Nick Pidgeon has surveyed the British public.
Energy policy has become one of the most fraught political debates in Britain today – whether we consider proposals for new nuclear power, local controversies over wind farms or fracking for unconventional gas, or the introduction of ‘smart meters’ to monitor energy use in our homes. Much of our energy infrastructure is also ageing and this, coupled with the need to meet climate change targets, ensure the future security of supply, and to address fuel poverty, means that major changes to the systems for producing and using energy are inevitable.
New study of attitudes
In a major 30-month study for the UK Energy Research Centre, we explored the issue of public views of energy system change. Researching public views is important because it helps us understand points of particular resistance to change and the reasons for this. It also throws light on where new opportunities to change might lie, and how future public dialogue about energy systems might be taken forward.
The project involved deliberative workshops in six locations across Britain followed by a major representative online survey  (n=2,441) conducted by us for Ipsos Mori. A particularly innovative part of the research was use of the online MY2050 tool developed by the Department for Energy and Climate Change as an aid to prompt participants to think about some of the challenges and tradeoffs of changing the energy system as a whole.
The findings show that fully 88 per cent of respondents agree that we in Britain need to change radically the way we produce and use energy by 2050. The British public views move away from fossil fuel reliance and a shift to renewable forms of energy production as paramount for long-term energy policy. Simultaneously the public clearly indicate a desire to develop technology and infrastructures to support changes in lifestyles, with an overall goal of improving energy efficiency and achieving reductions in energy demand.
The research also reveals what underlies this public vision for future energy pathways: the values and principles which publics draw on to form their views and preferences when engaging with energy system change. The value system we identified provides a basis for understanding why publics like or don’t like certain energy system aspects and processes, and why uncertainty might emerge. Furthermore, it provides a basis for creating policies that are responsive to the core concerns that publics have with regards to future energy pathways.
Public values for energy system change include efficiency and avoiding waste; protection of nature and the environment; ensuring security through reliability, affordability, availability and safety of energy services; being mindful of individual autonomy and freedoms; social justice, fairness and transparency; as well as thinking in terms of long-term trajectories, ensuring changes represent improvement and considering implications for quality of life.
An important conclusion to draw is that acceptability of any particular aspect of energy system transformations will, in part, be dependent upon how well it fits into the value system. Critical to this argument is the notion that public perspectives are not about technology alone, they are about what the technology symbolises and represents.
For example, the research shows that people are ambivalent about proposals for fitting carbon dioxide capture technologies to fossil-fuelled power generation and then storing the carbon in depleted oil fields (a technique known as carbon capture and storage, or CCS). Although they accept that a novel technology such as this would be one way of helping to clean up electricity generation and thereby combat one of the causes of climate change, they also view it as a ’non-transition’: that is, they feel that CCS only prolongs an already unsustainable reliance on a fossil fuel-based system and thereby fails to address the long-term need for a change to a cleaner, fairer energy system.
The research also highlighted the fact that people do not view the current energy markets as effective mechanisms for delivery of transitions in ways commensurate with their values, and nor do people trust either energy companies or the government with respect to future system changes. Overcoming both of these barriers may ultimately prove the most important issues to address if we are to achieve a radical change to the UK’s energy system.
When solar is preferred
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 towards solar energy). The research also finds that solar energy is particularly associated with being ‘renewable’, ‘fair’, ‘just’, ‘clean’, safe and secure, as well as delivering perceived benefits in terms of affordability. Accordingly, we assert that if solar power were deployed and developed in ways no longer congruent with these values, it would not then fit with the public preference for solar energy.
For example, 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 incarnation 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, the public attach importance to the inclusion of renewable, clean, fair and just elements in future energy systems, not solar energy technology per se.
Our findings further show that the British public do not locate responsibility for the enactment and delivery of energy system change with any one group. Indeed they perceive responsibilities for individuals, industry (for example, energy companies) and government, although it is the latter that was seen as ultimately responsible.
The public perceive the government’s role to be developing an overall vision to work towards. This includes creating the policies and structures needed to encourage change and being clear about the available options. On the other hand, the public perceives that government is sending mixed signals in terms of its commitment to a trajectory which would be in line with the values above. The public also questions whether it is even taking its own policies seriously (for example, climate change targets).
The recent story about tax breaks for shale gas will further confound the perceived incongruence in government’s messaging. It will increase public suspicion about its commitment to bring about positive change for a more sustainable future in line with public values for energy system change – an energy future that most believe should not be predicated on fossil fuel use.
You can download a pdf version of the September 2013 magazine below