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Opposition to energy projects

Energy transition will entail the construction of large numbers of new energy installations. Such construction projects may meet with opposition from people living close by. Assistant Professor Bríd Walsh investigated how the local community can best take part in such projects.

‘My interest in understanding local opposition to energy projects stems from my childhood,’ says Bríd Walsh. ‘Back in the 1990s, my father was involved in the construction of the first wind turbines in Ireland. At that time, people were hesitant about wind technology and were concerned about their visual impact on the landscape, as well as about noise and possible health problems. I was quite young at the time, but I remember that it caused problems and affected relationships within the local community as some were for wind energy and others against it. At the time, I found it hard to understand where this opposition was coming from, especially because the technology offered an alternative to fossil fuels. My interest in energy and social interaction is firmly rooted in my youth.’

Walsh has a background in Law and Geography. For her PhD, she investigated the social sustainability of wind energy projects in Ireland, Denmark and the Netherlands. The goal of her research was to understand why local communities oppose both public and private wind energy projects. She has continued this research, focusing more recently on the meaning of ‘community’ in community energy projects and on the concept of energy citizenship.

The wind turbine near the village where Bríd Walsh grew up (Photo: Bríd Walsh)

NIMBY: an outdated explanation for local opposition to energy projects

In the early days of renewable energy development, local opposition was understood as being motivated by Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) sentiments. But Walsh explains that NIMBY is not a good explanation for why local people oppose energy projects: ‘NIMBY suggests that there would be no opposition if the project were elsewhere, that people object to projects for selfish reasons and are against all forms of change. NIMBY is now largely considered outdated as it does not do justice to the multitude of reasons driving local opposition to energy infrastructure.’

Unpacking opposition: a complex web

‘Often the explanations for opposition are context specific, but there are some general trends,’ Walsh explains. ‘Locals may oppose projects when they feel that they do not have a voice within the planning process, and where there is little iterative dialogue between powerful stakeholders and the locals.’

It’s useful to look to environmental psychology to help unpack the drivers of opposition to renewable energy, says Walsh. ‘We can look to the theory of place attachment or the emotional bond that a person has with a specific place as either an individual or a member of a community. It can manifest itself as an emotional or functional attachment to place. A place can also become part of our identity. Place attachment can be especially powerful in longstanding, rooted communities in isolated rural areas such as the west coast of Ireland. In developing energy projects, developers and other powerful stakeholders need to work with communities to ensure that projects do not disrupt their place attachment. Approach the communities early, talk to them, listen to them, provide feedback and justifications if their comments are not incorporated into the project design.’

Bríd Walsh: 'Genuine citizen participation is key.'

Becoming an 'energy citizen'

Tackling climate change is one of the big questions of our time. ‘This is a question that reaches into every corner of our economic system. It is a policy question. It is a technology issue. It is a local and global issue. It is a development issue and so on.  Transitioning to an energy system that is reliant on 100% renewable energy sources is central to mitigating climate change.’ To achieve this transition, Walsh says, genuine citizen participation is key. ‘We need to make changes at every level and across different sectors – from electricity production to transportation. We also need to make changes at the individual level. This could mean voting for green politicians, getting a smart meter, driving an electric car, eating less meat and using an induction hob instead of a gas one. Citizens are key players in energy transition; they can become prosumers, which means they can produce and consume electricity.’

Walsh is currently a lecturer at Leiden University College, Leiden University’s honours programme in The Hague. She teaches courses on Energy, Resource Management and International Environmental Law. Through research clinics and other research projects, Walsh works with her students on questions related to the energy transition. A recent project focuses on energy citizenship and the transition to gas-free households in the Netherlands.

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