The European Commission is looking into mechanisms to boost public acceptance of renewable energy projects to meet its climate goals, but behavioural scientists warn that obvious solutions like individual compensation do not always work.
The EU's Renewable Energy Directive requires each member state to produce a certain proportion of their energy from renewable sources to reach a common EU target of 20% in 2020.
But renewable projects often run into resistance from local communities, who have to live with the noise of wind turbines or the visual changes to their landscapes.
Mindful that developers of renewables projects often run into public resistance at the permitting stage, the European Commission's energy department has launched a study investigating how to increase local acceptance.
"A lot of time this is an obstacle to economic operators when they want to develop a [wind] park or another renewable project," said Ron Van Erck, policy officer at the European Commission, at a conference in Brussels yesterday (5 October).
He said that the preliminary results of the study show that there are several mechanisms to improve the situation by sharing the benefits of the projects. These include compensation mechanisms such as community funds, where the project banks money for the local community to spend as it sees fit, local ownership, where the developer offers a share of the project to local citizens, and direct compensation.
In addition, more indirect and softer mechanisms, like new local employment, and indirect social benefits, such as prestige to the area and eco-tourism, seem to be "quite effective" in creating local acceptance, Van Erck said.
"It appears also that when you go for individual compensation – just pay off one or two persons who may have problems with the project – it should be done with caution, since it tends to create problems," he added.
"It's good that we dig into these behavioural things," said EU Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard.
Her native Denmark, which pioneered wind power development in the 1970s and 80s, requires developers to offer a share of the project to local citizens to give them co-ownership, Hedegaard pointed out. "That in itself already helps a lot," she said, as locals will not have to put up with the inconvenience of having a wind turbine in their backyard without also seeing some of the money.
Hedegaard agreed that individual compensation remains "one of the more tricky points," but said it could be helpful if a local citizen had proof that their real estate had diminished in value as a result of a renewables project.
Nick Pidgeon, professor of environmental psychology at Cardiff University, said that compensation does not always work if the people in question are not seeking compensation but reject the project for other reasons. It also raises questions of fairness, he added.
"You've got to know the community to understand what type of process to put in place," Pidgeon stressed. He said that some people might get irritated when offered money, when in fact they object to the reliability of wind energy or the lack of local democracy in the permitting process.
Public acceptance poses a problem to the Commission, as it is essentially the responsibility of member states but can stand in the way of common EU energy goals. The EU executive will also attempt to tackle delays in permitting for energy infrastructure projects via simplified procedures for projects of European interest, a leaked energy infrastructure plan showed.