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Acceptability of energy alternatives

In this article, the acceptability of energy alternatives and related policies will be discussed. The role of values, trust, costs and benefits and public involvement will be explored.

Reminder: this article is the second section of the article Steg, L., Perlaviciute, G., & Van der Werff, E. (2015). Understanding the human dimensions of a sustainable energy transition. Frontiers in Psychology, in press. The references for this article can be downloaded below.

Energy policies and energy system changes will mostly not be implemented when they lack public support. Hence, it is important to understand what factors influence public acceptability of energy policies and energy system changes. People will evaluate energy policies and changes in energy systems as more acceptable when these policies and changes are expected to have more positive and less negative individual and/or collective consequences. We discuss two factors that affect how people perceive and evaluate various consequences of energy policies and energy system changes, namely values and trust in involved parties. In addition, public acceptability depends on how and by whom energy policies and energy systems are developed and implemented. We describe two factors that play a crucial role in this respect, namely the distribution of costs and benefits, and public engagement and participation.

Values and acceptability

People are more likely to accept energy policies and changes in energy systems when these policies and changes align with and support their important values. For example, stronger egoistic values were associated with more positive evaluations of nuclear energy, probably because nuclear energy is believed to have mainly positive implications for one’s egoistic vales, such as affordable and secure energy supply. In contrast, stronger egoistic values were related to less positive evaluations of renewable energy sources, which may have negative consequences for one’s egoistic values, such as being expensive and intermittent. Similarly, stronger biospheric values were related to more positive evaluations of renewable energy sources, which are generally seen as having positive implications for one’s biospheric values, such as reducing CO2 emissions. Biospheric values were related to less positive evaluations of nuclear energy, which is believed to have negative implications for one’s biospheric values, such as contamination in case of nuclear accidents (Corner et al., 2011; De Groot, Steg, & Poortinga, 2013; Perlaviciute & Steg, 2015). Interestingly, people’s value-based judgements of sustainable energy transitions may affect their evaluations of various consequences of these transitions, including consequences that should not be particularly important to them given their values. For example, people with strong egoistic values were most likely to ascribe positive environmental consequences to nuclear energy, such as a reduction of CO2 emissions. Also, people with strong biospheric values evaluated personal consequences of renewable energy sources more positively, such as costs and the security of energy supply, even though these consequences should not be very important given these specific values (De Groot et al., 2013; Perlaviciute & Steg, 2015). This suggests that people base their evaluations of energy policies and changes in energy systems primarily on aspects that are most relevant for their important values, which will guide their acceptability ratings. These values-based acceptability judgements may further affect evaluation of other characteristics of these policies and energy system changes, which may be less important to people based on their values. In other words, people are likely to evaluate energy policies and changes in energy systems in an overly positive or negative way that is in line with their values-based judgements.

Interventions aimed at strengthening public support for sustainable energy policies and energy system changes will be more effective if they target values that underlie people’s evaluations and acceptability ratings (cf. Bolderdijk et al., 2013a). Focusing merely on how people evaluate various consequences of these policies and energy system changes may be misleading, given that (some of) these evaluations can be coloured by people’s values-based judgements and not reflect the actual concerns people have, as we explained above. For example, people may evaluate renewable energy sources or energy efficient technology negatively, primarily because they expect negative consequences for their egoistic values related to increased costs and/or intermittency. Yet, as a consequence, they may also evaluate the environmental consequences of renewable energy sources or energy efficient technology negatively, in line with their values-based judgements. In this case, targeting the environmental consequences in intervention strategies will probably not change their acceptability ratings, as the acceptability judgements were hardly based on the evaluation of the environmental consequences in the first place. Rather, in this case, introducing subsidies for adopting renewable energy or improving the functionality of energy systems could be more motivating for them; such strategies could at the same time enhance intrinsic motivation to support durable changes in behaviour, as explained above. Interestingly, while privacy concerns with regard to energy use monitoring technology such as smart metering may hinder acceptability of such technology, a study found that privacy concerns may be underpinned by the costs and benefits that people expect from such technology for them personally (Bolderdijk, Steg & Postmes, 2013c). More specifically, privacy concerns were most prominent when people anticipated negative individual consequences (e.g., paying more for energy use) from implementing the monitoring technology. Communicating the individual benefits of such technology (e.g., possibility to save money) alleviated privacy concerns. A thorough understanding of which values actually underlie people’s evaluations and acceptability ratings is therefore crucial for developing effective intervention and communication strategies.

Trust in involved parties and acceptability

Sustainable energy transitions entail multiple aspects, such as complex energy technology, that go far beyond the knowledge and expertise of consumers. People therefore need to rely on other parties, such as developers, governments, and scientists, to develop their views of different aspects related to sustainable energy transitions. The extent to which people trust these parties will influence acceptability of energy policies and changes in energy system (Huijts, Molin, & Steg, 2012; Perlaviciute & Steg, 2014). Trust in involved parties will especially affect evaluations and perceptions when people have little knowledge about the proposed energy policies or energy system changes (cf. Siegrist & Cvetkovich, 2000). Trust can influence the perceived costs and benefits of sustainable energy transitions. For example, the more people trusted the parties involved in managing hydrogen systems, the more benefits and the less risks they ascribed to hydrogen as an energy carrier in cars and buses (Montijn-Dorgelo & Midden, 2008). The effects of trust on perceived risks and benefits were mediated by general attitudes towards hydrogen, in this study conceptualised as general affective evaluations (Montijn-Dorgelo & Midden, 2008).

