Book Review
Renewable Energy and the Public

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Over the years, a large part of the discourse surrounding renewable energy has been focused on policymaking and the role of governments around the world. Advocacy groups and environment bodies have added to the cacophony every now and then alongside the corporate world which has often attempted to go green to look good. The missing link in all this has been engagement with the public in decision-making on the issue of the development of renewable energy, its rationale and methods.

The book – Renewable Energy and the Public, from NIMBY to Participation – appears to be a bid to address this shortcoming. For the uninitiated, NIMBY stands for ‘Not in my backyard’. It is relevant to this debate because the concept of ‘NIMBYism’ has had a major influence in shaping how industry, policymakers and media think about and respond to renewable energy proposals in their locality. It is also often used to address what at first seems to be a confusing ‘social gap’ between high levels of public support for renewable energy and frequent local hostility toward specific project proposals.

Edited by Patrick Devine-Wright of UK’s Exeter University, the book has as many as 33 contributors, who cover different dimensions of the debate across its 21 chapters broadly divided into two sections. The opening chapter – Symmetries, Expectations, Dynamics and Contexts: A Framework for Understanding Public Engagement with Renewable Energy Projects – alone has 13 contributors. While this may have added to the quality of research, such a structure is unlikely to put forward and stick to a specific point of view.

However, at the outset, the book nails a critical argument with regard to human advancement and its social consequence, and the wide gap between the two. Devine-Wright, who specializes in social and psychological aspects of new energy infrastructure, grapples with the subject in his introductory passage. He maintains that research and development into renewable energy has been dominated by technological and economic approaches, to the detriment of input by social science.

The book reveals the social scientists’ capacity to inform industry practices and policymaking, and to serve as a more useful and reliable evidence base compared to mere commonsense beliefs. It is evident that, despite significant progress the sector has made, a number of loose ends need to be tied. As should be the case with any meaningful endeavor of this scale, Renewable Energy and the Public is well-structured and delineates conceptual approaches to public engagement from empirical research. It is interspersed with complex set of processes, dynamics and interactions involved in understanding public responses to large-scale, developer-led renewable energy technology (RET) developments.

The book gathers momentum with Claire Haggett’s second chapter – ‘Planning and Persuasion’: Public Engagement in Renewable Energy Decision-making.’ It narrates how renewable energy has come to occupy the political and policy agenda as never before. There are two components of this agenda, i.e. the planning, which focuses on the UK Planning Act of 2008, and the persuasion, which means convincing people that climate change is a more pressing environmental concern than the localized impact of a renewable energy development. This chapter’s focus on policymaking in the UK makes it a test case of the principles and benefits of engaging the public on the issue of renewable energy and the various means to achieve it.

A clearer understanding of these issues leads to increasing the proportion of energy generated from renewable sources and also removes the ‘problem’ of public opposition. Haggett drives home the point that issues of public support and opposition have to be addressed if renewable energy is deemed a core part of tackling carbon emissions and climate change. In her own words: “Seeing the public as a ‘barrier’ or as ignorant about renewable is unlikely to be helpful.” This highlights the idea of valuing local expertise, recognizing the contribution that different groups can make and employing methods that are exclusively seeking to engage divergent communities.

The editor returns later to deal with the rather fascinating subject of renewable energy technologies and their evolution. Patrick Devine-Wright opens up a focus of enquiry in social research on renewable energy technologies and explores its implications for public engagement. More interestingly, he brings ‘backyard’ back into contention. According to him, a representation of the location of energy projects is the ‘backyard’, which is bound up with ‘NIMBYism’, a term that has frequently been used to refer to local opposition to an array of technologies or facilities, including waste dumps, gas pipelines and wind farms.

Devine-Wright concludes that social science research has often tended to overlook the where component of energy projects in comparison to what or how dimensions. This leads to greater focus on characteristics of the technology or decision-making process in contrast with characteristics of the context or locality. Fortunately, this is beginning to change, which becomes evident throughout the length of this book.

The second part of Renewable Energy and the Public brings its UK-centric analysis to a brief halt. Chapter 10, co-authored by Peta Ashworth, Anna Littleboy, Paul Graham and Simon Niemeye, deals with public engagement in Australia’s energy future. It is a deft analysis of how climate change is bringing Australian society face to face with issues that go right to the heart of its economy. ‘NIMBYism’ turns into ‘YIMBYism’ in Chapter 14 – Yes In My Backyard: UK Householders Pioneering Microgeneration Technologies – in which Sally Caird and Robin Roy highlight the significant contribution microgeneration technologies have made toward achieving the UK’s carbon reduction targets.

Subsequent chapters bring into focus the state of affairs – and also divergent renewable energy experiments – in UK, Brazil, Arizona and other places in the United States. However, even a fleeting reference to the Middle East, and its significant progress, is conspicuous by its absence. The unison that exists between government policies and public engagement on renewable energy in places such as Abu Dhabi and the money that is being spent in this part of the world for a greener future could have been used as an example to better illustrate the subject. No such effort is made.

A book as comprehensive as this wouldn’t have been complete without dealing with nuclear energy, for obvious reasons. Catherine Butler, Karen Parkhill and Nick Pidgeon, however, combine to provide a rather sedate view in Chapter 21 – From the Material to the Imagined: Public Engagement with Low Carbon Technologies in a Nuclear Community. According to them, both renewable forms of electricity production and nuclear power have been the source of vociferous public contestation.

“Nuclear power has long been associated with high levels of controversy and public opposition at both local and national levels…However, due to increasing political concern over climate change (and indeed issues of energy security), the low carbon credentials of nuclear power are being extolled...” Indeed, these are winds of change and the debate surrounding public engagement with renewable energy is not untouched by it. This book is not meant for someone with a superficial interest in the subject. For everyone else, it is a must-read.