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Mind the gap: how do we rise up to meet the energy challenge?

4 November 2013

On a clear day, North Somerset – where the UK's first new nuclear power station for more than two decades is due to be constructed – is clearly visible from Cardiff Bay. Deep in Powys, debates rage about where wind turbines should be located (and if they should be built at all). And although the idea of the Severn Barrage – a giant hydro-electric dam – has once again been kicked into the long grass, few would bet against this hardy proposal rising again.

In Wales, as in the rest of the UK, we are facing critical choices about how we want to produce our energy in the future. A cleaner and more resilient energy system, to reduce pollution from carbon emissions and protect ourselves against the impacts of climate change, is slowly becoming a reality. But exactly what our energy future will look like is still up for grabs.

At the same time, rising household energy bills are threatening the livelihoods of many ordinary families. Public anger at the profiteering of the 'Big 6' energy companies and the government's claims that they are powerless to prevent further damaging price rises is growing. Fuel poverty – the choice between heating and eating – is a harsh reality for many vulnerable people.

So it is against this tense backdrop that public views about the energy system are formed and negotiated. Studies show that people are very positive towards renewable technologies like wind, wave and solar, dubious about the health and environmental impacts of fossil fuels like coal and gas, and in two minds about the 'devil's bargain' of nuclear power.

This picture changes a little when you move from the national to the local scale. Here, specific developments are likely to be strongly challenged and contested, whether they are wind farms or wells drilled to 'frack' gas from rocks underground. Communities are often accused of adopting 'Not In My Back Yard' attitudes, but research has revealed a more complex picture. People's views about energy are comprised of more than a kneejerk 'yes' or 'no' answer.

Often, it is the lack of public involvement at the early stages of discussion about where (and how) to site new energy infrastructure that is at the heart of opposition. So although there are some firm opponents of wind farms (as well as many enthusiastic supporters), politicians and planners should expect controversy over 'fracking' to be just as heated.

A major recent piece of research conducted over 4 years by researchers at Cardiff University, with thousands of members of the public, is the most comprehensive study yet of how people think about the energy system. The research found that although people's views about different energy technologies vary for a number of reasons, there are some core values that underpin these judgments.

Whether it is wind farms or nuclear power, the public make up their minds on energy technologies according to a set of underlying principles – including fairness, avoiding wastefulness and affordability. If a technology is seen as reflecting these values, it is likely to be approved of. If it seems to violate them, it will be viewed less favourably.

But the study's key insight is that it is people's values, more than the facts and figures constantly thrown back and forth about energy, which play the biggest role in shaping perceptions of energy and climate change. This conclusion is an important reminder that tackling climate change is at heart a human challenge, not only a technological one.

How we produce and consume energy will change one way or another: aging power stations must be replaced, and moving towards a cleaner, more sustainable energy system will guide these changes. But exactly how our energy future will shape up is something we all have a stake in – and an important debate for as many people as possible to be fully involved in.

Dr Adam Corner is a Research Associate in the Understanding Risk research group at Cardiff University who specialises in climate change communication and public engagement with geoengineering. He also leads the Talking Climate programme for the Climate Outreach & Information Network.

Adam will be joining the panel for the Cardiff University Sustainability Week Debate: 'Mind the gap; meeting the energy challenge in the UK'. Hosted by the Sustainable Places Research Institute, the debate will examine the challenge of providing reliable, affordable, clean energy for current and future generations.

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