When public engagement goes wrong: Learning from a hydrogen village trial
Authors: Dr Gareth Thomas and Professor Karen Henwood, Cardiff University
In September we, HI-ACT, launched our five-year Hub and research plan, developed through meaningful conversations with our academic consortia. During this time, social scientists Dr Gareth Thomas and Professor Karen Henwood from Cardiff University (aligned to our ‘Social and Political Perspectives’ work stream) engaged in topical conversations about the community engagement of the recently cancelled Whitby hydrogen village trials. Here, we use the blog format as a means of sharing real world insight based on valuable conversations we had with those stakeholders who had close up knowledge of the Whitby trial, and explore some of the challenges of implementing ‘ideal type’ public engagement processes within real world projects.
We thank colleagues involved in these trials for sharing their experiences with us at the HI-ACT launch and hope to start a wider conversation based on the “provocations” below.
The voice of the local people
In the context of energy trials which impact people’s daily life, it is important that decisions are communicated fairly with an opportunity to input to decisions that are being made. Best practice for such engagements suggests they work best at the earliest stage when the aim and ambition of a project is still up for debate.
In the case of the Whitby trial, central government wanted answers to specific questions relating to conversion of gas networks to hydrogen. While the trial may have been open to revision based on local consultation, framing proposals prior to engaging the community likely gave the impression that outcomes had been decided in advance.
Cadent, the regional gas network operator, was tasked with local consultation and delivery of the trial. A one -year period was set aside for local consultation, which included doorstep visits, community meetings, focus groups and surveys, alongside the dissemination of written information and the opening of a hydrogen experience centre for residents to visit and learn more about the project.
After the abandonment of the Whitby trial, it would be unfair to those involved to describe this process as tokenistic. Indeed, Cadent staff have continued to engage the community on net-zero issues. However, with project outcomes already specified, residents were denied the opportunity to shape the aims of the trial, and Cadent had limited scope for adaptation when locals raised concerns on this basis.
Trust in energy companies and infrastructure providers
As a regulated monopoly, Cadent were the only organisation qualified and entitled to make modifications to the gas network in Whitby. They also took responsibility for running the community engagement process, subcontracting home assessments and conversion of in home heating and cooking equipment to British Gas, an energy retail company with a large engineering workforce and a strong reputation for gas appliance installation and maintenance.
When evaluating complex and unfamiliar technologies, humans often rely on rules of thumb to simplify decision making, enabling us to get on with our lives without becoming experts in every aspect of the world around us. Social psychologists specialising in risk perception often emphasise two forms of trust as particularly important- competence and integrity.
Competence based trust is the belief that organisations responsible for technology or infrastructure will deliver safe and reliable services. Energy companies are typically trusted on competence. Cadent and British gas were the right people to be doing the actual work of network and appliance conversion.
Integrity based trust is the belief that responsible organisations have the best interests of society at heart, will be honest and transparent in their dealings, and will not abuse their position in the pursuit of undue profits. Energy companies are typically not well trusted when it comes to integrity. Repeated studies have shown households want independent advice before taking on the financial uncertainty and disruption of switching to unfamiliar home heating systems.
With this knowledge in mind, Cadent and British Gas were always going to struggle to be seen as independent or impartial, and this may have contributed to some polarisation around the proposed trial. Information presented by Cadent and British Gas may not have been taken at face value and could easily be dismissed as misleading by those opposed to the project. Partnering with an independent organisation such as a non-profit energy, housing or financial advice charity may have reduced the potential for mistrust to emerge.
Uncertainties about the future
Gas distribution infrastructure is a natural monopoly, it’s costly to build and maintain and its financial viability rests on a single supplier coordinating and recouping costs within a given area.
During the early stages of consultation, initial proposals envisaged all households in the trial area either participating, or converting to electric heating, a cost which would have been covered by Cadent. The option of remaining on the gas network was not included in initial proposals.
While the project may have been open to redesigning the trial, this was not necessarily clear to all residents and the prospect of an enforced conversion was likely viewed by some as a significant threat to household autonomy, contributing to polarisation and mistrust.
