No transition without…

fraser jf stewart
6 min readMar 6, 2024

In the next decade, the UK needs to build 5x as much energy transmission infrastructure (pylons, cables, substations etc) as we have since 1990 to deliver the low carbon energy system required to meet our non-negotiable climate change targets.

Doing so is, ultimately, critical. As we electrify power, heat and transport to bring down emissions, we need much more and much better cables and wires to support that. The upshot of course is that this will allow us to shift away from pricey and volatile fossil fuels, more consistently pass on the benefits of lower cost renewable energy to everyone, and generate new opportunities for people and places.

Which is great. Yet delivering big infrastructure like this is unlikely to go completely unnoticed by the general public.

Much of it will cut through natural landscapes and communities, resistance to which is already growing in pockets across the country. In my own area in the North-East of Scotland, the local Facebook group, notice boards and town hall meetings are filled with concerns and campaigns to “Stop the Pylons”. You might have seen various op-ed pieces in newspapers like The Herald or Telegraph recently, or heard about the issue on Sunday politics shows.

It’s easy to write-off this growing resistance to energy infrastructure as NIMBYism, or a new manifestation of culture war opposition to net zero. Yet the rapid growth of this sentiment raises a key question for how we have gone about engaging people on net zero so far, and how we can more effectively do so going forward.

The story so far

In order to maintain deep and broad support for net zero and deliver the massive-scale changes required to get there, we need to bring people along for the ride. Anything seen to be done *to* people rather than *with* them will invariably cause backlash and slow things down. It’s a tale as old as time. There is no route out of the climate crisis that does not involve citizens and communities at its core.

This is now broadly recognised by people who work in the energy sector and wider climate spaces. On energy infrastructure and big transmission stuff in particular, networks have ramped-up efforts to engage communities, to ensure we secure buy-in for the infrastructure needed and to deliver benefits locally.

Some are doing this quite well, but I don’t think it controversial to say we have yet to crack the code for how to work positively with people on a consistent basis. Sincere as a lot of resistance is to a lot of the infrastructure we want to deliver, not engaging effectively and consistently to this point has undoubtedly left a void for more cynical campaigns and organisations to fill. If left unchecked, this risks seeding wider backlash and slowing the transition overall.

The best way to counteract that is not by dismissing opposition or trying to subvert or avoid it altogether, but rather by improving how we work with people and places. This requires a subtle but important mindset shift: from overcoming the barrier of community resistance, to working with diverse communities in collaboration to deliver a mutually beneficial transition.

Where is change needed

So what does this mean for how (and why) we engage with communities in practise? First, it means moving away from the idea that the main goal is winning communities round to our pre-determined plans or projects.

Too often we talk about community engagement as a means getting people to accept what we want to do, and all that requires is the right type of community benefit or just making people understand. But citizens and communities will not be passive recipients of net zero. They’re active partners who know their areas and needs and priorities well, and we could recognise that far better than we do now.

We also have to think about what we mean by “community”. A lot of the growing resistance to transmission projects today comes largely from vocal groups who turn up to the town halls, flyer and doorstep their neighbours, and will respond to every consultation. Does this mean networks or developers or councils need to spend all their time winning those groups round? Probably not, though concerns cannot be easily dismissed and it’s important to keep having that conversation openly. We won’t deliver the changes required by trying to subvert debate.

But one vocal group does not a whole community make. People and places are deep and diverse. There is a need to reach and understand perspectives beyond the town hall alone, to speak to often-excluded groups such as those on lower incomes and the working classes, and more adequately reflect those voices in our infrastructure and wider net zero processes. Greater democratisation of net zero energy planning generally – across transmission, distribution, regions and regulation – would be an immensely positive step.

This is critical not just to shaping mutually beneficial projects, but ensuring that our view of what people want or delivery of community benefit is not solely defined by already-engaged voices. It is also crucial to making net zero work for more than just those who are already at the table.

Part of this will come from better communicating the vision of social transformation and enormous value that the energy transition has to offer. Outside of people who work in citizen and community engagement, we hear frustrated appeals from well-meaning energy sector folk about how all of this is in the collective interest and people just need to get over themselves. There’s a far more compelling narrative about the genuine opportunity this transformation presents and the steps required to get there that we would do far better to get behind.

Shifting the mindset

That’s a lot of conjecture, but underlying it I think is that need for a mindset shift. To improve how we engage and counter the groundswell of resistance to big transmission and energy projects thus requires four key things:

  1. We need to stop thinking of communities as a barrier to overcome and starting recognising them as an active partner and asset. Discussions on how to engage communities often turn towards how we communicate projects, plans or potential benefit, that we just need people to understand better, and this is all important to a degree. But it is also a bit patronising. Citizens and communities are not passive receivers of the net zero transition. They are active (and valuable) participants.
  2. We need to better value the knowledge and perspectives that citizens and communities hold. Too often in the energy sector, we view expert and technical knowledge as king. But the knowledge that citizens hold about their places and personal needs and priorities is equally if not more so critical in delivering infrastructure projects or changes in homes, for instance. Recognising and leveraging that knowledge — sincerely and openly — will invariably take us further than trying to assume, shortcut, or ignore it altogether.
  3. We need to get better at reaching the people and places we have struggled to reach so far. If our main mode of engaging people is through town halls and local events, then don’t be surprised when certain groups turn up and call you all the bastards. Public forums are important, but there is a clear need for more dedicated engagement that brings through the voices of those often excluded from the net zero conversation to ensure they are also in the fold and able to shape community benefit etc.
  4. We need to more strongly and openly make the big picture case for a just transition that is prosperous for people and places. We are getting better at promoting the case for renewables. Yet we are still failing to cut through on the opportunities of transformation in the energy system socially, equitably and for people and places. Where we surely agree is the need to make that positive case for the bigger picture of societal transformation.

Without this shift in process and mindset, we will struggle to deliver the changes we need to make at the scale and pace required to meet our critical climate ambitions. It may take a little longer – and I sincerely appreciate the urgency that we’re up against– but doing so means we can build a more robust and sustainable base of support to carry forward.

The flipside of this is that, by bringing people along meaningfully for the ride and working with citizens and communities to build projects and solutions that recognise distinct needs and perspectives and unlock value for everyone, then we can deliver a transition far greater than the sum of its collective parts.

But it can’t happen at a distance, and it can’t happen without people.

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fraser jf stewart

Very cool & handsome applied researcher, making clean energy work against poverty and inequality. Believer in big ideas. Scheme bairn at heart.