People base their trust judgements on the perceived competence and the perceived integrity of the involved parties (Earle & Siegrist, 2006; Terwel et al., 2009). More specifically, it is not only important whether people think that the parties involved have sufficient knowledge and expertise, but also how these parties have performed in the past, whether people perceive them as open, honest, and taking their interests into account, and whether people think these parties endorse values similar to their own values (Earle & Siegrist, 2006). In general, people tend to trust universities and NGO’s more than companies and governments, although local governments are typically trusted more than national governments. This is likely to be driven by the perceived values and motives of these actors. Specifically, people may assume that companies primarily value making profit, which, especially in the energy sector, can be seen as conflicting with public interests. In a study on sustainable energy transitions in the UK, people expressed much support for shifting towards renewable energy sources, but at the same time they expressed their concern whether the energy companies are capable of realising sustainable energy transitions in a way that aligns with societal and environmental values (Butler, Parkhill, & Pidgeon, 2013). Lack of trust in energy companies can also elicit privacy concerns related to, for example, smart metering technology, which can further weaken public support for the proposed sustainability measures (Butler et al., 2013). Interestingly, a study on acceptability of CO2 storage found that when people perceived themselves and professional parties as sharing similar goals and values, they expected these parties to not only have good intentions but also sufficient skills and competencies to pursue these intentions (Huijts, Midden, & Meijnders, 2007). This again shows that values play an important role in public acceptability of energy policies and changes in energy systems, and that values can affect trust in involved parties.

Distribution of costs and benefits

Acceptability of energy policies and energy systems changes not only depends on their benefits, costs and risks, but also on how these benefits, costs and risks are distributed among groups involved. Sustainable energy transitions will be seen as unfair if certain groups in society face most of the costs, while other groups in society mainly enjoy the benefits, which may reduce their acceptability (Schuitema & Bergstad, 2012). For example, communities hosting renewable energy technology such as wind farms may experience noise and visual hinder, while the possible benefits such as reduced CO2 emissions, affordable energy, and energy independence are shared on a national or even global scale. As a consequence, people may oppose these technologies.

Fair distribution of costs and benefits can be pursued in multiple ways, which are not mutually exclusive. First, risks and costs of energy policies can be reduced as much as possible in order to secure public acceptability. For example, technical solutions can be sought to reduce the noise caused by wind turbines, and costs of renewable energy sources can be reduced via subsidies. A second (parallel) strategy to pursue a fair distribution of costs, risks and benefits is providing additional benefits to those exposed to most costs and risks. For example, individuals can be financially compensated, or developers of renewable energy projects could establish local funds that can be used to reduce energy bills for local people, to stimulate local economy, or to create or expand local facilities (e.g. sports facilities; Walker, Wiersma, & Bailey, 2014). It has been proposed that collective benefits (e.g. investing in local facilities) are less likely to be seen as ’bribes’ by citizens than individual financial compensations (e.g. one-time payments to residents; Ter Mors, Terwel, & Daamen, 2012). However, this proposition has not been empirically tested. Interestingly, the amount of compensations may be less important for acceptability judgements than who will benefit from the compensation. For example, people prefer royalties from a wind energy project to be allocated to local funds rather than to state funds (Krueger, Parsons, & Firestone, 2011). This is probably because it is seen as more fair when local communities benefit from hosting energy infrastructure than when benefits are distributed on the state level (cf. Schuitema & Steg, 2008). Yet, financial compensation to local funds will not enhance acceptability and may even backfire when these compensations are perceived as attempts to ‘buy local support’ (Walker et al., 2014; cf. Ter Mors et al., 2012).

Public involvement

People may be more likely to accept energy policies and changes in energy systems if they believe that the decision-making process is fair, and if they feel they are sufficiently involved in decision-making and that their interests are considered (Huijts et al., 2012; Perlaviciute & Steg, 2014). Public involvement can take place at different levels, which will affect acceptability differently (Devine-Wright, 2011). Information provision is a necessary pre- condition for public involvement; decision-making processes needs to be transparent and people should be fully informed from the beginning, rather than only afterwards when all decisions are made. However, information provision alone is a passive form of public involvement and is often not sufficient to secure public support for energy policies and energy systems changes. Higher levels of public involvement include active public engagement in decision-making (Devine-Wright, 2011). Several case studies on renewable energy projects have concluded that technocratic top-down decision making processes inhibit public acceptability, while more collaborative approaches taking community concerns into account enhance acceptability (Wolsink, 2007; 2010; Wolsink & Breukers, 2010; Walker & Devine-Wright; 2008). Public engagement means not only that people will have an opportunity to express their opinion, but also that their opinion is seriously considered in decision-making and can have an actual impact on decisions on energy policies and changes in energy systems. People consider decisions more acceptable if they have been actively involved in the decisions-making process (Schuitema & Bergstad, 2012). Sometimes, however, people are given an opportunity to express their opinion, while their opinion is eventually not taken into account and cannot change energy policies. Such ‘fake’ engagement can have even more negative effects on public support than no engagement at all, by diminishing trust in involved parties, as discussed above.

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This article is from the free online course:

Solving the Energy Puzzle: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Energy Transition

University of Groningen

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