Residents also raised concerns over what would happen at the end of the project, would guarantees on the cost and servicing of hydrogen be continued? If the area moved back to natural gas who would incur the cost of new appliances? Cadent responded to these queries, but early concerns were amplified by social media and traditional news outlets, further reducing trust in the project.
During latter stages of the consultation, Cadent revised their proposal, offering to construct a separate natural gas network for households who did not wish to participate in the trial. Shortly after this announcement, National Government decided against holding the trial in Whitby.
Wider debates around hydrogen heating
Cadent and British Gas may have been slow to recognise the capacity of the local community to develop their own expertise, sourcing information and advice from elsewhere rather than taking project representatives at their word.
This was problematic as debates remain over the merits of hydrogen heating relative to other sources, and some trusted sources of information might amplify the polarised framing of hydrogen for heating. For example, some environmental NGOs and civil society activists have raised questions over the environmental benefits of hydrogen. Pointing to natural gas as a major source of hydrogen production, they argue it maintains reliance on fossil fuels and hence does not address the problem of high bills, resource depletion, and CO2 production. These organisations tend to be more trusted on questions of integrity. Their framing of hydrogen as a ‘false’ or ‘non-solution’ chimes well with established public values favouring long term solutions over sticking plaster solutions.
The UK government and debate among experts also display significant uncertainties over the future role of hydrogen. While some studies suggest hydrogen may have a role in domestic heating such as in hard to insulate homes, others suggest need for hydrogen in other sectors could make it costly and inappropriate for use in homes. Wider uncertainty over hydrogen’s future raised questions over the wisdom of participating in a trial for a technology which may be abandoned in the near future. Such debates furnished opponents of the trial with reputably sourced information to argue their case.
Some involved in the trial may have blamed the consultation’s failure on uninvited participation by individuals and groups from outside the trial area, but a lot of these critiques are easily available online and citizens have a long track record of developing expertise quickly in response to a perceived threat. Blaming outside agencies misunderstands public’s capacity to do their own research and seek out alternative information.
As social scientists without a role in energy systems governance, it is easy for us to point out how the Whitby trial fell short of ideal type public engagement processes. Consultation should have began when the goals and parameters of the trial were being defined. This may have helped reduce the early perceptions of the consultation as a fait accompli, and to identify initial concerns over enforced heating conversion before initial plans were drawn up. Cadent and British Gas were good choices for delivery of the trial, but the mistrust with which they were greeted by some members of the community could have been foreseen and avoided through use of an independent intermediary approached to provide information and consultation activities.
At the same time, decisions over the scope of the project and lack of long-term certainty over the future role of hydrogen in UK policy making were not within the gift of the companies running the Whitby trial. The need for heat decarbonisation has not been extensively debated in the UK, and many householders are unaware their gas boilers contribute to climate change. In this context, the sudden appearance of anyone offering potentially disruptive changes to an unfamiliar technology might give rise to questions and some concern.
It may also be the case that heat decarbonisation is an inherently provocative activity. It requires changes to home heating systems over which residents have little say, raising questions of autonomy and choice within what is usually considered the private domain of the home. Offering residents the chance to remain on gas earlier in the consultation may have reduced the chance of polarised opposition emerging, but this is unlikely to be a viable solution for the long term. By consulting on a proposal which did not include the option of remaining on gas, Cadent have given us a real-world experiment in how communities may react to infrastructure policies perceived to be enforcing heat decarbonisation without sufficient long term guarantees and protections. It may be that for future trials to be successful, more work at a national level is needed to persuade communities to come forward as pioneers.
Hope for the future
HI-ACT plans to work on community perceptions. As we generate insights about the role and connotations of hydrogen for domestic use, we will seek to feed them back to stakeholders. Our ways of working will take full account of positions held by both publics and industrial stakeholders. They will speak to wider questions too – about methods for ‘scaling out’ hopeful visions of hydrogen, building communication and trust between stakeholders, and improving communities’ prospects for living well with major system changes.