities’ daily life. It can also be sparked, nursed and cultivated in areas and regions in various ways. Societal dialogue, however, is still to be integrated in decision making and legislative processes. Wide participation on the part of all stakeholders including the consumers is needed to speed up the transition to a low carbon future fit for each national or regional context and culture.

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