Today is Earth Day, an annual event to demonstrate support for environmental issues, and it’s got me thinking about renewable energy. If Britain is to meet its ambitious climate goals, it will need to accelerate its shift towards low carbon energy production, but that process is not straightforward. For one thing, the large scale infrastructure often associated with renewable energy sources is not always popular with local communities. Over the last year, Built-ID has worked with a number of leading providers of renewable energy to canvas local people on their views and it has thrown up a range of interesting insights.
What makes communities more likely to support renewable energy projects?
Here are 5 steps that the industry can take, supported with real quotes from recent consultations.
Step 1 – Educate and Build Trust
“Education is so important. I just completed my thesis on climate change and it completely changed my behaviour in food and energy consumption, recycling and purchasing environmentally friendly products.”
“I feel educating communities and schools about the importance of green energy should absolutely be a factor going forward. Hopefully there will be a government-run initiative in the near future to roll out seminars to school children and to communities”
On average communities are neutral to somewhat-trusting of renewable energy as a sector, but our data shows that this trust begins to wane as the level of knowledge about renewable energy decreases, with those who admit to not knowing much about renewables most likely to mistrust the industry. Greater climate literacy is one of the core goals of Earth Day and our experience shows that there is still work for the renewable energy industry to do. The more communities know about renewable energy projects, the more likely they are to support them, and the sector should do all it can to promote climate education.
Step 2 – Demonstrate Clear Environmental Benefit
“Renewables are an environmental disaster for the planet and cause more harm than good. A total waste of rare resources.”
“Wind farms are one huge carbon footprint for a piddling amount of energy. They are most definitely not environmentally friendly when you consider their building, maintenance and scrapping processes.”
The environmental impact of projects has a key influence over how likely people are to support developments, and some communities are sceptical over how “green” renewable energy sources actually are. Concerns often centre on ecological damage to sea beds and bird populations, as well as the potential carbon footprint of developments once manufacture, transport and maintenance are considered. Much of this criticism is unfair and as I have reflected on previously, if renewable energy providers wish to attract support for their proposals they should directly address the green credentials of their schemes and be clear in their claims regarding environmental benefit.
Step 3 – Minimise Visual Impact
“Whilst I appreciate that we must do more to try to protect our planet and live in a more eco friendly way, I believe these hideous looking monstrosities are the wrong way to go…the visual impact of these eyesores on places of serenity and beauty are nothing other than appalling.”
“Every community should be given an artist’s impression of the visual impact of the wind farm. I don’t think the majority of residents fully understand the impact this will have on completion.”
In our experience, the potential visual impact of projects is a key concern across communities and projects which seek to maximise environmental benefits whilst minimising visual impact are more likely to receive support. The industry should do all it can to reduce the visual impact of their developments and explore the use of visualisation technologies to have an honest dialogue with communities over likely impact.
Step 4 – Deliver Community Benefit
“[I would be supportive] if the local renewable energy project brought rewards to the community such as cheaper energy, jobs creation and other financial benefits to the local economy.”
“Communities need to benefit from the energy and not be ignored by developers.”
Communities are more likely to support proposals when they can see a direct benefit to them. The most frequently cited benefits communities wish to see are local job opportunities and reduced energy bills. The sector should clearly articulate the direct benefits that affected communities will receive and our data shows that they should focus on these two areas in particular.
Step 5 – Engage With Communities
“We need proper discussion and community involvement! Engage the local people, do NOT ignore them”
“Give local people all the information about what to expect, and also give them all the information on the horrors and unsustainability of fossil fuels.”
Communities often feel that renewable energy providers need to do more to better engage and demonstrate that local views are being listened to. COVID-19 has presented a challenge to in-person events and the sector should continue to harness new digital technologies to engage with as wide and as representative an audience as possible.
COVID-19 has witnessed a record-setting period for renewable energy in Britain, including a 68 day coal free run between April and June and an Easter Bank Holiday where low-carbon sources made up 80% of Britain’s power. As the nation emerges from lockdown and seeks to build additional renewable energy infrastructure, providers must do all they can to bring impacted communities along with them. This can sometimes be a challenge, but our experience shows that simple steps can make a big difference.