3.4. Whole Energy Systems: Public values, attitudes and acceptability

Dr Catherine Butler, University of Exeter & Prof Nick Pidgeon, Cardiff University


This briefing offers a summary of key lessons derived from research into public engagement with whole energy system change. The research builds from existing debates about public engagement wherein it has been asserted that there is a need to consider the ethical and social dimensions of technological innovation in ways that move beyond so called 'deficit' thinking [25]. Such concerns have led to a greater prevalence of public engagement in the UK, with the aims of such activities being broadly divided across those that:

  1. Are conducted because involving publics in debating the path and nature of technological development is seen as being a 'good thing' in and of itself;
  2. Seek to open up insight into public characterisations and concerns in ways that might then feed-back into key decisions or the activities of scientists and engineers; and
  3. Aim to build legitimacy and or secure consent for developments.

The research summarised here has aims consistent with the first two rationales. The project was both innovative and methodologically challenging; very few other studies have attempted to gauge public views on energy system change as a set of interconnected transformations in energy demand and supply. The project set out to address the following key questions:

  1. Are there particular scenarios or pathways which attract more support than others?
  2. What and where are the key trade-offs, barriers and points of inducement that raise acceptability issues for members of the public living in different contexts and how might they be addressed?
  3. Which processes could potentially form the basis for a social contract for rapid change?
  4. How do publics envision future energy system configurations and their governance?
  5. How do these compare and contrast with different 2020 and 2050 scenarios?
  6. What are the values and perceptions that inform public evaluations of energy scenarios?

The research involved day-long deliberative workshops across Great Britain and an online nationally representative survey to examine public views. A scenario tool developed by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (the My2050 tool) was utilised in both phases [26].

In methodological terms, it was assumed that very few of the workshop or survey participants would know about the full range of system change issues (on energy supply and demand) and the policy drivers (in particular around energy security, climate change and affordability) that were to be considered. Accordingly considerable care was taken to ensure that the design and piloting of materials and procedures provided sufficient information to prompt debate, without overly constraining that debate.

The research findings sets out core public values underpinning public reactions to proposed energy system change and emphasise the importance of thinking about the values which underlie peoples' preferences, rather than focusing solely on the technology [27][28][29]. Critical to this argument is the notion that public perspectives are not about technologies alone, they are about what the technology symbolises and represents. To illustrate, our findings show that there is a strong public preference for solar energy in the supply-side of our energy system (85 per cent were found to be favourable toward solar energy).

The research finds that the values which underlay this favourability are those associated with it being perceived as 'renewable' 'fair', 'just', 'clean', 'safe' and 'secure', and as delivery benefits in terms of 'affordability'. We assert that if solar power was deployed and developed in ways that do not correspond with the underlying characteristics that people value, it would no longer fit with the public preference for this energy technology.

To clarify, we might imagine a solar energy development supplying the UK, but residing in North Africa, being revealed as causing local environmental contamination and land-use territorial disputes. This version of solar would not fit the public preference for this form of energy provision, not because it is no longer renewable but because in this instance it would no longer be seen as 'fair', 'just' or 'clean'. As such, importance is attached to the inclusion of renewable, clean, fair, just and affordable elements in future energy systems, not solar energy technology in itself.

The values set out through this research relate, not only to the reasons underlying preferences for different technologies, but also to concerns about processes of development, implementation, governance and regulation. This means that the processes through which technologies are deployed, for example, whether they include genuine and early community engagement or whether they are perceived as adequately regulated and so forth, also form an important part of public view formation and response.

A major lesson from this analysis is that technologies, currently regarded favourably or unfavourably, can be formulated in ways more closely aligned with public values. For example, certain forms of bio-energy, namely grown for purpose bio-fuels provoke concerns about land conflicts, governance, regulatory failure, and pollution – these issues result in public uncertainty, ambivalence, and, in some cases, rejection of bio-fuels.

However, it may be possible to envisage a development trajectory commensurate with public values through concerted and transparent efforts to ensure bio-fuels meet these concerns. For example, developing bio-fuels in ways that do not put them in conflict with land for food production.

Key points to note

  1. The British public wants and expects change with regard to how energy is supplied, used and governed. Our research shows that members of the public recognise, and are positive about, the need for energy system change. They do not favour greater levels of change on either the demand or supply side. They regard the energy system as dynamic in nature and constantly changing. If changes are going to occur anyway, members of the public saw this as an opportunity to 'do it right' – to make it a worthwhile change.
  2. Actors involved in energy system transitions need to treat public viewpoints with integrity, valuing the contribution they make to envisioning transitions. Public preferences should not be viewed as something to manipulate, rather actors should engage meaningfully with public values and preferences. Publics are pragmatic and recognise the need for compromise but are likely to respond negatively to attempts to manipulate, persuade, and/or dismiss their perspectives.
  3. For policy-makers and other actors involved in energy system transformation, it is important to be clear about how current and proposed changes to the energy system fit within a long-term trajectory. This includes showing how developments fit with wider strategies and proposals developed at different scales and by other actors involved in system development.
  4. Actors involved in energy system change need to ensure that their actions are transparent and mirror rhetoric. This includes the actions of whole institutions, as well as the individual behaviour of high profile people within organisations. For industry, this includes making clear how proposals for change(e.g. assisting consumers in reducing their energy use) fit with their business models or alternatively explaining why they are undertaking actions that do not necessarily fit with business models.

Reflections on public engagement

A first lesson of this case study is that, with careful process and materials design, ordinary members of the public are perfectly capable of debating the complex issues involved in energy system change. Our participants offered sophisticated responses to the issues and, through a process design that encouraged reflection on the difficult decisions involved, were pragmatic and considered in their views.

A second lesson concerns the importance of ensuring that activities have clear objectives that are explained to participants. This relates to a need to manage people's expectations about their participation in engagement events. Where decisions under discussion have already been taken and there is only limited room for their views to have an influence, this needs to be made clear. Equally, if engagement is to input directly to policy decisions, the nature and extent of this influence has also to be made clear to participants.

A third lesson is that patience and openness are central to public engagement, with propensities to 'correct' people tending to limit and close down discussion in ways that are likely to result in more negative outcomes. For engagement events to be successful there is a need to allow people time to speak and to listen. In this regard, provision of information while often necessary should always be undertaken with care to ensure that it does not close down discussion but facilitates greater engagement. Through developing open dialogic procedures, opportunities arise to gain insight into the deeper more general concerns that underlay particular responses.

Finally, it is important to recognise that there is not one public but multiple publics. We found that mixed groups were more effective in terms of generating discussion than more homogenous groups. For example, grouping those who were more and less vocal together was ineffective in producing dialogue and our recommendation is to opt for mixed groupings with skilled facilitation that ensures no one person can dominate discussion.