Understanding Experiences of Renewable Energy in Rural NSW

We sit down with 2021 Honours Fellow Bart Shteinman to learn about his research on community experiences of local renewable energy development.

Image by Stephen Tremain via Shutterstock. ID 1314189956

Anna Sturman: Could you tell us about your Honours project?

Bart Shteinman: My Honours Project, ‘Social License To Decarbonise’, is a field study on whether perceptions to climate action are changing in rural NSW, and – if so – why?

Conventionally, the scholarship of attitudes to climate action, both in the realm of policy and individual projects, has followed two tracks. On the one hand, we have large aggregated polling data and election studies that tend to focus on a mix of political partisanship, elite cues and media consumption. On the other hand, there are a plethora of theories and case studies that focus on the development styles of – and specific community experiences with – local renewable energy development.

My study aims to unify these strands in the scholarship and bridge the gap between what Fournis and Fortin (2017) called the ‘Meso-Political’ and the ‘Micro-Social’ in research on renewable energy. In this, I am seeking to conceptually expand what is often termed ‘social license’. Social license, that is community acceptance of an economic activity, has increasingly been recognised by the renewables industry, advocates and now the Australian Energy Market Operator as a key ingredient in the energy transition.

“My research aims to detect whether community benefit, participation and familiarity can actually engender positive shifts in attitudes to the wider challenge of decarbonisation.”

However, my study seeks to diverge from the often hyper-localised, reactive and barrier-oriented approach that has been taken in studies of community experiences. Instead, my research aims to detect whether community benefit, participation and familiarity can actually engender positive shifts in attitudes to the wider challenge of decarbonisation. In this way, we can begin to detect how the success or failure of social license on the ground can have national and even global consequences.

To do this, my project is studying the attitudes of councillors across the 57 councils classified as rural in NSW and using the dispersion of solar and wind farms across some of these councils to test their effect. I am employing a mixed method approach of mass surveys, interviews and geospatial data on renewable energy development. The central question I am attempting to answer is whether the presence and the pattern of renewable energy development in a local region influences these councillor’s attitude towards renewable energy and climate action. In a sense, it is an attempt to see whether broader attitudes towards decarbonisation can be changed by one’s immediate and material experience of it.

What was the inspiration that lead you to this line of research?

Like a number of people in my generation – I suppose it is almost a cliché at this stage – I am both enraged and animated by the climate crisis. For years, it has motivated me to delve obsessively into every aspect of our energy system and the politics surrounding our multiple ecological crises. While there is an enormity of science, political research and economic analysis devoted to solutions to climate change, what interests me most is how people experience those solutions. I really wanted to confront this perception that environmental politics are necessarily ‘post-material’ and even ‘elite’ when ecological catastrophe is nothing of the sort. Moreover, I wanted to look at what happens to our perception of renewable energy technologies when they cross the boundary from political talking-points to arriving in our backyards.

“I was inspired to question whether climate action must always be an imposition on rural Australia, or whether it can be shaped in an inclusive, participatory and ultimately beneficial way.”

An enormous amount of political commentary has been devoted to psycho-analysing rural and regional Australians and their relationship to climate politics. Political actors on both sides of the partisan divide have projected a narrative that these communities are either inevitable victims or an electoral barrier to ambitious decarbonisation. I have trouble accepting this pessimistic narrative, and so I was inspired to question whether climate action must always be an imposition on rural Australia, or whether it can be shaped in an inclusive, participatory and ultimately beneficial way.

Why is this topic so important, and what do you ultimately hope your findings will contribute to society and its future?

 It would be superfluous to repeat the seriousness of the climate crisis, but I do believe it is important for those committed to action to understand the transformation required. A fully decarbonised grid and a maximally electrified economy will require an enormous and rapid expansion in renewables, storage and associated infrastructure. While the energy regulators and state governments are beginning to recognise and plan for this technological transformation, the speed and scale of it emphasises the importance of its social processes. Without sufficient care to consultation, benefit-sharing and local ownership, the energy transition could easily run into another disastrous backlash.

My survey seeks to model how local councillors come to form opinions on renewable energy not just by looking at the presence of projects, but also their patterns. I am asking councillors to anonymously score projects on the aforementioned criteria, while also asking what principles in general they believe are crucial to winning their support. I believe this information can assist policymakers, industry and advocates to better identify the cause of social license challenges, and how they can be turned into accelerants for wider decarbonisation.

What about the Sydney Environment Institute made you interested in completing an Honours Fellowship with us?

Firstly, I am incredibly honoured and humbled to be an Honours Fellow this year with the Sydney Environment Institute. I really respect the huge amount of research the scholars at SEI produce, not just because these issues desperately require greater attention and solutions but also for the originality and cross-disciplinarity SEI brings to them.

I had already come across SEI in the author sections or preamble for pieces in The Conversation and The Guardian. However, I only understood the value of SEI while doing an interdisciplinary impact course last year, the focus of which was team project targeting sustainability on campus. My research had revealed the great work that SEI was able to achieve participating in USYD’s Sustainability Strategy, the institute being specifically credited by students who were co-participants. I believe our universities and knowledge institutions must be at the very vanguard of climate action and so I was thrilled to be given this opportunity to have my research supported by SEI and its exceptional scholars.

Bart Shteinman holds a Bachelor of Arts/Economics, majoring in Government, Economics and Philosophy, and is currently undertaking his Honours in the Department of Government and International Relations. Bart’s research explores the contradictions between capital, democracy and ecology that have generated the climate crisis, and how unifying them might regenerate our world. His thesis is a field study on the relationship between the presence and patterns of renewable energy development and the political attitudes of councillors across rural NSW.

Bart Shteinman is a 2021 Honours Research Fellow with the Sydney Environment Institute.