The value of conflict in the energy transition
Embrace conflicts. Not only do they boomerang back in your face if you ignore them, but you can also obtain valuable information from them. And in a democracy, conflicts are an inherent aspect of large public projects, as everybody has a say in these. This is the argument made by the researchers from the almost completed NWO-MVI project RESPONSE.
In the RESPONSE project, a team of philosophers, anthropologists, engineers, economists and public administrators examined conflicting values and interests in projects in the context of the energy transition, such as the realisation of wind farms or solar parks. They sought to understand how these conflicts arise and how they are dealt with. ‘A conflict is effectively a form of value assessment. By analysing conflicts, you discover which values are at stake and for whom. That knowledge will allow you to design more inclusive decision-making trajectories’, says project leader Eefje Cuppen from Leiden University.
Conflicts are often viewed as something to avoid’, explains RESPONSE researcher Behnam Taebi from TU Delft. ‘However, that can work out badly. Take the shale gas debate, for example. That started as a conflict at the level of two municipalities and ultimately led to a national moratorium about shale gas extraction. If citizens had been involved earlier on in the process, then it would have quickly become clear that people were not so much afraid for seismic activity, at which the project developers had mainly targeted their risk assessment, but that people had their doubts about the use of shale gas as a new source of energy to begin with.
Translating a value into a norm
The researchers observed that conflicts are never really about the actual values. Taebi: ‘Everybody wants safety and more sustainability. The conflict arises during the translation of such values into norms. How do the various parties define the term safety? Does this concern the prevention of seismic activity, or do people actually want more information about the possible consequences for water quality? It is in the interest of policymakers to have more knowledge about this type of conflict so that they can take this into account in the design of an energy project.’
The researchers based their study on cases from the field. ‘One of the cases concerned plans for wind turbines along the N33 road in Drenthe’, says Cuppen. Researchers attended meetings for residents, visited project meetings, studied relevant documents and held interviews with those involved. In that conflict, which started as a clash between residents and project developers, the institutional context ultimately played a role too, says Cuppen. ‘It initially concerned several independent wind turbine projects. Those projects were later combined, as a result of which they suddenly fell under the Rijkscoördinatieregeling [state coordination scheme] for projects with a national interest. Consequently, the clash grew into a conflict between the municipalities concerned and the central government.’
Clarity about the possibilities for stakeholder participation
Most conflicts are, in effect, about justice. Are the costs and benefits fairly distributed, are there honest procedures and do people feel that they are taken seriously as a participant in the discussion? That last aspect in particular often still goes wrong, say Cuppen and Taebi, even if there is ample opportunity for consultation. ‘Citizens are often not clearly informed in advance about what they can and cannot express an opinion on, and about the extent to which their ideas and objections can still lead to a change in the plans.’
Ideally, project developers should itemise in advance which values play a role and how those involved could interpret these, advises Taebi. ‘And more important still, in the process there must be room for changes. In energy transition projects, we need to start thinking more iteratively and try to technically accommodate sensitive matters.’ According to Cuppen, the crux lies in taking stakeholder participation seriously in all layers of the organisations concerned. ‘Stakeholder participation should not only be something for the environmental manager. Up to the level of the government ministries involved, people must be willing to change plans if public discussions give a reason to do so. Ultimately, this type of conflict is never about wind turbines or solar parks, but about democracy and about how we want to govern decision-making in our society’, concludes Cuppen.
Various follow-up ideas possible
There are more than enough ideas for follow-up research. Taebi: ‘A next step could be to examine the implementation trajectories. How can you incorporate such a discussion about values and the norms that arise from these in your design process? How can you plan adaptively? Can you incorporate conflicting values in the technical design?’ ‘I would like to delve deeper into the role of project developers’, says Cuppen. ‘In the literature, they are often described as a homogenous group, but in practice they are more diffuse and heterogeneous. Tensions also exist on the side of the parties involved in realising the project, for example between the environmental manager and the legal affairs department. It would be interesting to study how these dynamics function in practice.’