Socio-technical consensus and controversies about renewable energies

public.project.responsible_investigator_cria: Luís Silva

public.project.responsible_investigator_external: Ana Delicado (ICS-UL)

public.project.research_group: Environment, Sustainability and Ethnography


Renewable energies | Perceptions of technology | Risk | Expert and citizen knowledge


Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (FCT)

ICS-UL (coord.); Universidade de Aveiro










This project aims to understand social attitudes towards macro-generation of renewable energies, namely solar and wind power plants, by examining the social consensus and controversies around these technologies in Portugal. Since renewable energies are considered crucial for the mitigation of climate change, social responses to them are a key factor for their diffusion and success. A considerable body of research has already been amassed in Europe and the US on the subject of renewable energy policy and economics and even more so on the local impacts and conflicts around wind farms. Nevertheless, this project will try to bridge some knowledge gaps in this field. First, this project will look into this issue from a social studies of science perspective, drawing on the literature of science-policy relations, technological risk controversies and public engagement in S&T matters. Second, it will adopt a comprehensive approach that takes into account the diversity of social actors involved and examines both the macro and micro level of consensus and controversies, deploying varied methodologies. Finally, this project includes a much less studied object (solar power plants) and will focus on the case of Portugal, where barely any research has been done in this field and which has specific traits that make this issue worthy of research: outstanding natural conditions for generating renewable energies, a strong political investment in the area, an apparently high level of social acceptance of these technologies and atypical arrangements in the relations between S&T, policy and citizens. The research problem will be examined at two levels, national and local. Regarding the national framework, the aim is to build a wide-ranging picture of the actions and discourses of the social actors involved: politicians, policy makers, business companies, environmental NGOs, other organisations from the civil society, scientists. Under analysis will be the processes of developing policies and incentives, of planning and making decisions about specific locations, of addressing competing interests and values. Particular attention will be paid to the recourse to scientific advice and argumentation and to how citizen participation in deliberative procedures is envisaged. The chosen methodology for this activity is document analysis and semi-structured interviews to key informants. A thorough scrutiny of Environmental Impact Assessments of wind and solar farms will play a key role in this assignment. This undertaking will be complemented by two other extensive analyses. First, an assessment of how media portray the issue of renewable energies and wind and solar farms in particular, by collecting and examining news articles and by interviewing journalists. Second, a study of public opinion trends regarding renewable energies, based on data available from international and national surveys. At the local level, this research will consist of six case studies of localities close to wind farms (four sites) and solar power plants (two sites), chosen according to the data collected in the previous stage, with a concern for geographical diversity as well as for the different local characteristics. The case studies will focus on the socio-economic effects of the wind and solar power plants; on the perceptions and behaviours of local communities regarding social and economic advantages and disadvantages, environmental and health risks, transformations in landscape and land use, representations of technology and of renewable energies; on the tensions and conflicts, as well as the negotiations and compromises achieved between local stakeholders; and on the interactions between citizens and experts, examining the dialogue and exchanges between different types of knowledge. The rural context in which most renewable energy facilities are seated is also an important factor to take into consideration: wind and solar farms can be seen either as a "technological fix" for economic deprivation and unemployment or as a "technological blight" that ruins pristine landscapes and endangers nature and tourism. The methodology followed in this stage will comprise documental data collection, interviews, ethnographic fieldwork and workshops with interested parties. Despite having a mainly national focus, this research will endeavour to strike comparisons with other European countries, namely in what regards policies, media representations, public opinion trends and the unfolding of controversies. The overall goal of the project is to produce knowledge that is scientifically sound but also socially relevant, by providing information that can be used to enhance science-society relations and to foster citizen engagement in socio-technical decision-making. This project foresees a broad dissemination of results not only to the scientific community, via scientific publications, but also to policy makers, other stakeholders and the wider public.