Towards a Broader Framing of. Social Science Research

Above all, this volume suggests the limitations of a narrow framing of social science research into public engagement with renewable energy. A literature that to date has been rather dominated by research into residents’ acceptance or resist­ance to developer-led, large-scale onshore wind farms (Devine-Wright, 2005) is revealed in this book to be much broader in scope.

Firstly, as Walker and colleagues make clear in Chapter 1 of this volume, public engagement encompasses both the different ways that technology promot­ers seek to communicate and consult with members of the public, and how individuals and groups perceive and respond to such initiatives. That is why different empirical contributions to this volume reflect both the representations of public engagement with renewable energy held by stakeholders (Section II, Part 1) as well as those held by members of the public (Section II, Part 2). As Walker and colleagues argue, these representations are interdependent. Stakeholder engagement activities are founded upon expectations and presumptions about public responses, and public responses are in turn founded upon expectations and presumptions about technologies and the organizations promoting them. Both operate within a wider context of media reporting of engagement initiatives, with journalists seemingly eager to propagate stereotypical concepts such as NIMBYism to describe, explain and denounce objection (see Chapter 8 by Hannah Devine-Wright). The dynamic interactivity at the heart of this concep­tual framework indicates the need to adopt ways of thinking, and methodologies of research that can capture emergence and change, not just static representations of conceptions or practices. Research also needs to follow the example of Hodson and Marvin in this volume, who investigate the role of novel intermediary organi­zations that can occupy spaces in between conventional stakeholders and members of the public, transforming contexts of governance.

Secondly, the chapters in Section II highlight the range of technologies involved in public engagement with renewable energy, encompassing not just onshore wind turbines, but wind farms offshore, wave energy devices, solar photovoltaics at diverse scales of deployment, bioenergy projects, and wind-hydrogen schemes for generating and storing electricity. The varying scales and levels of maturity of these technologies have implications for the kinds of engagement that members of the public can undertake, from ‘upstream’ engage­ment with less familiar forms of energy such as hydrogen (see chapters by Flynn and Sherry-Brennan) and wave energy (see chapter by McLachlan) to ‘downstream’ engagement with more mature technologies such as wind turbines and bioenergy plants (see chapters by Firestone and Upham). The scale of deployment of these technologies is also important in shaping the forms of engagement open to members of the public, from the adoption of microgenera­tion as financial investors (see chapter by Roy and Caird), to the diverse responses to larger-scale power stations including project supporter and objector, and participant in community-scale energy projects (see chapter by Sherry – Brennan and colleagues). Research can also look across different low carbon technologies, including both nuclear and renewable energy, with a comparative approach (see chapter by Butler and colleagues).

Thirdly, there are numerous roles that members of the public can play in relation to renewable energy. Walker and Cass (see Chapter 4) identify ten such roles, encompassing the well-known role of project objector, but also including less-appreciated roles such as financial investors, active consumers, passive consumers, service users, local beneficiaries, project participants, project supporters, technology hosts and energy producers. Whilst several of these roles are investigated in this book (notably in chapters by Roy, Abi-Ghanem and Schweizer-Ries), there remains an imbalance in the research literature towards analysis of project objection, which needs to be countered by future research acknowledging alternative roles and how these may interconnect and mutually influence each other.

Fourthly, the diversity of public role and technology type make clear that public engagement is not merely timed to coincide with the ‘siting’ of large-scale energy technologies (for a critique of ways of thinking about project locations, see Devine-Wright, Chapter 5). As Ashworth and colleagues reveal in Chapter 10, social science can investigate and evaluate public input into deliberative engage­ment that aims to devise alternative energy scenarios at the national level, contributing public values into decision-making that could lead to radical re­shapings of technology policies and trajectories, in response to the necessity to reduce fossil fuel use and increase the use of low carbon energy sources.

