Unpacking safety concerns in social acceptance of green energy transitions in Denmark

Mette Marie Vad Karsten & Freja Valentin Dunkerley, Danish Institute of Fire and Security Technology

In the coming years, Denmark will face higher demands for green energy from so-called Power-to-X (P2X) facilities as the country works towards climate goals of 70 % reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. Establishing the required infrastructure – where renewable energy is converted via electrolysis into hydrogen, and maybe converted to e-fuels like ammonia or methanol – has tremendous implications for safety. As a new technology, P2X is vulnerable to controversies, concerns, or resistance from local communities and stakeholders, resulting in economic setbacks, failed projects, or divided     communities. But despite growing attention on social acceptance of renewable energy technologies (RET) [1,3,5,8,9], there is still a lack of knowledge about the associated safety concerns [2,4,7].                     

Notwithstanding, it has been shown that social acceptance of RET is indeed very vulnerable to safety concerns and can thus be swayed in negative directions [6,10]. We present two cases from our R&D work where a transdisciplinary approach gave insights highlighting the importance of focusing on safety from both a technical and social perspective in P2X infrastructures. We argue that safety concerns are under-examined and may be crucial analytical entry points for understanding how green energy infrastructures are made not only safe but also socially acceptable.

Case I

In Western Jutland, in the Western part of Denmark, we conducted fieldwork among three different local communities for three days. We visited neighbours of a soon-to-be solar park (who are already neighbours to another solar park), who felt the new project process was unfair and non-transparent, and that profit was prioritized over legitimate climate concerns and the community’s wishes. Furthermore, they described being invited to a public consulting meeting just a few days before the meeting took place, suspecting that the short notice was a conscious tactic from the project owners to avoid questions or objections. In another nearby solar park project, a woman who started a local energy association to involve fellow neighbours found that the project owners did not take the citizens’ wishes into consideration, and division on this issue amongst citizens lead to general discord in the local community, resulting in social exclusion and even threats.

Figure 1. Photo from fieldwork in Western Denmark. Photo by the authors.

We also visited a family living nearby a planned wind farm and P2X project, who showed us all the material they had collected relating to the upcoming P2X facility and shared their concerns with us. They were unhappy with the proposed height of the wind turbines and expressed safety concerns. The family already lives near an existing wind farm of 11 turbines, and they expressed their discontent with the upcoming replacement of turbines that will be up to 270 metres high, even though they were promised that the wind turbines in their area would not exceed 150 metres. They told us that people would get mocked if they complained, and at public hearing meetings they would get comments from project owners or involved stakeholders telling them that “they don’t understand it”. The family found it unfair that wealthy businesspeople can destroy their nearby nature and get to make a profit, while the local people’s houses lose value and they get “locked in” by the projects, losing both quality of life and diminishing their opportunities for going elsewhere. The locals had to educate themselves on P2X and related safety concerns if they wanted to be well-informed, and explained that at public meetings, safety is rarely discussed. When safety is brought up, citizens are told by stakeholders not to concern themselves with it. They expressed their concerns on Facebook and received many negative messages. They explained that they would feel safer if the conversation about safety was more transparent and honest, because right now, they “don’t trust what we are told”.

What we learned about justice, fairness, communication, involvement, fears, and concerns among communities in Western Jutland informs our collaborations with our engineering colleagues and       industry partners. Conversely, our collaborations and involvement in technical projects shapes our understanding of safety and other infrastructure challenges when meeting with citizens. Transdisciplinarity is one way of making visible multiple energy futures, articulating different ideas of how the green transition is enacted and understood.

Case II

In a second project, we looked at maritime transport of electric vehicles (EV), as EVs are expected to become increasingly common in the Nordic countries [12]. The project was carried out by a transdisciplinary team including fire engineers, naval architects, and social scientists, the latter group carrying out fieldwork on three ships, observing daily life on the ship and interviewing crew members from the kitchen to the captain’s deck about their experience with and knowledge about EV fires. While some respondents felt confident in their ability to respond to emergencies, others expressed apprehension due to their limited experience with EVs. Oftentimes, crew members share anecdotes at work about personal experiences and stories about EV fires they had heard from colleagues or seen in the news. This hinted at a possible gap between formal safety protocols onboard and the realities of everyday knowledge among the crew.

Figure 2. Emergency teams putting out fires in EVs. Photo: DBI

We also observed a fire drill. Here, the crew members demonstrated various firefighting techniques, while also pointing to the challenges they faced. For instance, the crew had insufficient information about safety related to toxicity after a battery fire, a fact that only became apparent when our team shadowed the smoke divers from beginning to end – including after the drill itself – and saw how their helpers got them out of the suit again, in a manner that would have been unsafe and potentially lethal in an actual EV fire. We also accompanied crew members responsible for inspecting and monitoring the vehicles on board. As we tagged along on this inspection and talked about potential hazards of transporting EVs, the crew members expressed concerns about their limited knowledge of lithium-ion battery behaviour and the lack of training for handling EV-related fire emergencies. The fieldwork and interviews directly informed subsequent computer modelling of fire hazards, identification of necessary detection and safety practices, and development of courses and training to equip crew onboard for safe handling of potential EV fires. The results demonstrated the importance of understanding safety practices and knowledge in a social context, and not only relying on information from protocols and formal documentation.

Closing remarks

For us, adding ethnography to safety work involves attending to different groups of people who will be shaped by or are shaping RET, and who may have safety concerns. The transdisciplinary approach to safety in the rollout of the P2X infrastructures matters, because such infrastructures are not neutral. Infrastructures redistribute resources and have political effect [14]. What is particularly tricky about P2X, and what we see daily in our work, is that safety levels, procedures, and practices have not yet been agreed upon, made, or settled. Learnings from anthropology detail how infrastructure grows temporally and incrementally as part of a growing engineering expertise in building, making, and repairing infrastructures [14]. Our cases illustrate how ethnographic perspectives enrich understanding in complex interlinkages of social and technical challenges when building RETs, which are both safe and socially accepted among the people working with these technologies and the people living near them. By addressing the green transition in more holistic, transdisciplinary ways, we can develop more robust and adaptive safety systems that cater to needs and concerns of local communities and workers alike, building more trust in the infrastructures, in the companies deploying them, and in the authorities approving them [13].

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