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No Green Energy Transition Without the Involvement of People

Steinbeis experts have developed a participation concept aimed at promoting public dialog.

In 2011, the German federal government passed legislation to put an end to the use of atomic energy. In July 2020, it was decided that using coal-fired power stations to generate energy should be phased out in several stages by 2038. Simultaneously, the central government is going full steam ahead with programs to bring more electric vehicles to the roads. A prerequisite for all of these ambitious initiatives is a powerful high-voltage electricity grid capable of providing all regions of Germany with a reliable electricity supply, in a way that is both economically and environmentally friendly, but still takes changes in other areas into account. One factor that is rarely included in such considerations, however, is people. Steinbeis experts Professor Dr. Gernot Barth and Jonathan Barth explain why this can cause problems and describe how the companies that operate the infrastructure should react.

High-voltage electricity grids involve many imponderables and challenges, and not just on a technical level. Place insufficient emphasis on people factors with such developments and things can become even more problematic – for the transformation process brought about by the green energy transition to work, it also needs support from communities.

A common problem: people talking at cross purposes

Decision-makers responsible for energy policies should always aim to meet three criteria: environmental compatibility, the reliability of energy supplies, and economic viability. Deciding which goal takes precedence and prioritizing which factors should be considered for legal reasons is often based on a process of dialog, which tends to be a one-way street: the different stakeholders “talk at cross purposes.” Sometimes it goes like this: The engineers working for the network carrier offer their assessment of a situation, based on technical and financial feasibilities. Attorneys dealing with the construction of technical infrastructure come at projects from a more abstract angle, weighing up commodities based on legal considerations. This contrasts with affected members of the public, who tend to react emotionally and call on additional input from experts – worst case scenario, this ends up in a lawsuit against the planned energy project. From a personal perspective, nobody involved in the process is doing anything wrong. But when it comes to the overall result – negotiating an outcome that is acceptable to all parties – talking at cross purposes can be quite harmful.

For example, lawsuits during the planning phase either result in urgently needed electricity infrastructure suffering severe delays, or if the claim is won, the infrastructure may not be put in place at all, resulting in even more uncertainty regarding electricity supplies. It’s important to prevent this happening, not only for the sake of society overall, but also for the operators of technical infrastructure.

Involving people facilitates dialog

This challenge is being tackled by a Steinbeis team spearheaded by Gernot Barth. He has developed public participation concepts that are aimed at striking a healthy balance not only between the interests of members of the public and communities affected by projects involving expansions in the grid, but also the interests of grid operators. “The key success factors of citizen participation are not just showing appreciation and remaining transparent when communicating externally with members of the public. In parallel to this, the infrastructure operators also need to adopt a different approach,” says Barth. The industry has been operating in a market driven for many decades by regulations. Over the years, a strong customer focus has developed, not only on a formal level with respect to the Federal Network Agency, but also when it comes to infrastructure users.

From an economic and organizational standpoint, this focus is entirely understandable and rational. But within the industry, especially if you are a company subject to government regulation, it is not necessarily obvious that you will need to communicate completely transparently and proactively towards other stakeholders. The societal trend toward more and more individualization has resulted in a shift in public attitudes that will need to be considered by the energy network operators, especially if they want to implement their projects sustainably. Because these structures have developed over many years, an all-encompassing approach to change is needed, going all the way back to the organizational hierarchy of the network carrier.

The idea of the public participation concept that was developed by the Steinbeis experts for infrastructure providers is to facilitate this change and address factors both inside and outside the organization. First, a task force should be set up, as well as interdisciplinary working groups. Also agile working methods should be introduced, as well as a conflict management system for infrastructure construction projects. Factors that need to be considered outside the organization are a stakeholder analysis, a mediation team, a rethink when it comes to communications with all stakeholders, an ongoing coaching program for people working in communication, de-escalation techniques in communication, and maximum transparency. Only by bringing together all of these aspects does it become possible to engage in successful dialog, expand the high-voltage grid in the long term, and thus make a successful contribution to the green energy transition.