Published on June 6, 2013

Why local engagement with energy infrastructure should not just be a tool to say “no”

By Ingrid Prikken

Ingrid Prikken is Project Manager at Involve. Her work is focused on project design and management, facilitation and research. Her research covers embedding public engagement in government and citizen participation in challenging issues.

Wind farm An interesting article was published in the Guardian this morning, titled “Residents to get more say over windfarms”. At Involve we are currently developing a programme of work around citizen engagement with climate change issues and energy futures, so it goes without saying that an article about engagement with renewable energy caught my eye.

It struck me that the article started with a rather negative and narrow way of framing local engagement with energy infrastructure: “Residents will be able to stop construction of wind farms under tough new rules that could seriously restrict the growth of onshore wind power generation”.

It goes on to quote an unnamed source at Downing Street, saying “the prime minister feels that it is very important that local voters are taken into account […], so that if people don’t want wind farms in their local areas they will be able to stop them.” This seems slightly contradictory to me: a government that subscribed to a target to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, stating that a benefit of engagement is to stop these infrastructural developments.

I think citizen engagement on these issues is extremely important (as I argued in a previous post). Done well, engagement can give citizens an opportunity to influence the decision making process from an early stage. If providing local communities with a discount on their energy bills can incentivise local engagement, acceptance, buy-in or even ownership of onshore wind farm developments, then that’s to be encouraged.

However, the article seems to suggest that government is focussing on local engagement as a tool to stop certain infrastructural developments, rather than focusing on other benefits of participation. I think it is important to look at wider benefits of participation as well. For example, it could develop a better understanding of the complex trade-offs and choices that need to be made. It can also create greater ownership and buy-in for energy transition decisions.

I’d like to highlight 2 important questions about engaging citizens with these complex issues:

What could be the role of participation in resolving tensions between national decisions and their local impact?

Energy infrastructure requires very localised developments in order to tackle an issue of national and often international importance. Findings from a Research Councils UK report on public attitudes in relation to low-carbon energy suggest that whilst supporting the concept of a particular development, people will tend to oppose it if it would affect them directly. In contrast, many of the reasons for supporting specific infrastructure developments appear to focus on more national level benefits or concerns.

I’d argue that, rather than supporting NIMBY-ism through emphasising local participation as a means to stop developments, it might be more helpful to stress the importance of early ‘upstream’ dialogue, both concerning national energy infrastructure policy and the potential local impacts.

Should government rethink how local communities are engaged in these developments that affect their local area?

Ensuring that local developments will only go ahead with the support of the local community is a commendable aim. The article quotes the energy minister, Michael Fallon, who said that badly planned and executed engagement has left people feeling frustrated. Indeed, our research and experience shows time and time again that for engagement to be meaningful it needs real scope for making a difference to the decision making process.

Also today, a call for evidence on community energy was launched to gather evidence to help identify how to unlock the potential of community energy. I wonder how local engagement as a means to stop these developments combines with initiatives such as community energy. Here, government seems to recognise engagement as being of potential benefit to the community, as well as helping to reach national targets, through encouraging participation and local leadership and ownership.

I think engagement with energy infrastructure developments could benefit from a more positive approach, where engagement is not just framed as a tool for empowering local communities to say “no”.

Image by slimmer_jimmer

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