ENP researcher Helena Solman recently published a climate opinion piece, Participation is not intended to overcome resistance, in the NRC Climateblog (May 31, 2021). In this article Helena delves into her research expertise on wind energy and public participation. She addresses the question of how citizens can meaningfully influence the agenda around wind energy and argues that there is a need to organize participation differently in the sector.
Participation is not intended to overcome resistance
NRC climate opinon piece by Helena Solman
Published in NRC Climateblog May 31, 2021
Wind energy is a controversial topic. For one person it may be a symbol of a transition to a greener world, and for another it is associated with an ugly, industrial landscape. So far, we have seen that efforts made to overcome the dichotomy have only added oil to the fire of opposition. The question is how citizens can meaningfully influence agenda around wind energy. Citizens can be better engaged in decision-making about wind energy. But to do so, there is a need to organize participation differently, argues researcher Helena Solman.
What commonly pops into mind when we hear of participation are consultation meetings organized by municipalities or information evenings in which citizens are made aware of plans for wind farms. But from literature research that I did together with my colleagues, it turns out that there are many other ways in which people actively engage with wind energy.
In the last years, we have seen a growing number of energy cooperatives and local projects developed with or by citizens. Such developments are not only efficient in terms of time and costs spent on compensation or years-long participation but also often produce environmentally friendly designs, thanks to better decisions about how and where wind energy should be developed. What is different about such collective participation compared to invited participation is that the ownership over developed projects is in the hands of average citizens.
On what aspects should citizens have a say so that their engagement has been meaningful? In the invited forms of participation, most of the attention commonly goes to finding an acceptable location. The aesthetics and choice in different models of wind turbines themselves is often not discussed. In short, citizens can say yes or no to plans instead of co-designing them.
On the Smola Island in Norway, citizens came together to protect local bird populations and decided to paint one of the blades on wind turbines black to prevent bird strikes. This change helped to decrease bird strikes by a vast 70%. In the Netherlands, this kind of approach is still quite rare.
To some extent, it has been taken up in the National Program RES (Nationaal Programma Regionale Energiestrategie) in which individual regions can find their own pathways to energy transitions, finding a balance between the use of space for renewable energy projects and public acceptance. What is, however, often left out is how the design of wind turbines, solar panels or other technologies could be changed to better fit the landscapes and to mitigate concerns about noise or the obstruction of light. This is a clear blind spot. In the future we will hopefully see much more collaboration between manufactures and citizens to find not only technically efficient but also socially and environmentally fit technologies.
Inspiration to enhance participation can be found in online means of participation. And this goes beyond e-participation. It can include virtual reality, apps that gather feedback from residents about operation of wind farms, through websites that offer wind energy shares and social media channels that organize crowdfunding or discussions around wind energy developments.
All these virtual ways of engagement can be seen as platforms for participation. Even though some are in the private domain and others are informal, they have tangible effects on how and where in energy in developed. Especially now, in times of the Covid-19 health crisis, we need to find ways to continue involving citizens with renewable energy developments in a safe and meaningful way.
Good participation is much more than overcoming resistance. For a sustainable and just transition, openness to an input from citizens is necessary as well as their active engagement that is grounded in collective ownership of new wind energy infrastructure. In this way, energy transition can truly be a step to a greener economy in which societal dialogue creates foundations for decisions made.