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

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - MISTRAL (Multi-sectoral approaches to Innovative Skills Training for Renewable energy And sociaL acceptance)

Reporting period: 2019-01-01 to 2020-12-31

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. 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, which has grown from 2.5GW in 1995 to a capacity of 142GW in 2015, capable of providing 11.4% of the EU electricity consumption in a normal wind year .92% (131GW) of this capacity is in the form of onshore wind energy projects, with the remaining 8% (11GW) in the increasing offshore sector. 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 High Voltage Transmission Lines (HVTLs) have faced increasing challenges in deployment due to local resistance to their development. This reflects a declining level of social acceptance of some forms of renewable energy projects reflective of the challenge of society’s adjustment to new regimes of socio-technical organisation and could have significant consequences for Europe’s energy transition. Such ‘disruptive’ forms of social engagement can also result in some positive innovations, such as more effective regulation of wind energy projects, better project design and more progressive developer practices (including community benefits and shared ownership schemes). However, it can also threaten urgently needed renewables by eroding support for decarbonisation, increase implementation costs and delays, heighten project risks, undermine national energy targets and may ultimately limit the scale of the European wind sector and its ability to produce cheap, sustainable energy.

Although these issues have faced wind most acutely, other forms of renewables also suffer acceptance issues and, in any case, 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. Despite the influence of such 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. This body of academic research has been complemented by work undertaken by other organisations, in the form of working groups and government or European funded projects, including that done by the IEA Task 28 Working Group, and the Wise Power, Good Practice Wind and REShare projects.
The project has started well, with all ESRs recruited and in place at the beneficiary hosts. The project received 681 applications during the recruitment phase. Supervisors are fully engaged, partners have been contacted, and the External Expert Board have connected with the project. A social media presence has been established.The first Summer School has been completed at Queen’s University Belfast, including a Supervisory Board review and public engagement event.
These limitations on the ‘state of the art’ of social acceptance research are echoed and elaborated in a recent review of the field conducted for the European Commission by Ellis and Ferraro (2016) . This aligns with other recent critical commentaries , which collectively raise important questions on the trajectory of this research and the implications it has for policy, practice and the wider energy transition. Key issues are:
• There are still important aspects of social acceptance that we do not understand, including temporal dynamics and the experience of wind energy compared to other forms of renewable infrastructure;
• There has been an over-emphasis on negative local community responses to wind energy projects to the neglect of understanding the role of other stakeholders, institutions and policy frameworks, or indeed the role of apathy and disengagement by potential actors;
• There is still a lack of understanding of how the community, market and social-political dimensions of social acceptance interact with each other and at different scales (micro, meso, macro);
• Research has been dominated by positivist, quantitative and individualist frameworks, constraining the framing of the social acceptance ‘problem’;
• Research in this field has only had marginal impacts on actual experiences of acceptance, with limited transfer of research findings into practice and poor evaluations of policy and programmes;
• While the concept of ‘social acceptance’ has provided a useful focus for research, it is itself contested, can be ambiguous and fails to encompass the true complexity of the factors at play in such situations;
• As current research tends to be dominated by specific disciplinary perspectives focussed on single dimensions and scales, there is a great need for a new generation of researchers capable of exploring new approaches for socially embedding renewable energy projects and engaging these in more effective processes of knowledge exchange.

The overall aim of MISTRAL is to nurture a new generation of researchers who can 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. This will be addressed by achieving the following objectives, in order to:
Obj.1: Pursue creative, inter-disciplinary research on the conceptual framing, drivers, contexts and responses to declining social acceptance of renewable energy infrastructure;
Obj.2: Establish the links and feedback processes between socio-political, market and community dimensions of social acceptance, at a range of spatial scales;
Obj.3: Engage academic researchers with other key stakeholders in the field of social acceptance, including infrastructure developers, policy-makers, regulators, trade bodies, politicians and community interests to maximise the impact of network activities;
Obj.4: Provide an innovative training environment where young researchers can develop advanced skills in research and transferable skills, benefit form 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.
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