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date: 24 May 2020

(p. 341) Energy and Publics

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This chapter discusses both local opposition and local support to renewable energy developments, with particular attention to wind farms and solar power plants. Actors, arguments, and actions are examined and contrasted. It is argued that opposition to renewables has received far more attention from social scientists, even though the success of this sector in several countries can show that support is frequent and widespread. Regarding opposition, the NIMBY hypothesis is discarded and other more complex and multilayered explanations are discussed, such as place attachment, landscape concerns, procedural and distributive justice, and actual impacts of wind and solar farms. Concerning support to renewable energy developments, justifications such as economic benefits (namely financial incentives and employment generation), landscape rehabilitation, and environmental values are explored.

Public perceptions, their expression in politics and the market, and their emergent effects have more relevance to energy-society relations than they are generally given credit for. Their impact results not only from their consumption decisions; they are, after all, citizens as well as consumers. Public views have had a notable influence on energy policymaking in many circumstances, sometimes pushing for greener, more sustainable energy consumption options; at other times they do not necessarily favor improvements in sustainability, energy conservation, and efficiency.

As Ana Delicado makes clear in Chapter 18, all energy generation infrastructure, whether in the form of a coal mine or a wind farm, must necessarily be located somewhere, leading to impacts on real places and peoples across the globe. Local peoples and politics will play a substantial role in present and future energy-society relations, including the potential for a renewable energy transition. Delicado confirms that local opposition cannot be reduced to the NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) syndrome. Those opposed may well have strong climate and environmental predispositions, and yet have very reasonable concerns about specific renewable energy facilities. By the same token, supporters can have a variety of reasons for their support, not all of them “green.” Finding resolutions to local conflicts will require closer attention to the contextual factors that affect support.

In Chapter 19, Sampsa Hyysalo and Jouni K. Juntunen uncover another important and yet unrecognized role of consumers/citizens. Renewable energy is often touted for its decentralized character, yet Hyysalo and Juntunen show that this decentralization (p. 342) goes much further than originally recognized. While technological innovations are often attributed to “expertise,” we have users—tinkerers and backyard scientists—to thank for creating the very innovations that have allowed for the upscaling of many renewable energy technologies. The real strengths and weaknesses of any tool, after all, are revealed not in the laboratory, but in its use in everyday life.

Chapter 20 closes off this section on a cautionary note. Aleksandra Wagner turns our attention to the role of media, a prevailing source for discourse in every household. According to Wagner, while the political influence of publics may indeed be substantial, the positions and actions they take are reflections of the discursive frames and narratives to which they are subjected. Discourses in public spheres matter to policy and practice, and media has a fundamental influence over those discourses. Wagner notes that the tendency among mainstream mass media institutions to privilege “expertise” discourse can exclude many citizens from engaging in dialogues about energy. Those narratives that dominate the airwaves thus serve to narrow debates and future options to the status quo. Proponents of alternative narratives feel compelled to frame their positions to fit within a dominant economic narrative; as a result, their potential to support a transition in our energy systems currently remains limited.