Helena Solman, PhD researcher at ENP, has been selected for Elsevier Weekly’s prestigious 30 under 30 list for her work on public engagement in wind energy projects. I sat down with her to reflect on the implications of her research and what it is like to be a young researcher.
By Gijs Romijn
Please, for those of us who don’t know yet, could you tell us who Helena Solman is?
I grew up in Poland and came to Wageningen over 10 years ago to do a Bachelor of Science in Tourism, which I followed up with a master’s in Landscape Architecture and Planning. During my consultancy work in Amsterdam I realized how important public engagement is for the issues of spatial planning and sustainability, and that my place should be in academia. I then started a PhD-position at ENP (WUR’s Environmental Policy Group), which is almost coming to an end now. I guess my story is one of Wageningen, that's definitely consistent throughout my career.
Could you tell us about the work you are currently involved with at WUR?
My PhD is part of an EU funded project called UPWARDS. The ambition of UPWARDS was to design an advanced simulation framework that can be used to design new wind turbines but also as a tool for decision-making about wind farm planning or operation. From the start, we wanted to integrate societal aspects into that simulation and see how they interact, which gives a more local idea about the impact of wind turbines. We’re not just modeling noise for a random turbine at the location, but are actually considering the impacts of wind turbines will be on its environment: What is the landscape there? Where are people living? How will the sound carry?
In my own research, I take it a little bit further: I want to understand why people are really concerned about wind energy, and what role digital technologies have in governance of wind energy. For example, I conducted a case study to understand the assumptions and the role of the different variables in these tools. For example, we know that noise is annoying, but we don't always know why people are concerned about it. I used apps to monitor how people perceived noise from wind turbines, but also studied how people interact with these apps and what concerns they have that go beyond these digital tools. A lot of people who worry about wind turbine noise told me they were usually considered just the people who always complain, and that I was the first who actually tries to understand why they argue that they are annoyed or get sick because of wind turbines. Being open to their stories really helped me to understand what people consider fair and sustainable solutions in wind energy.
Congratulations on being on Elsevier’s 30 under 30 list. How does it feel for your work to be recognized in this way?
I was definitely really happy. The experience of doing research is often a challenging time where you develop your own ideas and think out of the box. You are trying to figure out a big problem and sometimes you are not sure how society perceives your ideas, so it is very rewarding to be listed as a talent in the Dutch context!
This attention to the topic also helps me gain visibility for my research and continue engaging in a meaningful dialogue with society. I’m trying to add this nuance: it’s not about whether people oppose or accept wind energy, but how we actually engage with it. And this very simple message, advocating for more participation, became kind of my manifesto. But having a position in the debate takes visibility, so I am happy that I was able to represent Wageningen and the faculty on this list.
What is it like being a researcher under 30?
I have to say that I do notice that I'm under 30. The UPWARDS consortium was quite senior, so I felt I had a lot to learn, but I also had a lot of interesting people to learn from. It's really required me to be a mature kind of researcher. This world is quite technical, and I was the only young, social science scholar, and one of the few women there, so I did think I had to prove myself at the beginning. I had to learn a lot quickly, but this gave me a lot of satisfaction and good energy.
If there is one thing you want people to know about wind energy, what would it be?
I think what my research more broadly shows is that energy governance is changing through this digital aspect. We will be making more data-based decisions in the future. This is exciting, because it can make things smarter or more efficient, but I think we really have to take into account that there is a very important human aspect to this digital transition and that people cannot be so easily put in a box. People who live close to wind farms have a lot of knowledge and ideas about what's good for them. I think that one of the worst things that we can do is just to assume that digital technologies will solve problems in wind energy governance for us, but I believe they do have the potential help us achieve this together.
What is next for you?
“That's a good question that I also been thinking quite a lot about now that my PhD is coming to an end. I do see myself in an academic career and I would like to continue being able to work on big societal challenges. We are just at the tip of the iceberg of all the issues that come with the digital transition, so it will be exciting to continue working on this.