Postdoctoral Researcher, SUNLAB Solar Research Group, University of Ottawa
Canada has set ambitious national targets in the race to mitigate climate change: a non-emitting electricity grid by 2035 and a net zero economy by 2050. Meeting these targets will require a rapid build-out of new energy projects on an unprecedented scale. But even as many Canadians clamour for action on climate change, the national consensus on addressing emissions can be fragile. Without public support at local, regional, and national levels, many of these projects will never get off the ground. One essential element for building public confidence is the sharing of reliable, accessible information, but it’s not enough to “let the science speak for itself”. As scientists and engineers in the energy sector, we have a responsibility to share our expertise by engaging with energy decision-making in Canada and with the public at large to help build consensus on the path to net zero.
Energy information: What is it, who has it, and how is it shared?
Energy decision-making and project development rely on a breadth of information concerning individual projects, the broader energy system, economics, policy, environmental conditions, and the local context. Canadians want to understand how and why energy decisions are made, especially at the local level, where communities that host energy projects are demanding to actively participate in the decision-making process. To build public confidence, information must be accessible, timely, and understandable.
The gatekeepers who hold this information range from energy companies to regulators, governments, community members, and external experts. Given the scope of information and diverse array of information-holders, not to mention the time pressure involved in project development, it’s hardly surprising that information-sharing is a work in progress. In the science and engineering community, we need to think beyond the responsibility to share information with our peers and consider that we may be well-positioned to supply information to public authorities and to the public on a number of these topics, especially regarding new or emerging technologies. Members of our community are often invited to participate in the decision-making process as external experts. Less formal channels of information-sharing include publishing non-technical articles or conducting demonstration projects – more on that below.
Though information alone cannot guarantee that an energy project will be built, the lack of complete information from trusted sources represents a major barrier to project approval and community acceptance.
Building Public Support: It’s a matter of trust
Public support for new energy projects in Canada is far from guaranteed. Without public support, projects face a bumpy road and are often doomed to fail. This is true not only for fossil fuel projects, which are increasingly met with widespread opposition, but also for renewable energy projects and power transmission lines that are needed for the energy system transformation. To restore public confidence in energy decision-making, we need to understand the reasons behind the erosion of trust.
One critical factor is a lack of confidence in expert opinion. Many Canadians attribute more importance to information from “trusted sources” such as friends, celebrities, and social media than to subject matter experts. Identity can hold more value than the quality of evidence, leading to heightened polarization along ideological, regional, and partisan lines. Those with different perspectives may assign different meanings to the same language; and “motivated reasoning” affects how people interpret information. Facts can be distorted to fit a certain narrative or be deemed untrustworthy altogether if they contradict a person’s beliefs. As scientists and engineers, we are not immune to this behaviour. In fact, the tendency toward motivated reasoning rises with science literacy, and so we must be careful not to fall into this trap.
Despite this, science is among the few institutions still generally trusted by the public, with 75% of Canadians trusting scientists to do what’s right, compared to 54% for energy companies and 43% for government leaders. As such, we have a valuable role to play in communicating information related to energy systems and energy project development in Canada.
Getting involved: How we as scientists & engineers can help to build public support
In the face of diminishing public confidence in energy decision-making, there’s a critical need for reliable and accessible information to reach public authorities and the population at large. As scientists and engineers in the energy sector, we can help to address this need through the following actions:
1.Publishing articles, blogs, white papers, videos, and podcasts for a non-technical audience.
As scientists and engineers, we are well-equipped to provide high-quality, scientifically sound information; but we need to share it in plain language on platforms that are familiar to the public, such as social media. Examples include The Conversation, which specializes in articles written by researchers for the public; and Energy vs. Climate, a webinar/podcast hosted by three Canadian energy experts that centres on the Alberta context.
2. Public outreach through hands-on activities, lab tours, public presentations, or other educational events.
These types of activities can help to bridge the gap between the science and engineering community and the public. Examples of public outreach events in Canada include Green Energy Doors Open, led by the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association, Science Rendezvous, which holds outreach events across Canada, and the Aurora Research Institute Speaker Series in the Northwest Territories.
3. Research activities that feature case studies and demonstrations of new technologies, especially in partnership with local communities.
The development of small-scale energy system installations as pilot or demonstration projects can be used to demonstrate safety and to evaluate impacts on host communities. Data shared in public forums could be used to inform project proponents, regulators, governments, and citizens. Examples include the Bioenergy Research Demonstration Facility at the University of British Columbia, the Université de Sherbrooke Solar Park in Quebec, and the WARC Renewable Energy Demonstration Projects in the Northwest Territories.
4. Participating in policy development and regulatory processes.
As non-partisan subject-matter experts who retain a high degree of public trust, we can promote responsible energy decision-making and help to build public confidence by engaging directly with the decision-making process. One approach is to participate in public consultations on energy issues through government departments such as Natural Resources Canada or regulators like the Canada Energy Regulator. Another example of scientists and engineers participating in policymaking as independent experts is the Pan-Canadian Expert Collaboration, through Environment and Climate Change Canada.
Canada’s path to net zero may be a bumpy road; but with public support, we have a chance to get there. When it comes to energy decision-making and building public support, scientists and engineers have a lot to offer. By sharing our expertise and engaging with the decision-making process, we can accelerate the energy transformation.