Deficient engagement risks eroding public consent for low carbon local energy systems

  • Climate and sustainability
  • Election 24
  • Energy systems

Dr Iain Soutar and Professor Patrick Devine-Wright, University of Exeter 

In this piece, Dr Iain Soutar and Professor Patrick Devine-Wright of the University of Exeter discuss how developing local low-carbon energy systems will not be possible without broader and deeper engagement with citizens, households, and communities.

Energy policy, regulation, shifting economics and social drivers are making energy systems more localised, placing low carbon energy technologies within people’s homes and neighbourhoods. Alongside the installation of wind and solar generation, adoption of heat pumps and electric vehicles are shifting energy systems towards local areas. Managing energy within local areas can help reduce local energy costs and the need for infrastructure investment. Decentralisation of energy systems is also envisaged – at least within policymaking and industry – as key to addressing net zero goals.

The shift to more local energy systems implies broader and deeper involvement of publics (framed intentionally in the plural to better capture diversities across society) in energy systems than has traditionally been the case. It implies encouraging the adoption of unfamiliar innovations and new behaviours within homes; gaining support for new infrastructures in communities; building legitimacy for local organisations to take on new responsibilities; and developing capacity within organisations to do so. As such, developing local energy systems will not be possible without broader and deeper engagement with citizens, households, and communities. If local energy systems are designed and deployed without sufficient engagement, there is a risk that optimistic forecasts of cost and efficiency savings will fail to be realised. In turn, this may lead to ambivalence, if not strong objections, by publics to systemic change. Recent experiences with fracking and hydrogen have highlighted the risk in failing to engage effectively and fairly with host communities.

UK industrial policy has supported the transition to local energy systems. The government invested £104m of public funds in local energy system pilot projects under the Prospering for an Energy Revolution (PFER) programme, to explore the potential for local energy systems. Given this momentum in shifting toward more local energy systems, it is important that social science research delivers significant, timely and relevant findings to inform policy and practice. This includes developing a better understanding of what local energy systems mean for different publics, what people think about these shifts, how organisations working on local energy systems are engaging people, and how engagement practices might be improved.

Research from the University of Exeter has already explored some of this and found the following.

First, our interviews with some of the organisations working to develop local energy systems showed that the importance of engagement can be downplayed and regarded as costly, time-consuming and inconvenient. Some organisations characterised people narrowly as passive consumers, underpinning a logic that energy systems should be designed for people, rather than with people. However, such an approach is misguided. People will continue to act as consumers of course, but they may also take on new roles, for example in hosting technologies (e.g. as ‘prosumers’), trading energy with peers, reducing and shifting demand, and helping to manage local electricity grid constraints. Designing effective energy systems for the future should therefore be built on a robust, evidence-based understanding (rather than anecdote) of how people want to participate in energy systems. Energy social science research can deliver that crucial evidence base.

Second, local energy systems are often led by private sector organisations, but may be designed and delivered by diverse teams of actors including local authorities and the third sector. Indeed, the PFER programme was designed around the logic that new energy systems require collaborations between such actors. Responsibilities for engagement often falls to local authorities or community groups (including community energy groups), who project partners see as being close to, and trusted by, communities. Results from our national survey also indicate that the public supports involvement of these groups in local energy initiatives. Getting better at public engagement will mean formally recognising the expertise and networks of these groups and finding more sustainable ways of supporting them with sufficient resources and capacity than has currently been the case.

Third, survey results indicate strong societal support for a shift to local energy systems (66% of respondents tend to/strongly support). However, around a quarter (26%) of respondents indicated no feelings either way, suggesting ambivalence, apathy or uncertainty around decentralisation.

Figure 1: Answers to two surveys questions (i) Levels of support or opposition to a shift from “mostly large-scale and distant energy system to a smaller scale and more local energy system” (left), and (ii) preferences for different scales of energy systems (right).

The development of Local Area Energy Plans (LAEPs) (such as in Cornwall), as well as national and local climate assemblies provide some space for these discussions, as does the development of local energy systems. However, when asked about the prospect of adopting specific local energy system innovations, our survey results indicated that the public may be reticent to adopt innovations with which they have little understanding or experience of. Despite the promise that ‘smart’ technologies offer, we cannot simply assume that local energy innovations will be of universal appeal. Rather, we need to understand the diversity and evolving nature of opinions (positive, negative, uncertain and ambivalent) that people have around local energy systems, as well as specific innovations such as heat pumps and electric vehicles.

Rather than assuming that people would prefer to remain passive and to design systems for people, we argue that policy and industry could more actively work to create local energy systems with people. Giving organisations space and resources to involve people in decision-making in a timely, inclusive and transparent manner, will help ensure that we develop energy systems with the support of those communities that will end up hosting and actively participating in them. While there are many examples of good practice within industry, much more could be done at the national level to embed effective public engagement across policies and programmes relating to climate change mitigation and net zero. Scotland and Wales have both made positive steps towards this, but there is an urgent need for a response to calls for a coherent UK strategy on public engagement (e.g. from CCC and Climate Outreach). This needs to be more than a brief PR exercise, but to engage in a sustained way with the diversity of public views about local energy system transformations in ways that seek to inclusively build societal consent for change.


This research was funded by the Energy Revolution Research Consortium (EnergyRev) as part of the Prospering From the Energy Revolution (PFER) funding programme, Grant Ref: EP/S031863/1.

About the authors

Dr Iain Soutar is a Senior Lecturer in Energy Policy at the University of Exeter. His research focuses on developing a better understanding of processes of change – and inertia – in energy and other complex systems, and the implications thereof for meeting policy as well as broader societal objectives.

Professor Patrick Devine-Wright is an academic at the University of Exeter with a background in Environmental Psychology and Human Geography. Patrick is Director of the new £6.25m ACCESS (Advancing Capacity in Climate and Environment Social Science) leadership team for environmental social science funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Image credit: Raze Solar, Unsplash