“Social acceptance is a multi-faceted concept”

Dr Adam Peacock, University of Exeter.

There is a lack of national guidance regarding the energy transition. That is one of the conclusions drawn by Dr Adam Peacock and Professor Patrick Devine-Wright, who are studying aspects of social acceptance within Mistra Electrification. Another conclusion is that the Swedish debate regarding wind power versus nuclear is viewed as simplistic and futile by many of those who are leading the energy transition.

Dr Adam Peacock at the University of Exeter is studying social acceptance within Mistra Electrification. As part of this research, he and Professor Patrick Devine-Wright (also at the University of Exeter) took a train journey to Sweden last year, performing interviews with stakeholders all over Sweden. Their itinerary included Luleå and Boden, where they explored communities that are affected by significant industrial projects related to the production of ‘green steel’, and Stockholm, Gothenburg, Gävle and Östersund.

– The aim of our work in the Mistra Electrification consortium is to understand the social acceptance of the energy infrastructure solutions that have been identified as necessary to achieve climate neutrality across Sweden. We seek to draw out if, where and why these different energy sources, technologies and infrastructures may or may not trigger place-enhancing or protective actions across Sweden, says Adam Peacock.

Social acceptance is a multi-faceted concept, states Adam Peacock.

– Where individual and community responses to siting new energy technologies and infrastructures were once understood through the lens of “Not In My Back Yard” responses – NIMBYism – social acceptance critiques this approach and takes a more holistic viewpoint. Instead, a social acceptance perspective focuses on how, where and why people may (or may not) engage in ‘place-protective actions’, consequently allowing or protesting against different proposals related to energy. This may not necessarily be close to where an individual lives but it could be an attempt to protect a landscape that is visited regularly, for example.

Adam Peacock and Patrick Devine-Wright are interviewing different stakeholders associated with the energy transition occurring in Sweden. Their interviews are enhanced by participatory mapping techniques, whereby participants can annotate different areas of Sweden according to the context of the conversation.

– We encourage participants to draw from their own experiences and perspectives on social acceptance and to annotate different parts of the map, indicating where social acceptance is higher or lower in different places and for different reasons, said Adam Peacock.

The map is pre-loaded with existing spatial data, including existing energy infrastructures, demographic data and spatial data with respect to protected landscapes.

To date, they have interviewed 18 individuals. The individuals with whom they engage operate in a variety of sectors, including those working for private companies, public organizations, anti-wind power organizations, and charities, as well as those working towards protecting the rights of indigenous people.

– We believe that it is important to recognize that energy transitions affect different people and different places in often unique and contextually specific ways, so it is critical to ensure that we capture a variety of perspectives in our data.

What have you found so far?
– Whilst we are still actively analysing our data, a few initial findings have emerged. First, the transition appears to be rather piecemeal. Whilst participants present a clearer narrative for driving the energy transition in the north of Sweden – pertaining to (re)industrialisation through renewables – this type of clarity is less-apparent elsewhere in Sweden.

Second, many of the stakeholders have indicated that there is a lack of national guidance to follow regarding: How to engage with host communities about project proposals ‘Story telling’ for the broader sustainable energy transition (i.e., why electrification is needed, where different technologies and infrastructures should go across Sweden and why) How to address critical local issues with municipal vetoes and using the permitting process.

– We have, however, also seen some excellent examples of innovative approaches to community engagement regarding planning decisions and municipal vetoes. While it can be tempting to focus exclusively on key challenges or objections, eliciting examples of good practice regarding engagement with communities is critical for building better practices across sectors. We hope to be able to contribute to this topic through our work. We will be publishing our full findings in due course!

In Sweden, wind power versus nuclear power has been a big issue in last year’s election. Has it had any impact on your study?
– This debate has emerged in our data multiple times. It appears that whilst political and media circles are actively engaged in this debate, many of those who are leading the energy transition view this argument as largely simplistic and futile. With regards to decarbonisation targets and energy security, many of our participants expressed the view that there is a need for multiple, different energy sources and technologies.

Adam Peacock has also noted similarities between Sweden and the United Kingdom.

– There are striking international similarities – for example, the North vs. South tensions in Sweden regarding how energy transitions could unfold have also been observed in the UK between Scotland and England, as well as between the North and South of England.

When will you have the results and what happens next?
– We have now finished conducting our interviews. We expect our initial analysis to be completed later this spring. Our focus will then be on writing up our results and presenting our findings to the consortium and communicating back to the participants. However, our work will not end there. We will in fact be using these findings to inform a more local and community-centric project during 2023 and 2024.