Looking to Win Support for a Microgrid? Take this Approach with the Community, Says New Research

May 7, 2021
In winning support for community microgrids, focus less on the social acceptance of new technologies and more on social innovations and new forms of governance.

When community members participate in renewable energy planning and financing — especially with community microgrids or community solar — they facilitate the move to renewable energy, said the co-author of a new study on shared decision making from the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis.

The study, “Public Attitudes, Co-production and Polycentric Governance in Energy Policy,” focused on projects in two towns in Austria that aim to utilize high levels of renewables — up to 100%, said Nadejda Komendantova, one of the study’s authors.

In the town of Freistadt, residents formed energy communities aimed at creating a microgrid managed by a private company. The residents could not opt out of the microgrid — which supplied all their energy needs — but they could choose among various forms of participation. They could install rooftop PV, take part in management or purchase a share of the project.

“This approach is not about providing information and educating the public; it is about listening to people and providing them with a variety of options and alternatives to make choices about services that affect their communities.”

“The model is producing all their electricity, mainly what they need, in their own region. It is quite a successful model,” said Komendantova. A separate study conducted by Komendantova on energy communities — in which people participated in decision making about energy — found that people knew their voices were being heard, and this created a higher level of trust in the technologies and decision makers. That study backed the findings of the studies of the two Austrian towns.

In the town of Amstetten, the focus was also on bringing in more renewable energy — but to a centralized energy system, she said. Some of the energy was produced at the local level, but the project did not invite community members to participate financially or in the decision making. The mayor who led the effort was not re-elected, said Komendantova.

“People started questioning the model, they didn’t feel consulted, they didn’t contribute financially. This made the model unsustainable,” she said.

Place, children and age important

The report found that people in smaller cities were more likely to want to participate in the decision making and financing of renewables projects. Community members in families with numerous children were also more likely to take part in the project. And people over age 61 were more interested in participating. The interest in such projects wasn’t as high in larger cities or among apartment dwellers.

Microgrids are an important way to exercise group decision making and speed the transition to renewable energy, said Komendantova.

“I think in the ideal world, we would have communities with microgrids and different forms of electric generation. We also might need to keep the existing structure for large scale consumers. Big cities would still need the grid,” she said.

Energy as a common good

With polycentric governance — a system that includes multiple centers of decision making and coproduction at different levels — energy is viewed as a common good rather than a private or public one, said the report. And that’s an important view that helps boost interest in transitioning to renewable energy.

In order to make the most of this interest, it’s important to change how consumers and businesses are educated about distributed and renewable energy, the report said.

Listening more important than educating

With more distributed energy systems and the possibility of more polycentricity in governance related to transitioning to renewables, there’s a need to focus less on the social acceptance of new technologies and more on social innovations and new forms of governance, according to the report.

“This approach is not about providing information and educating the public; it is about listening to people and providing them with a variety of options and alternatives to make choices about services that affect their communities,” said the report.

In a survey of 2,000 people in the two Austrian towns, respondents said that they’re willing to pay up to 10% more for electricity from renewable energy when they have the option of being involved in making decisions about its use.

Preference for local energy

Those who were most interested in using renewables were motivated by worries about climate change and the desire to be less dependent on energy providers. They also wanted to see renewable energy produced locally, rather than have it imported. And those who wanted to take part in decision making would also like to help select the technology or the site of the project. They said that they were less interested in helping finance projects.

The survey respondents who didn’t want to participate in the decision making process said they didn’t have adequate information or time. The study concluded that people are willing to participate in the decision making process, but that project organizers should create conditions for participation that address people’s lack of time and information.

Shared decision making and climate

“We recommend a shift from campaigns to raise awareness of climate change and the need for climate change mitigation to more specific campaigns related to local communities or the details of renewable energy projects being implemented in these communities,” the authors said.

For Komendantova, discovering that people who participated in projects were more likely to trust decision makers and support local renewable energy initiatives was an important moment.

“This was an ‘Aha!’ experience,” she said.

Interested in community microgrids? Get an inside look at projects at Microgrid 2021: The World Awakens to Microgrids, May 11-June 3.  Hosted by Microgrid Knowledge, the virtual event features lively discussion panels, webinars, interviews with experts, live audience Q&A sessions, virtual tours, networking and exhibits. Register in advance for free admission.

About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

Twitter: @LisaECohn

Linkedin: LisaEllenCohn

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