New Energy Technology Requires Understanding People First

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The production and consumption of energy – from wind and solar to fossil fuels and renewables – plays an enormous role in our economic and political systems and therefore elicits strong public reactions.

In a new paper in Nature Energy, Hilary S. Boudet from Oregon State University’s School of Public Policy has set out to explore what is driving people’s reactions to energy innovations and how public support or criticism can influence the adoption and deployment of new energy technologies.

Looking at both large-scale infrastructure and “consumer-facing” technologies, such as electric vehicles and solar rooftop panels, Boudet reviewed recent publications in the field of energy technology and found that the adoption of new tech is overwhelmingly directed by society, not sound policy informed by evidence.

New technologies have expanded the boundaries of our energy systems. But it’s been people and politics that have determined how energy is used within those boundaries, often in ways that draw upon both personal experience and long-standing beliefs and practices, she said.

That’s bad news.

If people don’t rely on the best information to formulate their viewpoints about energy tech or, even worse, new information doesn’t penetrate their hard-held opinions, how can we make progress based on evidence rather than assumptions or the personal values of the loudest or most politically influential groups?

Alas, new information doesn’t change much:

The old way of thinking was to get people to accept new technology by providing them with more information about it. But what we are finding now is that is not enough,” Boudet said. “Studies have shown that more information does not necessarily change opinions or result in a consensus on how to move forward.

Boudet has identified four factors that she thinks shape public perceptions of new energy technologies based on her review of the literature: technology (including perceived risks and benefits, cost, aesthetics, etc.), people (socio-demographic factors, personal values, trust in industry and the government, cues from peers, etc.), place (which includes the local environment as well as the local economy), and process (including perceptions about transparency and fairness, for example). And, of course, these issues have some significant overlap.

Take fracking, for example. You likely have an opinion about it. How is it informed? Who do you trust to change your mind about it – or do you think you have a strong grasp on the benefits and risks and don’t anticipate ever changing your mind?

Boudet points out that political leanings and geographic location often play a large role in people’s opinions about fracking technology (and that surveys have shown that most people admit to knowing little about the technology). Those who live near fracking sites tend to formulate their opinions based on how the technology impacts their everyday lives and their community, whether it’s perceived environmental dangers or economic opportunities.

We’ve long known about a phenomenon called NIMBY, or “not in my backyard.” It refers to people who reject a technology or service from which they might benefit because they live too close to its proposed location. While someone might express abstract support for a new technology, they are less likely to continue supporting it if it’s located…well, in their own backyard.

While the term is an oversimplification of complex attitudes, we’ve often seen it in action when people are asked about nuclear power. They might support the efficient production of energy from nuclear plants, but only if the plant is located nice and far away from their home.

But it’s not just controversial nuclear power and fracking that pose issues. In her paper, Boudet said wind power and smart grids have faced similar backlash:

Likewise, the wind industry was shocked by local resistance to its initial proposals, and local acceptance is now considered a major barrier to its deployment. And even seemingly benign components of the new smart grid, such as smart metering, have faced opposition due to concerns about security, privacy, and potential health impacts.

When support (or lack thereof) is based on personal values and experiences, public engagement won’t have any significant impact. But the truth is that the majority of people realize we need a new energy game plan if we’re going to mitigate the effects of climate change.

That means it will be of the utmost importance to understand social values, the power of social networks, and people’s everyday experiences before putting together a public education campaign on any energy proposal.

While previous energy education campaigns have used a deficit model of scientific literacy (which assumes that people simply lack the information necessary to accept a new technology and that more information will lead to support), more recent models suggest it’s a lot harder than simply filling in information gaps.

Boudet explains:

In contrast, more recent scholarship has argued that, due to limited time and resources, people instead often act as ‘cognitive misers’, using mental shortcuts to filter information and develop opinions… These mental shortcuts can be based on things like ideological predispositions, environmental and altruistic values, cultural worldviews, media portrayals, and elite cues.

And to top it off, we tend to believe information that confirms our pre-existing worldview.

Suggesting that “knowledge is not a panacea,” Boudet notes that once news about new energy technologies proliferates, people quickly form opinions based on their political leanings. Political ideology may serve as “a mental shortcut to establish views on energy issues,” especially among those with limited knowledge of the tech.

This means the energy industry and tech experts can’t change perceptions without a strong understanding of how people think and how they interact with technology, place, and process. All the tech knowledge in the world won’t change hearts or minds. For that, one needs humanistic and social scientific knowledge of human beings and all of their non-scientific ways of forming opinions.

In other words, if we’re going to make any headway on the implementation of new energy strategies, we have to figure out the human component alongside the new technology.

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