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public views on UK energy mix put values above cost

Frackers beware: public views on UK energy mix put values above cost

New report finds that fairness, security, affordability and avoiding wastefulness are key to forming public views on energy

Certain truisms have wormed their way into the national discourse of how people think about energy. We're told that no-one wants a wind turbine in their back yard. It's common knowledge that going green is only for the economic good times. And everyone knows that the only thing people are interested in when it comes to the energy system is the cost of their bills.

The trouble with truisms, though, is that they aren't always as true as they first appear. And as a new report on a major programme of work exploring public attitudes towards the UK energy system shows, many widely shared assumptions about what motivates public views on energy are probably in need of revision.

The report – produced by my colleagues in the Understanding Risk group at Cardiff University for the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) – is one of the first to document public perceptions of the energy system as a whole (rather than as individual technologies such as nuclear or solar power).

Based on a series of interviews, in-depth discussion groups and a nationally representative survey, the project documented how people think the energy system should change between now and 2050 – the date by which British emissions of carbon dioxide must be reduced to 80% of their current level.

Ready for change

First and foremost, people expect and even want change. Taking a pragmatic position in the face of inevitable transformation over the next 30 years, most people see an opportunity to "do it right". And for the majority of people, doing it right means a reduction in fossil fuels – seen as archaic, polluting and finite – and an increase in renewables.

There were mixed views on whether wind turbines spoiled landscapes, or were actually good for local communities. But when considered in the context of other technologies, such as nuclear power, the message was clear: 21% opposed the building of a wind farm in their area, while 54% opposed the building of a nuclear power plant.

Cost was found to be a critical determinant of public perceptions, with energy bills understandably featuring prominently. But, strikingly, the cheapest options were not necessarily the most preferred, particularly if they came with other undesirable attributes (eg fossil fuel reliance).

In fact, through a closer inspection of the underlying principles on which public views were based, the report was able to describe a set of core values on which perceptions of the energy system seem to crucially hinge. These values included fairness, security, affordability, minimising damage to the natural environment and avoiding wastefulness.

Particular technologies or social practices that embodied these values were likely to be viewed more favourably. Fairness, for example, was found to underpin beliefs about the openness and accountability of energy suppliers, the involvement of local communities in decisions about siting new technologies, and the potential for importing fossil fuels to cause global conflict.

Only by taking a more holistic approach to the study of public views about the energy system were commonalities like these possible to identify. And, as the increasingly heated debates around fracking demonstrate, these are lessons that urgently need learning.

Government must listen

Despite acute concern over the development of fracking operations in Balcombe, West Sussex, and broader debates about the implications for climate change and energy policy, government and industry rhetoric has failed to engage with public values. In fact, local authorities have apparently been advised by central government to ignore fracking protests.

This strategy, however, is likely to run into trouble. As the Cardiff report says: "If actors do not consider and take into account public values in their decision-making, resistance to energy-system transformations or conflict over particular issues is more likely to result."

In other words, governments and energy companies ignore the views and values of the public at their peril: a contract for social change will not be achieved by marginalising or otherwise excluding public views from the debate.

And nothing less than a contract for social change is likely to deliver transformation in the UK energy system between now and 2050. For sure, there are multiple pathways to sustainability. But none will come to fruition if they do not embody values such as fairness and frugality – the underlying drivers of public beliefs.

Public views about the energy system are about much more than household bills and nimbys. The sooner the government and industry bodies engage seriously with the values the public cares about, the more successful – and politically popular – that transformation is likely to be.

Adam Corner is a research associate in the school of psychology at Cardiff University, and also works for the Climate Outreach and Information Network