Universiteit Leiden

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Public perception of energy projects

The transition from fossil fuels and the practical changes that this entails make many demands on citizens. Emma ter Mors, a psychologist and lecturer at Leiden University, is researching the factors that contribute to public perception and acceptance of new energy technologies.

In its Terrorist Threat Assessment for the Netherlands for September 2018, the National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV) concluded that ‘the anti-wind-turbine protests in some parts of the Netherlands (…) have radicalised in the past year.’

While scientists are working hard to make the energy transition technically feasible, the realisation of energy projects is encountering problems. Several energy projects – such as the installation of onshore or offshore wind turbines – are being delayed or cancelled due to resistance from local parties.

Perception as the starting point for policy

Emma ter Mors conducts research during energy and infrastructure projects into public acceptance and especially public perception of a project: what do citizens see as the advantages and disadvantages of new technology? What is the intended use of this technology? How does it work?

This kind of knowledge is relevant to developing government policy and carrying out projects: what do the public and stakeholders think of a certain technology? Is it realistic to start a project? Ter Mors mainly studies energy and infrastructure projects, including the capture and storage of CO2. ‘If you understand the mechanisms behind resistance, you can use that knowledge for all kinds of projects,’ she adds.

Explanatory psychological factors

What do people think about energy projects, and why? Psychological explanations can relate first to the technology itself – how do people estimate the nuisance level or health risks? What do they know about the technology? – and second, to socio-political factors. When do you introduce a topic to local residents: early or late in the process? Do you give the host community a say in decisions? What are the advantages and disadvantages of a project? Do people trust developers or government agencies? ‘This last question is important, and it’s a serious problem,’ says Ter Mors. ‘The parties working on a project are usually government agencies and companies: two players that by definition are not seen as particularly trustworthy.’

Emma ter Mors: ‘The parties working on a project are usually government agencies and companies: two players that by definition are not seen as particularly trustworthy.’

The right form of compensation

There is no ‘magic formula’ for preventing resistance: people and circumstances are just too complicated. But since 2014, Ter Mors has already collected a wealth of data that has surprised policymakers or has provided justification for policies that have already been introduced. ‘Knowledge about a particular technology only influences people’s opinions to a certain extent,’ she says. ‘Equally important, for instance, is whether a technology fits in with the values of local residents, as well as how the host community is compensated or the risks are mitigated when a project is introduced. For example, by ensuring that a cable with potential electromagnetic radiation is laid extra deep in the ground.’

The right kind of compensation is an important element in Ter Mors’ research. ‘You can offer many different forms of compensation, such as in monetary form or by improving local amenities. With compensation, things can sometimes go drastically wrong, and then an offer of compensation can definitively rule out a project’s acceptance. The timing is especially crucial. If compensation is used too late and as a way to get citizens to accept a project, perceptions of bribery can arise. Offering it too early can cause problems as well. There might also be a mismatch between the risks of a project and what you offer as compensation. ‘We now know from research, for example, that local residents respond very negatively if you offer money in a situation where they are worried about their health or safety. These are sacrosanct values. Compensation is then seen as immoral.’ However, if the compensation does fit in with the local residents’ values, it can actually have a positive effect on their trust and acceptance of the project, concludes Ter Mors.

At present, Ter Mors’ research includes leading the large ‘Implementing CCUS in Society’ subprogramme within the interdisciplinary EU ALIGN-CCUS project (2017-2020). The goal of this programme is to conduct several studies and collect dos and don’ts that can help transform industrial regions in the EU into low-carbon centres by 2025. She also provides ad hoc advice to government agencies, companies and knowledge institutions on public consultation and communication in relation to energy and infrastructure projects.

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