In the face of global challenges like rising energy costs and the need for decarbonisation, Switzerland is exploring decentralised renewable energy to enhance resilience. This involves key players like citizens, voters, and energy consumers. Individual energy choices are shaped by unique local circumstances, influenced by factors such as region-specific potentials for renewable energies and distinct social dynamics.
Through an extensive survey of Swiss residents, the researchers tried to determine the diversity of regional preferences in terms of renewable energy policies, according to factors such as the urban character and location. Understanding these nuances is crucial for realistic predictions, aiding project developers in strategically placing diverse renewable energy technologies.
Dr. Gracia Brückmann, who worked on this data shares the main findings with us. Interview.
What were the most surprising findings in your research, and can you elaborate on the reasons behind these unexpected outcomes?
Gracia Brückmann (G.B.): One very interesting finding is that we find no substantial regional differences in the acceptance of renewable energy and renewable energy policy.
This is surprising for at least two reasons. First, the three regions we defined in the EDGE projects – i.e., Midlands, Alps, and urban areas – differ significantly from a techno-economic but also socio-political perspective. Hence, firstly, we reasonably expected that these regional disparities in, e.g., wind power potentials, could go hand in hand with differences in renewable energy acceptance. Second, from a political science perspective, the expectations of regional acceptance patterns also followed the previously known regional differences in many (if not almost all) dimensions of public opinion and preferences.
However, there are also explanations for the absence of regional acceptance patterns that we observe. One is that the political discourse about the energy transition is very much a national one. This is not least related to the fact that – as renewable energy is a national policy domain following article 89 (2) of the Swiss constitution – we had several national ballot votes on energy issues, accompanied by rather intense and emotional political campaigns.
Another reason for the non-regionalised preferences is Switzerland’s small size. When we talk about Alpine PV, for example, we cannot say that only those living in the Alps are “affected” if renewable energy infrastructure is constructed in this area but also individuals living in urban areas or the Midlands care about the Alps because they live relatively close the mountains and spend their holidays there. Hence, with respect to the well-known NIMBY (not in my backyard) phenomenon, we could argue that for Swiss people, “the backyard” in energy-infrastructure-related questions often relates to the country as a whole.
Can we draw any conclusions from your research survey results?
G.B.: The results of our regional analyses provide insights into how the political debate around the energy transition should be “set up”. One point is that it seems a good strategy to emphasise the energy transition as a national endeavor and to have a national debate (rather than many regional ones) on infrastructures, technologies, and regulations, considering regional distributive effects. This approach can also counteract regional polarisation and its political exploitation.
Political polarisation is an important hurdle to implementing effective policies, including the acceleration of renewable energy generation. Therefore, addressing and decreasing political polarisation surrounding the energy issue is crucial among political elites and the population. It is not an easy task to propose concrete action, but it is worthwhile to be sensitised to the important role political polarisation plays in the energy transition process.
What were your conclusions regarding farmlands?
G.B.: Most respondents are rather positive about PV on farmland, and moreover, we do not observe relevant differences between the Midlands, urban, and alpine areas. However, it is also important to note that we definitively need more data on Agri-PV acceptance. Indeed, the questions used in the EDGE survey were clearly positively framed, i.e. some advantages of Agri-PV were mentioned while potential conflicts and challenges were not. Hence, we need to investigate more thoroughly whether individuals are still optimistic about this type of Alpine photovoltaics (PV) if they also hear the more challenging arguments.
About the expert: Gracia Brückmann is a post-doc at the Institute of Political Science and the Oeschger Center for Climate Change Research at the University of Bern. Currently, they are a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Dr. Brückmann holds a PhD from ETH Zurich. Their research deals with public acceptance of climate and energy policies, given different prior experiences.
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