Fair Enough: Understanding Community Trust and Confidence as it Relates to Energy Projects
By Ying Quan, Research and Project Assistant, Energy Exchange
A Summary of Recent Research completed by the University of Ottawa’s Positive Energy Initiative and the Canada West Foundation
Recently, a preliminary research report by the University of Ottawa and the Canada West Foundation—entitled “Fair Enough: Assessing Community Confidence in Energy Authorities”—was released. This research is trying to understand trust and confidence levels in communities with regards to energy authorities and energy infrastructure projects. The research asked two central questions:
“What are the factors that lead to greater satisfaction in local communities with energy infrastructure siting processes; and
What is the level of local community confidence in the actions of public authorities towards new energy infrastructure” (Cleland, 2016).
The study included a literature review and interviews with senior leaders representing policy-makers, regulators, and decision-makers. A critical point addressed in the report is fairness, as it is the foundation of any decision-making process. Belief in the fairness of an outcome as well as in decision-making processes plays an important role in building or gaining the trust and confidence of communities.
According to the research, conventional energy project approval processes (i.e. decision-making processes) are not well trusted by communities. Therefore, it is critical to understand the hidden problems to identify possible solutions. The research studied the perspectives of both communities and authorities as both are critical to the outcomes.
Read the Report
The impacts (both direct and indirect) of one single energy project are complex and can take a broad range of forms. For instance, they could include human health and workplace safety related issues, employment opportunities and environmental damages. Depending on communities’ values and interests, their actual responses to the project after considering potential impacts vary a lot. The research has found that people are inclined towards plans or actions that support their core values – whatever they may be – when it comes to energy projects.
Another key finding in the study is that a lack of trust and confidence of communities regarding energy projects is not always due to absence of relevant information; rather, it is often a result of ineffective use of information provided by authorities. This highlights the need for the engagement and participation of communities earlier on in the project planning and decision-making processes.
Needless to say the trust and confidence communities have in authorities, the willingness to learn and understand the information provided by authorities as well as the mechanism of how policy and regulatory systems work all play a key role in project development processes. The engagement and participation of the public is often seen as a platform for communities and authorities to communicate with each other, to learn about each other’s perspectives with respect to the project, and to try to decide on achievable objectives. This may require some adjustments or compromise, sometimes from both communities and authorities.
From the authorities’ perspective, decision-making system and regulatory process is often not well understood by the public, especially when dealing with energy projects. At the same time, individual differences in position on a single energy project may differ widely from each other making it challenging for the authority to take into consideration the costs and benefits of different groups and make “fair” decisions that address the varied priorities and concerns of all community stakeholders. The preliminary report suggests a number of actions that should help authorities to gain or rebuild trust and confidence from:
- Know Community Interests and Values: Try to understand interests and values of communities and ensure that opportunities and mitigation options respect those interests and values;
- Provide the Information the Community Wants: Ensure that information provided to communities is the information that they want. Appropriate information enables communities to learn more about the planned project and to better assess its potential impacts. This step can build a stronger relationship between authorities and communities and potentially help move projects forward;
- Provide Multiple Opportunities for Engagement: Engage communities on critical milestones throughout the project. Since policy and regulatory systems are very complex and distinct from each other, it is essential for authorities to ensure communities understand these systems so that they can be effectively engaged before and during the development of a project.
The next phase of the research will be a group of case studies on energy infrastructure projects and communities with the aim of developing solutions to problems identified. Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter to stay in the loop!
Nourallah, L. (2016). Communities in Perspective: The Dimensions of Social Acceptance for Energy Development and the Role of Trust. Collaboratory on Energy Research and Policy, University of Ottawa. Positive Energy Project. pg 40
Cleland, M., Nourallah, L., & Fast, S. (2016). Fair Enough: Assessing Community Confidence in Energy Authorities. Canada West Foundation and University of Ottawa. pg 37