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9 May 2012
Neighbours, local politics, and whether you live in a city or an urban area are all key factors in decision-making process
The public is broadly supportive of energy system change away from high hydro-carbon dependency and towards renewable forms of energy, and are sceptical about the role of hydrocarbons, unconventional fossil fuels and new technologies in future energy systems.
And people are much more likely to take steps to secure energy system change in their own homes if they see their friends and neighbours doing so first.
These are some of the initial findings from a research project funded by the UK Energy Research Council (UKERC,) carried out by a team based at Cardiff University, and consisting of a series of in-depth workshops with members of the public across six UK locations between June and October 2011. The findings indicate key areas of public acceptability and unacceptability relating to whole energy system change, and offer insights into the factors that influence people's views on the issue. Understanding these connections, associations and contexts will help to identify the challenges that lie ahead and inform the development of future energy systems.
The respondents remained positive about renewable energy even when some of the possible negatives or potentially challenging issues - such as managing demand and electrification - were explained to them. But they were far less accepting of bio-energy and carbon capture and storage, viewing them as approaches more likely to defer rather than solve the UK's energy system problems. Attitudes towards nuclear were also broadly negative when viewed in relation to the other available energy supply options; even among those who were more positive, support only extended to replacing existing nuclear sites rather than the wider development of new sites across the UK. Hydrocarbons (oil, gas and coal) were viewed as polluting, archaic, finite and as sources of global conflict and, in general, respondents remained negative about the role of hydrocarbons in future energy systems.
The research also flags up some of the other factors that influence people's attitudes to energy system change: the importance of endorsements from neighbours, for example, before people felt confident in undertaking measures aimed at securing energy system transition; the politics of place - in Scotland, for example, one respondent's negative response to carbon capture and storage was rooted in her desire that Scotland should not be seen as a ‘dustbin of the world'; the profit-making ethos of the energy sector, which translated into mistrust about the intentions behind policies aimed at securing energy system change.
Interestingly, the respondents also expressed a preference for higher but more stable energy bills rather than potentially lower but fluctuating bills, indicating that people's decisions are not, perhaps, always determined by immediate financial considerations and that there may be a greater understanding of the need for more sustainable, secure energy policies among the public than is generally accepted.
Professor Nick Pidgeon, lead researcher for the project, comments: ‘This project is one of the very first to explore how the UK public views the totality of future energy system use. The interim findings point to the importance of paying close attention to the many different contexts in which decisions around energy system change are made by the general public. When it comes to getting the public on board, there are clearly many factors at play - political, social, whether you live in a city or a rural area, what your neighbours are doing, and levels of trust.
‘This research, and the final report due out in the Autumn of this year, should prove helpful in terms of pinpointing the challenges that lie ahead and informing the development of future energy systems policy for the UK.'