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    Tuesday, August 13, 2013


    Transforming the UK Energy System: Public Values, Attitudes and Acceptability Synthesis Report

    Karen Parkhill, Christina Demski, Catherine Butler, Alexa Spence, and Nick Pidgeon, July 2013 (UK Energy Research Center)

    Executive Summary

    Current policy debates and energy scenarios for the UK highlight the different possible ways of transforming the energy system in order to meet long-term national policy goals, including those of building a low carbon economy, achieving energy security and affordability, and mitigating environmental impacts. Although there has been much previous research on what publics think about specific ways of producing or consuming energy, we know far less about public perceptions, attitudes and values when elicited in relation to whole energy system change as an interconnected set of transformations in the systems of supply, demand, infrastructure and human behaviour. Greater understanding of public acceptability of whole energy system change will present both opportunities, and also highlight challenges, for the delivery of UK energy policy and transitions.

    The research had three empirical phases: interviews with key stakeholders, a series of six in-depth deliberative workshops held with publics in England, Scotland and Wales, and a nationally representative survey (Great Britain, n=2,441). This report represents a synthesis of key findings drawn from the two core datasets relating to public perceptions and preferences i.e. the workshops and the survey.

    The core conclusion from the research is that the British public wants and expects change with regard to how energy is supplied, used and governed. Members of the public are positive about the need for energy system change and they do not prioritise the demand side over the supply side, or vice versa, as being in greater need of change. Within this, the research has illuminated a wide range of novel insights on public attitudes regarding: energy policy drivers; elements of energy system change; and the underlying values and principles that people draw on when engaging with this issue.

    Views on current energy policy drivers

    There are three key issues currently driving UK energy policy; climate change, energy security, and affordability.

    Climate change, affordability and energy security are important as meta-narratives but are not related to expressed preferences about energy system change in straight-forward linear ways. For example, scepticism toward climate change does not prevent publics from engaging with specific aspects of energy system change, such as electrification. This is partly because motivations underlying public reasons for wanting change do not align in direct ways with those underpinning policy, though they are closely related; i.e. climate change is transmuted into a more general concern about environment and sustainability.

    Public perceptions with regard to climate change are consistent with previous and long-standing work on public understanding of this issue, with the majority of respondents expressing concern and agreeing that climate change is at least in part caused by human activity. However, the results also indicate a very wide variation in individual responses to the issue, from different forms of uncertainty and scepticism to very high levels of concern.

    While ‘energy security’ as a term was not salient to people the range of concerns that it encompassed (geopolitical issues, energy shortages, black outs, unaffordable prices) did evoke strong reactions. Energy security is particularly closely linked in public perceptions to affordability because it relates to concerns about personally not being able to access energy services, while concern about national level insecurity in supplies of fossil fuels was seen as a symptom of the problems of fossil fuel dependency.

    Cost is very important for people in their evaluation of different options with regard to energy system change. Though personal cost is often discussed in terms of energy bills, the findings show that for publics it is more about affordability than lowest cost possible. The cheapest option is not necessarily preferred if that option comes with other undesired attributes e.g. fossil fuel reliance. Public concern about cost is related to multiple dimensions of the issue, incorporating consideration of things like long-term stability versus fluctuation in costs, existing market structures and notions of getting a ‘fair deal’, trust in energy companies, and perceptions of energy as a basic need. It is particularly important to pay attention to this multi-dimensionality, as there is a danger of offering simplistic interpretations of public acceptability as relating solely to the issue of higher or lower bills/costs.

    Attitudes towards specific aspects of energy system change

    Alongside the keen desire for system change, there are a set of clear public preferences for particular energy system elements that people feel should be integral to future energy pathways. On the supply-side this is characterised by a strong commitment to renewable forms of energy production and a corresponding shift away from fossil fuels. On the demand-side it relates to the development of technology and infrastructures (e.g. public transport, demand management, electric vehicle charging points) to support changes in lifestyles, with an overall goal of improvement in energy efficiency and reductions in energy demand.

    Other supply technologies which feature prominently in many existing policy scenarios, including new nuclear power, biofuels, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) elicited more ambivalent and uncertain responses from our participants. For these technologies acceptability is typically conditional upon other aspects of system change being realised. Biofuels and CCS also hold existing associations with fossil fuels, and as such appear, to many, as incompatible with the broader public vision for change. We have characterised this view of such technologies as one of ‘non-transition’.

    Whilst overall there is recognition of and support for changes on the demand side, public acceptability of specific aspects of change are more ambivalent. For example, proposed electric heating systems and vehicles are not perceived as matching the performance of current models (e.g. for heating – gas central heating systems being controllable and responsive; for transportation – the range and power of petroleum based vehicles). This is particularly the case for electric heating where current electric systems (e.g. storage heaters) are viewed as undesirable. The public is unfamiliar with other forms of electric heating including district heating or ground source heat pumps.

