Securing social acceptance to succeed

Community opposition has been identified as one of the biggest roadblocks to advancing the energy transition. How can we achieve the social acceptance needed to mitigate this risk?

A Tesla battery bank outdoors under a starlit night sky.

From roadblock to reality

To support a credible pathway to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the production of renewable energy needs to triple from 2022 levels by 2030 (IEA). Hope of achieving this grand ambition rests with our ability to rapidly plan, finance, approve and construct an enormous pipeline of new energy projects. The sheer scale and pace of the infrastructure build required will undoubtedly impact communities, most notably in regional and rural locations, where the vast majority of new generation and storage projects will be located. Enormous networks of upgraded and extended transmission and distribution systems will also be needed, criss-crossing communities in all corners of the world.

This disproportionate impact outside city centres is already starting to directly impact regional and rural towns, including farming and indigenous communities, resulting in conflict between parties, costly negotiations and painfully slow progress. Indeed, SHOCKED, one of the largest studies ever conducted among the global energy sector C-Suite, reveals that 70 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that community opposition is one of the largest obstacles to getting new clean energy projects approved. The findings demonstrate that how the community perceives these projects – either positively or negatively – has the potential to significantly impact progress towards a net zero future. How we approach community engagement and education will therefore be crucial to quelling opposition and garnering much-needed support for the energy transition.

Demystifying the transition to de-risk it

Three-quarters (74 percent) of the energy leaders who participated in SHOCKED believe the sector needs to get better at educating communities on the need for transition. Put simply, achieving net zero can’t and won’t be achieved without deep involvement and engagement of communities. This is why we need to have authentic, honest conversations with the public about the cost of the energy transition and the trade-offs that will be required to build more resilient systems that can weather future shocks, while providing the long-lasting benefits of decarbonisation. It will take a concerted and multi-faceted effort to help individuals and communities understand the enormity of the infrastructure program required if we are to avoid and mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.

Successful community engagement begins with broad awareness and understanding – transparent and fact-based education programs will be key. Unfortunately, many individuals and communities are at times sceptical of the benefits promoted by infrastructure projects, having had first-hand experience of promises made but not delivered. We need to learn from past mistakes, understanding that historic engagement approaches have led to mistrust, and re-build relationships through authentic communication with the people affected. The sooner that investors, developers and governments engage communities in fact-based, dispassionate and non-political conversations on the potential disruptions and expected impacts of energy projects, the sooner we can move to a position of informed discussion. This discussion must be coupled with the many benefits of these energy projects, such as job creation, local investment and cleaner energy supply.

Education programs must also be grounded in the latest science, delivered over the long-term and widely disseminated – across all types of communities and all generations (including being taught in schools) – and leveraging a variety of mass media, including film, television and the myriad social platforms available. Making the evening news won’t be enough – the conversation has to infiltrate all forms of art and popular culture, from music to movie-making.

Ultimately, it is the public who will shoulder the immediate burden of the energy transition, whether through price volatility or community disruption, and it is the public that will see long-term benefits as well. To garner their support, it is therefore critical that widespread awareness and understanding of the short-term pain – but long-term gain – of transitioning to a low-carbon energy system is urgently undertaken.

A consistent and united voice

In addition to deeply investing in community education to de-mystify the transition, we need to harness a consistent, unified and trusted voice. Opinion leaders and institutions that speak with authority must stand-up to the plate; governments at every level and global bodies all have a role to play. There is a role here for central agencies, such as the United Nations, to speak to the practical, community-based issues around the transition – what it will cost and the benefits it will derive – in addition to the global, intergovernmental action already being advocated for. This would contribute to a more aware public that understands both the challenges and the value of the work being done.

The reach and credibility of these peak bodies should be complemented by trusted local voices – community leaders and local champions – who can speak to the challenges and opportunities related to the energy transition with a consistent, yet nuanced, perspective. Unity of global storytelling while making room for regional relevance will help people connect with the energy transition and motivate the understanding and mindset shift required to accept and adopt what’s to come.

Authentically engaging to build understanding

Energy companies are well aware of their obligations to engage with communities. However, bare minimum or mandated community consultation won’t go far enough towards harnessing the genuine community support needed to drive a rapid transition. Opposition to projects, leading to delays or cancellations, is often the result of communities simply not feeling respected or heard. Energy companies need to make the time to not only meet with communities and listen to their concerns but demonstrate a collaborative approach whereby solutions are co-designed with them. Taking time to understand and respond to the local ‘lived experience’ – the unique circumstances of the people living within any given community – will also ensure that the resulting energy infrastructure is more equitable, accessible and fit for purpose.

Creating a two-way conversation with diverse voices is also critical; by engaging early and with the right intent, any physical, social or cultural barriers are more easily overcome. Energy projects that are set-up from the start to better meet the community’s future needs and where the driver behind the project is well understood, are not only less likely to receive opposition in the planning phase but are also more likely to deliver ongoing social return on investment, by creating more connected, productive and shock-resilient communities. This is also a key element of securing the permits and approvals needed to construct and operate the infrastructure.

Turning opposition into opportunity

Reducing the roadblock of community opposition to realise the ‘big build’ of renewable energy infrastructure ahead won’t be easy – but it is within our reach. The volume and speed of the rollout required to support the energy transition will be unlike anything this generation has experienced. Individuals and communities must understand why this change must occur, how it will happen, its benefits and risks, and importantly, what their role in it is. We will need to work together so that people have the context and information needed to accept change, rather than actively oppose it. That will require consistent, authentic messaging, effective collaboration and meaningful engagement at all levels – from peak international bodies to local governments, from energy companies to project proponents – to help communities participate in, and benefit from, the transition to a net zero future and the net negative future beyond it.

Reducing the roadblock of community opposition to realise the ‘big build’ of renewable energy infrastructure ahead won’t be easy – but it is within our reach.