Published on June 22, 2012

The future of energy: public engagement’s moon race?

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is the Director of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Picture of woman jumping holding a hand drawn bow and arrowThe debate about Europe’s future energy needs is complex, technical and highly contested. It must involve the public as much as interested stakeholders. There are signs that decision-makers at European and national level understand this. 

I’ve just come back from an EU Conference where the German decision to remove nuclear from the country’s future energy mix was discussed. This decision has left the country the huge challenge of how to fill the energy gap. It isn’t, however, leaving citizens depressed as they stare down the energy abyss at a hair shirt vision of an impoverished future. Far from it, the Germans at the conference were full of verve and vigour. One speaker described the challenges as Germany’s equivalent of the race to the moon in the 60s. It was clear that this decision isn’t a time-limited, knee-jerk response to the Fukushima disaster. It won’t be reversed at the next election; speakers at the conference were clear that it is here to stay.

The conference I was attending, “Energy futures and civil society in the EU – building a low carbon alliance. We were there to feed in preliminary findings from a small study that we are carrying-out for the European Economic and Social Council (EESC). This study will identify existing public engagement processes on future energy mixes. We had started out the study thinking that we were going to have to draw in examples from other complex and controversial areas of public policy, because our initial view was that there wasn’t a lot of public engagement into energy futures. A bit of digging later and it is clear that this is a particularly fertile area for public engagement – at least in northern Europe.

It was a good conference, much more exciting than I had been expecting given my previous experiences at international conferences of this kind. I had numerous reflections and thoughts, but only a couple are ready for committing to screen at this stage.

There was a real energy *cough* in the room and speakers were, with a few notable exceptions, much more interested in exploring the complexity of the issues at hand. There was a real interest in opening up the issue, rather than closing it down to one solution. And this is important because it is an area of real complexity of local, national and pan-European dimensions.

I thought I had understood its complexity as a result of our own work for DECC on their 2050 Pathways. However, I hadn’t done more than glimpse the international dimensions and ramifications of decisions that individual nations make about how they are going to provide energy in the future. The German decision about nuclear leads it down a path of high renewables and biofuels (these themselves a significant area of concern for some). The renewables element will require significant  storage for periods of low supply – high demand. This will need to be outsourced to countries like Norway. It will also need high voltage power lines crossing Europe; there is little sign of public understanding or consent for these. These decisions by German in turn restrict and affect the decisions of the rest of Europe.

Without a shared European vision of the future of energy, individual nations will find it hard to take decisions because of uncertainty about what other countries are going to do – bilateral agreements just can’t work here.

It is a mistake to see this as a climate change issue however. European energy infrastructure needs to be renewed, most of our nuclear power stations reach retirement age within 20 years and they need to be replaced. These decisions need to be taken now. So while climate change is a significant factor in defining the way in which European nations are going about this renewal programme, it will happen with or without consensus about whether climate change is happening and what it means. The decisions we take about the future of energy in Europe will lock us into a path for the next 40 years or more. With the changes in the global economy and the rise of China, India and other nations, plus the declining global stocks of oil, we can’t carry on as we are; we need a new vision for energy.

As our own work shows decisions of these types require significant and sustained public engagement. This is because decisions about energy futures need to be as sticky as the German nuclear decision (as opposed to catastrophically changeable at the end of every electoral cycle). This stickiness ensures that governments and companies can invest with confidence. This requires public engagement because the decisions need two things. First, they require public consent to the vision, as well as to that wind farm, or that power station, on that back doorstep, for example. Second, with or without climate change as part of the vision, any decision will require significant changes in public behaviour, both in terms of investment in personal energy conservation, as well as changing patterns of living, travelling and working, for example.

The German case shows that it is possible to build a shared national vision for the future, but that this takes time and a willingness to understand what has happened before, while at the same time grasping opportunities, like the Fukushima disaster, to move the debate and decisions forward.

This is no small task at the national level, and significantly more complicated at a pan-European level, and yet it is something that needs to happen. While our study is infinitesimally small compared to the size of the challenge there seems to be lots of interest and willingness from a range of actors who understand that the public must have a central role in any decisions that are taken.

Picture Credit: kharied

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