Concluding Discussion

For this chapter we have provided an overview of how the public can engage with low carbon energy technologies that goes beyond attitudinal surveying. We have shown that, while there was significant heterogeneity within the discourses of our participants, there were two key themes discernable amongst the complexity of perspectives. The first centred on the ways in which participants connected to low carbon technologies through material experience or wider social discourse. The second was focused upon the public’s disillusionment with formal processes of engagement, and the implications of this for notions of acceptability. In this final section, we delineate our participants’ engagement with low carbon technologies around these two broad themes.

Our study was located in an area where low carbon energy has particular local salience, with the rationale that this would make these often abstract entities more tangible. Against this original expectation, the historical development of nuclear power in the area did appear to imbue our participants’ views on the prospect of new nuclear with specificities derived from material experience. In contrast, perspectives on renewable energy appeared to be less influenced by the local salience of such developments, with wider social and media discourse playing a greater role. While, in this sense, renewable energies were viewed as generically ‘good’ in broad conceptual terms, perceptions of wind power as widely undesirable as an imagined material manifestation and, more importantly, as having been rejected in multiple places, formed important aspects of the local public discourse about wind. Contrary to this, negative discourses around nuclear were broadly discarded or at least did not form the primary basis for participants’ views, with lived experience being of greater importance. The significance of material experience extended not just to familiarity with a particular technology but to familiarity with, for instance, contained, centralized energy systems. For example, tidal power represented an appealing option because it was generally perceived as a relatively contained structure that could generate sufficiently high levels of electricity to meet the high levels of demand associated with contempo­rary living. In contrast, wind power was viewed as sprawling and as requiring impossible quantities of land to generate (correspondingly to nuclear power) high levels of electricity. Related to this were the connections participants made between development of wind and notions of significant societal change needed to facilitate reduced energy consumption. Trends toward increased energy demand led participants to feel that while reduced dependency on energy might be desirable it was unfeasible or unlikely. Ultimately then, there was a persistent notion that wind could not deliver the amount of energy current and future ways of living may necessitate, or it would require unacceptable levels of land use, when compared with other energy generating technologies. It remains questionable, however, whether more negative conceptions of wind were connected to a histori­cal legacy of opposition between wind power and nuclear power, meaning that local salience potentially played a role in this respect. It remains questionable, however, whether more negative conceptions of wind were connected to an historical legacy of opposition between wind power and nuclear power, meaning that local salience potentially played a role in this respect.

Clearer from this analysis is that it would be wholly inadequate to characterize our participants’ engagement with low carbon technologies proposed and existing in their localities in terms of NIMBYism, particularly in contexts where it is utilized to imply selfishness. Indeed, the wider societal benefits of differing energy technolo­gies formed an important part of the discussions through which our participants gave meaning to energy developments, suggesting that notions of selfishness are inadequate as explanations of our participants’ views (see also Wolsink, 2000). The low carbon nature of developments was important to participants, and beyond this the generating capacity, traded off against their local environmental and aesthetic impact, served as a focal point for comparisons between technologies and the formation of preferences. These wider social considerations featured strongly in the discourses through which our participants reasoned their acceptance or prefer­ences. It is worth noting, however, that – in terms of local salience – our participants’ engagement with the low carbon nature of energy developments may have been influenced by their position as a nuclear community; as climate change represents a key discourse within nuclear industry public engagement.

Our participants’ views on differing low carbon options were situated along­side a conception of formal engagement as having little impact and a widespread sense that public views were ignored. In terms of local acceptability, then, these findings should be tempered by the sense of disillusionment in processes of societal decision-making and the relative sense of powerlessness that participants discussed. At the time of the research, some formal consultation processes around nuclear new build had taken place and previously there had been some local meetings about the wind farm proposals. Many of our participants were aware of such consultation processes, and a minority had been directly involved, but it was unclear the extent to which these experiences played a role in the formation of their views; discussion tended to be general, without reference to specific engage­ment processes. The forms of engagement discussed and perceived by participants entailed a focus on questions of impact and consequences of devel­opment, with local citizens’ capacity to influence decisions felt to be limited to issues characterized as local concerns (e. g. traffic). It is worth noting that such characterizations of engagement stand at odds with contemporary calls for upstream engagement processes and efforts to engage citizens in two-way exchanges (Wynne, 2002; Wilsdon and Willis, 2004). While questions of siting and planning are not traditionally conceived in terms of upstream engagement (conventionally applied to notions of public engagement in science research questions and framing before technological development and implementation; Rogers-Hayden and Pidgeon, 2007), these decisions do raise fundamental value questions about, for example, the directions we move in as societies, the futures we are implicated in creating, and so forth. It was these questions that formed an important point of engagement for our participants. Linked to such questions were concerns connected to notions of ‘false promise’ to which perceived failings of previous technological endeavours had given form. While the ‘ideal’ of renew­able forms of energy held promise for many, this was undermined by a sense that they might produce the kinds of negative impacts associated with other technolo­gies in the future (e. g. nuclear power and the issue of nuclear waste). In this sense, the motives for development of renewable technologies were important for many, with profit motives, in particular, representing a concern. In this context, social (dis)trust in decision-making was of high importance.

Such public sentiment raises questions about the extent to which engagement in these areas has moved forward in discernable ways, and points to the possibility that engagement with wider value-based concerns about the purposes of develop­ment and the future societal directions created by decisions is of considerable importance for new energy developments, particularly in a contemporary context where trust in progress has been eroded. The extent to which such conceptions of public engagement will impact on efforts to develop new energy sectors remains an important open question.

Updated: September 24, 2015 — 7:55 am