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Multi-sectoral approaches to Innovative Skills Training for Renewable energy And sociaL acceptance

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - MISTRAL (Multi-sectoral approaches to Innovative Skills Training for Renewable energy And sociaL acceptance)

Reporting period: 2021-01-01 to 2022-12-31

We are at the beginning of a global transition to a low carbon economy that will fundamentally change society’s relationship with energy and result in major shifts in economic, social, and technological organisation. The importance of this transformation has been recognised by the United Nations, which has embedded it in a range of UN Sustainable Development Goals, and Europe has led the transition with strong policies for an ‘Energy Union’ that will drive decarbonisation of the economy and aspirational targets to reduce GHG emissions by 95% reduction by 2050, and a research programme supporting social and technological innovation for energy transition. This has resulted in substantial investment in low carbon technologies, and global additions to generation capacity.

Europe has been at the forefront of the renewables revolution, pioneered by the growth in wind energy. Onshore wind energy is now the cheapest form of electricity generation, and will play a key role in Europe’s energy future.
Despite this success, the infrastructure projects that supports this transition – particularly large-scale wind energy projects and transmission lines - have faced a declining level of social acceptance, reflective of the challenge of society’s adjustment to new regimes of socio-technical organisation, that could have significant consequences for Europe’s energy transition.

Such ‘disruptive’ forms of social engagement can result in some positive innovations (more effective regulation of wind energy projects, better project design, and more progressive developer practices), but it can also threaten urgently needed renewables by eroding support for decarbonisation, increasing implementation costs and delays, heightening project risks, and may ultimately limit the scale of the European wind sector and its ability to produce cheap, sustainable energy. Wind will continue to be a large element of future European energy systems and will need to be integrated with storage, transmission, and demand issues, all of which have key social dimensions to their development.

Despite the influence of the social and societal factors, energy research is still dominated by perspectives from engineering and economics and is neglectful of the social aspects of the energy transition. The causes, drivers, and dynamics of opposition to developments of wind and other forms of renewables have been subject to extensive research that has developed rich insights into the contextual factors that drive local resistance to such projects and guided by valuable conceptual models for understanding social acceptance, particularly the framework provided by Wüstenhagen et al. (2007), which explains how social acceptance has market, socio-political and community dimensions.

The overall aim of MISTRAL was to nurture a new generation of researchers who would be trained and supported to effectively evaluate the complexity of social acceptance issues facing the deployment of renewable energy infrastructure and propose innovative solutions in a variety of research, government, and business contexts. MISTRAL approached this challenge by achieving the following objectives:
• Facilitate a creative, inter-disciplinary research environment to explore the conceptual framing, drivers, contexts, and responses to declining social acceptance of renewable energy infrastructure
• Establish the links and feedback processes between socio-political, market, and community dimensions of social acceptance at a range of spatial scales
• Engage academic researchers with other key stakeholders in the field of social acceptance, including infrastructure developers, policymakers, regulators, trade bodies, politicians, and community interests to maximise the impact of network activities
• Provide an innovative training environment where young researchers could develop advanced skills in research and transferable skills, benefit from a range of diverse secondment experiences, and debate current issues with some of the world leading researchers in the field, in order to develop advanced capacities for progressing Europe’s energy transition.

MISTRAL succeeded in delivering a comprehensive and responsive training and development programme for 15 talented researchers at the start of their careers.
MISTRAL succeeded in delivering a comprehensive and responsive training and development programme for 15 talented Early Stage Researchers (ESRs) at the start of their careers.
The ESRs were employed at 8 universities in 6 countries.
45 supervisors were involved.

The ESRs were responsible for the production of:
19 peer reviewed papers
60+ conference presentations
1 Energy Policy Special Issue

MISTRAL delivered:
230 hours of training
14 secondments
3 Summer Schools
2 writing retreats
3 Network Review Meetings
6 Methodology workshops
2 international meetings
5 external collaboration events
4 social media channels

Other project outputs which were produced collaboratively included:
1 Research Guide
1 Knowledge Exchange report
8 Advisory Reports
All 15 ESRs have made substantial contributions to knowledge and advancing the state of the art and addressed the limitations identified heretofore.
The high level conclusions from the research include:

Community acceptance:
• Progress needs reflexivity: ‘the community’ are not always the problem
• Society has a large proportion of ‘conditional supporters’ of wind energy projects: for them personal benefits and opportunities to voice concerns are critical
• Financial participation is not a ‘silver bullet’ for acceptance, can sometimes backfire. Tends not to persuade objectors
• Different RE technologies invoke different emotions – solar and wind most positive. Community acceptance has a lot to do with values and emotions

Socio-political acceptance:
• Current institutions (generally) constrain acceptability and innovation.
• Municipalities are very important for building acceptability – build narratives, contextualize projects, offer political leadership.
• Community benefit funds are better administered locally, by the community.
• Political support often involves a struggle over narratives and interests – and are strongly constrained by past decisions and current governance arrangements.
• Current approaches to participation are not up to the job; issues related to trust, voluntarism and neoliberal rationalities

Market acceptance:
• Increased social acceptance has a cost & involves important trade offs: e.g. auctions vs feed-in tariffs, increased perception of risk
• European citizens appear to be willing to invest up to €176 billion, on community wind energy (=91GW)
• There are alternative ways to manage and control renewables (e.g. ‘wind rights’), including nationalization or other forms of social control

Our conclusions from the exploration of policy to progress the low carbon transition include:
• Business as usual is not a great game plan.
• Strong, community-centred visions of energy futures are the most effective
• Energy transition demands greater policy coherence.
• The tendency to ‘muddle-through’ on social aspects of transition – time for a more managed approach??
• Everyone’s role in the transition needs to be acknowledged and no-one should be ‘left behind’.
• Co-creation in policy formulation and implementation can have far-reaching impacts.
• The need for radical experimentation.
• There is a need for high-level skills for transition
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