    In terms of demand-side management, we find that people are broadly willing to share their energy use data although many are likely to want conditions placed on this. Demand management that allows householders some level of control is more preferable to remote interference, and the degree of acceptability is dependent upon the nature of the intervention proposed. As with some of the supply-side technologies, this points to the critical need to understand the contexts surrounding energy transitions and the conditions people place upon acceptability.

    Overall, publics engaged with interconnectivity between the energy system and wider economic and social ‘systems’. As such, we highlight that in engaging with the issues, publics go beyond energy system elements to discuss wider societal change.

    Underlying social values that guide evaluations

    Members of the public recognise, and are broadly positive about, the need for change at a system level. Our participants also saw the present need for change as an opportunity to ‘do it right’ – to make it a worthwhile change. There is, however, a need to look beyond public preferences because these are likely to change depending on context, particularly considering highly unfamiliar issues where perceptions and preferences are not yet fully formed.

    As such, we examine the values and principles that people draw on to guide decisions and engagement with regards to energy system change, and go on to present a social value system derived from examination across the datasets. This social value system represents the range of values that underpin people’s preferences and perceptions with regard to energy system change. As such, these are not values held by any one individual, nor are they universally held by all, rather they represent prevalent identifiable cultural resources that people draw upon in forming their preferences for different aspects of energy system change. The value system gives insight into how publics think things should be with regards to energy system change.

    These include principles in relation to:

    Efficiency and not wasting – in sum, being more efficient (doing more with less) and minimising waste and overall energy usage is almost universally seen as positive.

    Protection of the environment and nature – in sum, being environmentally conscious and respectful of nature through minimising intrusive and destructive processes.

    Ensuring security through reliability, affordability, availability and safety – in sum, making sure the energy system is safe, reliable and accessible to citizens, both in terms of personal affordability and national availability.

    Autonomy and power – in sum, being mindful of the importance of autonomy and freedom both at national and personal levels.

    Social justice and fairness – in sum, developing energy systems in ways that are open, transparent and fair and attentive to the effects on people’s abilities to lead healthy lives.

    Improvement and quality – in sum, thinking in terms of long term trajectories, ensuring changes represent improvement and considering their implications for quality of life.

    We stipulate that acceptability of any particular aspect of energy system transformations will, in part, be conditional upon how well it fits into this value system.

    We also show how tensions exist between values (how people think things should be), and world views (experiences or perceptions of how things currently are). We note that publics perceive change to be incremental and as occurring over a long time period, particularly change of the scale required. Responsibilities for change are split across different energy system actors including publics, energy companies and government. However, ultimately publics see government as centrally responsible for enabling delivery of transitions in ways commensurate with public values. Values also interconnect with people’s life experiences and social commitments (e.g. their relationships with others, their form of work). As such, preferences for particular long-term trajectories are continually negotiated in terms of people’s everyday experiences.

    The interplay between values and a need to consider how the world actually is, how we experience things, and in what context we find ourselves is considered important for public preference formation. It is through a combination of these factors that a form of pragmatism arises in public views. Nonetheless we maintain that values remain as most important and that meaningful public acceptability is conditional upon them.

    We conclude that public acceptability may only be achieved if it is rooted, in a significant way, in the described value system. Publics are unlikely to settle for a form of change that does not show signs of commitment to the longer-term trajectories commensurate with these values. If actors do not consider and take into account public values in their decision-making, resistance to energy system transformations or conflict over particular issues is more likely to result. However, pursuing energy system changes in ways that are in keeping with longer-term trajectories aligned with public values could form the basis of a social contract for change.

    This conclusion leads to four further key messages:

    1. Publics are willing and fully capable of engaging critically with energy system transformation. Despite the complexity of the research topic publics gave considered responses and as a result offered important insights into their values, attitudes and acceptability. Policy-makers are advised to provide public engagement opportunities to ensure different perspectives and knowledges are brought to bear on energy system transitions as contexts change.

    2. Actors involved in energy system transitions need to treat public viewpoints with integrity valuing the contribution they make to envisioning transitions. Preferences should not be viewed as something to manipulate and actors should engage meaningfully with the values set out here.

    3. Policy-makers and other actors involved in energy system transformation need to make clear how current and proposed changes to the energy system fit within a long- term trajectory. This includes developing a coherent policy strategy that interconnects different policy areas and scales.

    4. Actors involved in energy system change need to ensure that their actions are transparent and mirror rhetoric. In the case of government this includes the actions of the whole institution, as well as the individual behaviour of high profile political actors. For industry, this includes making clear how proposals for change (e.g. assisting consumers in reducing their energy use) fit with their business models.


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