Finally, contextuality is an important feature of renewable energy initiatives, as argued by several chapters in this volume. As I have argued (see Chapter 5),

conceiving the locations of energy projects as ‘places’ reflects the view that each locality is imbued with a unique set of meanings, emotions and values by local residents and visitors. To a degree, therefore, regardless of the apparent similarity of technology or development organization involved, every wind farm or bioen­ergy project will differ in important ways, involving a different set of actors with different histories and capacities, in locations with differing psychological associa­tions and topographies. Unfortunately, this is commonly overlooked in the course of technology projects, where ‘sites’ and ‘backyards’ are the common frames of reference for stakeholders, leading to missed opportunities to devise technology emplacement strategies that enhance rather than threaten places and avoid disruption to place attachments.

This issue becomes critically important as the contexts of public engagement with renewable energy technologies become ever more diverse, and as technolo­gies become increasingly widely deployed in developing country contexts, where comparatively little social research has investigated public engagement to date. The chapter by Improta and Pinheiro, detailing public engagement with Brazil’s first large-scale wind farm, indicates both familiar (e. g. the lack of involvement of local residents in the project) and unfamiliar (e. g. the contrast between close proximity of advanced electricity-generating technologies and power-less local residents) aspects of this research. As the use of renewable energy grows around the world, the necessity to enable the capacity of social scientists in developing countries to research issues of public engagement will increase, requiring the networking of experts across national boundaries as part of wider efforts to increase research capacity amongst scholars in developing countries.


As an ever-increasing number of countries worldwide agree to adopt challenging targets to reduce carbon emissions and increase renewable energy use, policy­makers may be tempted to devise more streamlined planning procedures that reduce opportunities by members of the public to participate in environmental decision-making (as has been happening in the UK: see Barry and Ellis, Chapter 3), with the aim of hastening planning consents and increasing the rates of technology deployment. But such a strategy is likely to prove counterproductive. It may unwittingly increase current levels of public scepticism, mistrust and outright opposition, with the result that an increased number of project proposals could be delayed or even abandoned. Rather than providing a mandate for reducing public input into procedures of technology development and policy­making, the chapters in this volume provide a pragmatic rationale for increasing the use of well-planned and implemented mechanisms of public participation, particularly those dubbed analytic-deliberative methods (see chapters by Ashworth and Flynn), which can increase the quality and legitimacy of decision­making, and enhance trust and understanding (National Resource Council, 2008).

This is not to say that participatory approaches will inevitably lead to increased trust or social acceptance, or that they are suited to all contexts of public engagement. This is why social science research has such a vital role to play, by revealing the consequences of certain engagement approaches and providing nuanced analyses of both the benefits and limitations of certain mechanisms. As Flynn and colleagues make clear (see Chapter 17), there are limits to the value of deliberation in contexts of upstream engagement with unfamiliar technologies. And as Sherry-Brennan’s comparative analysis of wind-hydrogen projects shows (see Chapter 18), the same technology can be differently accepted largely as a function of the opportunities for participation provided to local residents. NIMBYism may be an easy to use and beguilingly simple way of thinking about objections to technology proposals, but social science reveals how inadequate it is as a means of capturing the dynamic interplay between the multiple actors involved in renewable energy deployment. The solution is not to caricature, undermine and exclude public responses, but to work towards better ways of integrating public beliefs into decision-making, preserving social consent towards the increased use of renewable energy.

Systematic, robust social science research has a vital role to play in moving beyond NIMBY-type conceptions of public engagement. To that extent, the diver­sity of contributions to this volume evidence an exciting field of scholarly activity that has burgeoned in recent years. Future research into public engagement with renewable energy must seek greater coherence and cumulative endeavour, encompassing both conceptual and empirical contributions and the use of differ­ent perspectives and methodologies. No single methodology, conceptual or disciplinary perspective is likely to prove sufficient to address the subject of public engagement. And there are welcome shifts in the literature away from a narrow use of opinion poll methods and case study designs, a willingness to adopt concepts from diverse academic disciplines including political science, geography, environmental psychology, sociology and planning, and the growing number of research studies operating across disciplinary boundaries, integrating scholars from diverse fields. To ensure that it continues, funding agencies, professional bodies and industrial organizations should continue to fund social science research activity and invest in capacity-building across national boundaries, so that well-designed evaluations of participatory activities become routine under­takings and so that critical commentary can continue to inform our understanding of public engagement with renewable energy.

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