Setting the Scene

A significant number of prior empirical studies have examined the perspectives of citizens in localities that host major infrastructure developments. The focus of such work has of course varied, but encompassed within this body of empirical research are works that have examined sites for energy developments, with nuclear energy and wind power receiving particular attention. The public accept­ability of differing energy developments has often formed the focus of such studies, with issues of risk and anxiety frequently featuring as components of the analysis. Less work has questioned the significance of ‘low carbon’ discourses for local citizens in their conceptions of the particular energy infrastructures to which their areas play host. Drawing on our in-depth qualitative research described below, we examine the extent to which discourses of ‘low carbon’ form a compo­nent of the ways in which our participants attached meaning to these developments and formed views on the acceptability of different energy technolo­gies operating in their locality. Moreover, we elucidate the varying ways that local members of the public engaged with each of the energy technologies either proposed or existing in their area. First, we briefly discuss the literatures and previous empirical findings pertinent to our analysis.

While, historically, nuclear power has been associated with high levels of public opposition and controversy (Wynne, 1992; van der Pligt, 1992; Rosa and Freudenberg, 1993), in more recent years, research on nuclear power has depicted increased levels of public acceptability. Pidgeon et al (2008) reported that despite finding that, on balance, a majority of people remained opposed to nuclear power, the levels of public disapproval were far below those found in the 1980s. Contextualized in relation to renewable forms of energy, however, they found that ‘very few would actively prefer [nuclear] as an option over renewable sources or energy efficiency if given the choice’ (Pidgeon et al, 2008, p81).

In relation to studies of local populations around existing nuclear power stations, lower levels of concern or greater degrees of acceptability have often been reported amongst those groups than within the wider population (Melber et al, 1977; Eiser et al, 1995; Greenberg, 2009). Such findings, however, are not straightforward, with studies indicating that even where acceptability or support is overtly expressed, this is often highly qualified, with some suggesting that a degree of underlying unease is always present in the discourses of local people (Zonabend, 1993). Other research relating to large socio-technical developments has suggested that a person may be unwilling to express concern or anxieties, as perceived negative views of the development and stigma from outside the area are seen as a greater threat than the technological infrastructures themselves (Baxter and Lee, 2004).The economic connections between local communities and facil­ities have also been posited as significant, either as the focus of the trade-offs that citizens make between negative and positive impacts of a facility, or as a depend­ency relation wherein local economic prosperity is tied to the facility, resulting in a tendency to downplay their concerns (Baxter and Lee, 2004).

More recently, in-depth qualitative work has examined discourses of local acceptance around nuclear power stations in terms of familiarity, normalization and extraordinariness; concluding that, while ordinariness represented the predominant framing adopted by those living close to such sites, anxiety and concerns also featured powerfully in local people’s discursive constructions of nuclear power, leading the power station to be periodically reframed as a risk and threat issue (Parkhill et al, 2010).Thus the ‘tolerability’ (Simmons and Walker, 1999) of nuclear risk was found to be fragile, representing conditional support at best (Parkhill et al, 2010; see also Venables et al, 2009).

Within the wider socio-political discourse around nuclear energy, climate change and concerns about securing future energy supplies have featured promi­nently, with a notable shift towards greater favourability for nuclear power in the UK political milieu (Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, 2008).The extent to which these discourses have come to play a role in local public discourse is, however, less well understood.

In contrast to findings in nuclear communities, wind power has been found at times to invoke strong opposition and concern at local levels while achieving widespread public approval from general populations. Past explanations have characterized such findings as NIMBYism, wherein people are characterized as rejecting facilities for reasons of ignorance and irrationality, because of pure self­interest and selfishness, or a combination of these (Freudenberg and Pastor, 1992). This explanation for local opposition to developments has now been challenged, with issues relating to feelings of distrust and powerlessness, inequities in decision-making, and the significance of place attachments becoming more visible in later studies (Wynne, 1992; Burningham, 2000; Devine-Wright, 2009).

Although in the UK, at least, offshore wind developments have been viewed more favourably by citizens, again studies have found cases of local opposition (Kempton et al, 2005). Research has also found, however, that support for wind projects increases after development (Walker, 1995; Krohn and Damborg, 1999).

As an energy technology with few operating examples worldwide (La Rance in Brittany being a notable exception), tidal power has received significantly less attention in the literature, with limited research into public perceptions and acceptability (Walker, 1995). Research that has been conducted in this area tends to be found within grey literatures and remains broadly descriptive, with limited academic enquiry having taken place. A recent example of such work can be found in a report produced by the UK Sustainable Development Commission (SDC). Public engagement exercises were conducted in cities close to the UK Severn estuary, where proposed tidal schemes are currently under consideration (Sustainable Development Commission, 2007).This research found that:

• there was reasonable awareness of climate change but with varying degrees of opinion on its importance as an issue;

• there was less awareness of energy security, but concern once it was directly pointed out as an issue;

• only 55 per cent of people had heard of tidal power, and discursive analysis demonstrated some confusion between tidal and wave power;

• there was general strong support for tidal power, although when this was explored in more detail, participants were found to be more negative overall about a barrage in the Severn estuary (Sustainable Development Commission, 2007).

As Devine-Wright points out, in general, ‘most of the literature [examining renewable energy] is empirical in nature, using quantitative survey tools, and “barrier oriented” in seeking to identify specific reasons for negative public attitudes to local development’ (Devine-Wright, 2005, p126). As such, our quali­tative discursive analytic approach offers a different take on public engagement with both renewable and nuclear energy forms, investigating how they are discur­sively constructed and negotiated. While previous research has been conducted from a realist perspective, maintaining that there is a distinction between objec­tively observable phenomena and subjective perceptions, we build from a position which emphasizes the significance of interpretive understanding. Moreover, although environmental concern has figured as an analytical category in previous studies, a specific focus on the construction of energy facilities such as low carbon has not been a prominent feature. In addition, to our knowledge, there are no comparative studies which have examined the way in which members of the public in local contexts formulate views on different forms of low carbon energy development in relation to one another. Previous research has tended to focus on a single form of energy technology (see, for example, Cowell, 2007) and has not been fully contextualized in relation to more contemporary policy frames or the complexity of trade-offs when negotiated by public(s) in areas where different low carbon options have particular salience (Kempton et al, 2005, being a notable exception).The specific features of our case study allow an examination of public conceptions of low carbon energies in a more holistic sense.

In the following section, we briefly describe in more detail the study that forms the basis for analysis. We then open up for explication the sophisticated ways in which members of the public engage with different low carbon forms of energy production either existing or proposed in their locality.

Updated: September 23, 2015 — 10:00 pm