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Column: Giving local communities a financial stake could solve our energy problem

Project developers would do well to take note of cognitive biases such as the magnificently named ‘endowment effect’ – meaning our tendency to overvalue something because we own it, writes Clare Taylor.

Clare Taylor

IT’S ASTONISHING THAT something which has as much public sympathy as renewable energy can be marketed and communicated so badly as the planned mega-windfarm development across the Irish midlands. In the wake of the Shell-to-Sea debacle, it’s high time that we adopted a more sophisticated approach to ‘stakeholder engagement’.

A project from the International Energy Agency looks to behavioural science to gain insight into how communications campaigns for renewables can be improved. Progress on renewable energy deployment is not only related to technologies, institutions, regulation and finance. It is also a matter of perceptions and awareness among policy-makers, industry – and the general public.

Project developers would do well to take note of cognitive biases such as the magnificently named ‘endowment effect’ – meaning our tendency to overvalue something just because we own it. Much planning controversy could be avoided by offering local communities a stake in the developments as is widely practised in Denmark – home to a more evolved people, with a long tradition of cooperative endeavour.

Giving local communities a financial stake

While many other countries are still struggling with local opposition to wind or other green energy projects, Denmark has largely overcome these problems by giving local communities a financial stake in local energy projects.

According to Dirk Vansintjan of Belgian renewable energy cooperative Ecopower, “For Danes, it is the natural way of organising themselves. Since the Middle Ages they’ve been doing it, and today most renewable projects in the country are organised this way.”

And in the case of the proposed mega-windfarm in the Irish midlands – where neighbours are set against each other based on whether or not they will profit from the proposed developments – ‘pro-social behaviour and fairness’ is undermined. In spite of the mantra ‘greed is good’ of the Gordon Gekkos of this world, behavioural science shows that individuals tend to value fairness and act pro-socially, particularly if free-riding can be minimised.

Strong communities of interest can be created around issues of sustainability – like Transition towns and across Europe, the Covenant of Mayors. Across the pond in the UK, where rising household energy prices are hitting the headlines and energy is set to become a major election issue in May 2015, local energy cooperatives are seen as a way to combat the monopoly of the ‘Big Six’ – Britain’s biggest energy suppliers. The community energy movement has the support of a number of local authorities – as well as national government who published the first ever Community Energy Strategy last month.

One of the most energy dependent countries in Europe

Could community-owned power gain a foothold in Ireland? Maybe, given the recent, widespread support for Ireland’s first community-owned windfarm at Templederry – from government, media, and the local community.

The group behind Templederry windfarm first started the project in 1999. Let’s hope that the next community-owned energy project won’t take that long – and that project promoters figure out how to get funding for their projects available through the European Structural and Investment funds.

As noted by local sustainable energy experts at Tipperary Energy Agency, one of the key issues affecting wind farm development is acceptance of the local community. But if the local community have a real stake in their sustainable energy future, it all changes.

There is huge potential for the development of Ireland’s wind energy industry – as indicated just last week with General Electric acquiring two windfarms via Element Power.

Active citizenry

Ireland is one of the most energy dependent countries in Europe, with about 89 per cent of energy imported. And we are also highly dependent on fossil fuels – oil accounts for nearly 60 per cent of primary energy supply. Developing an indigenous energy industry is an urgent priority – the necessary underpinning for future prosperity.

But we have to get past the old ways – of top-down, paternalistic governance and planning, without due regard and involvement of the people who actually live here.

In this post-Celtic Tiger, post-boom, hopefully post-recession era, the real green shoots emerging are of an active citizenry – who are responsible stewards and guardians of our natural heritage. Let’s not leave the environmental activism up to a handful of impoverished scions of faded Anglo-Irish ascendancy, or hail prominent tax cheats as ‘cute hoors’ and re-elect them.

And let’s give local communities a stake in their future.

Now that’s real empowerment.

Clare Taylor is a communications specialist in energy and environment. Tune in @Clare__Taylor @smallhushedwave

Read: These five graphs dig into the figures behind wind energy in Ireland

Column: Politics and good economic decisions don’t mix, as our energy policy shows

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