Public participation in decision making key to sustainable geothermal development

Volterra, Val di Cicera, Tuscany, Italy (source: flickr/ Allie_Caulfield, creative commons)
Alexander Richter 26 Nov 2018

A recent interview with Agnes Allansdottir, the co-author of a recent book on social acceptance, highlights the need to make citizens and local communities participate in decision-making processes concerning geothermal development.

With increasing challenges for geothermal development in Italy, based a lot on local opposition to development and corresponding political implications, the issue on how information, participation and decision making processes could be key for sustainable geothermal energy development is topic of an interview, published in Green Report in Italy.

The interview with Agnes Allansdottir, describes the necessity of continuing “on a path that at least attempts to make citizens participate in decision-making processes concerning the future of the territory [Tuscany/ Italy]”

Agnes Allansdottir, Icelandic by birth and Italian by adoption for over twenty years, is a social psychologist expert in relationships between society and technological innovation, as well as public participation in decision-making processes. Allansdottir has been part of groups selected by the European Commission to monitor public opinion on the impact of technologies and techno-sciences, while in Italy he has taught for years Psychology of Communication and Communication of Science at the University of Siena, as well as collaborating with the Toscana Life Sciences Foundation. Currently he is part of the Forum for Research and Innovation of the Lombardy Region.Together with Adele Manzella and Anna Pellizzone she is the author of the book “Geothermal Energy and Society“, recently published for Springer .

Today, about 90% of Italians say they are in favour of renewable energy, but in fact three quarters of disputes on energy development in [Italy] are based on clean energy sources. Can social psychology help us understand this apparent contradiction?

“The tradition of research in social psychology can certainly help to better understand attitudes and ideas, which may appear contradictory to the non-expert public in the field. Even if each specific case deserves to be analyzed for the peculiarities related to the place, the context and the needs of local communities, an analysis attentive to the arguments put forward by the public involved can bring out some unexpected positions that can contribute to finding new solutions in the field of renewable energy. The public must be listened to through instruments that are sensitive to the needs of the communities. If Italians declare themselves in favour of renewable energy but the use of clean sources is then challenged, we are faced with a situation of uncertainty, of misunderstanding and perhaps a form of incapacity to create shared horizons “.

In a recent study on the social acceptability of geothermal energy in central Italy, of which you are the co-author, it is stated that the conceptual frameworks of innovation “from top to bottom, like the Nimby hypothesis, should absolutely be exceeded “. Why, and how?

“For the simple reason that Nimby’s hypothesis is neither a hypothesis in any sense, nor does it provide a valid explanation for the positions taken by local communities; the less it is used in research published in the international scientific literature on issues concerning energy and society. Moreover, to fear the so-called Nimby hypothesis often implies an attempt to diminish the voice of the local communities, risking to create situations that hardly lead to a reasoned dialogue between the interested parties .”

On the other hand, do you believe that the benefits of using geothermal energy (for example the reduction of bills and taxes, job growth, economic diversification) are sufficiently communicated and / or known by the local population?

“Through our research in Italy we have found that, despite the conspicuous presence of geothermal resources, citizens’ awareness of the potentials related to the cultivation of these resources is very uncertain. It is clear, at least in recent years, that both the benefits and the risks related to geothermal energy in Italy have been communicated in a way that perhaps leaves desire, often perceived by the public as a simple promotion of corporate image, which is opposed to public communication and responsible management of the common good.

This observation applies to the awareness of the risks and benefits related to the use of geothermal resources for the production of electricity and even more regarding the possible use of resources to heat or air-condition environments, whether it is private homes and buildings, for other innovative purposes (for example related to agriculture or aquaculture, or others).

In any case it would be very appropriate to facilitate a dialogue on the future of cultivation and use of geothermal resources in Italy, a dialogue that involves citizenship and which must be firmly informed by experts’ opinion – scientists and public research bodies are the actors who enjoy the highest level of trust and credibility in this field – but at the same time take into account the perplexities and hopes of the local populations.”

The inclusive participation of citizens in the decision-making process appears as an approach indicated to manage innovative elements of the territory in a socially sustainable way. Yet there are cases ( as in Tuscany ) where even a structured public debate is diminished by the opposition committees and parties that consider it superfluous, to ask for the annulment or propose a referendum . What to do in these contexts?

“No approach to intrinsically complex processes, such as those concerning innovation, is without problems and countermeasures. The simplest answer to the question is that of entrusting public consultations, understood as activities carried out with the aim of arriving at widely shared solutions on the processes of innovation in the territory, to independent bodies that do not derive any advantage from accession to the point of view of any of the parties involved in the process.”

The studies you conducted with Adele Manzella and Anna Pellizzone on the social acceptability of geothermal energy show that the main obstacles in this regard derive from the lack of trust in public institutions, as well as in the media. How to recover lost ground, and how to manage the phenomenon – by media and institutions – while trust is scarce?

“Here we are at the million-dollar question! The whole world is facing and going through a strong energy transition, and like all the big changes it’s an often tortuous and ambiguous process. Therefore it is essential to continue on a path that at least attempts to make citizens and local communities participate in the decision-making processes concerning the future of the territory.”

Source: Green Report (in translation)