Most Australians want cheap renewable energy, low carbon a bonus

Australians basically want cheap and reliable energy, and reducing carbon emissions is a bonus, according to a CSIRO survey of public attitudes towards renewable energy released today.

The report finds that despite robust public discussion, most Australians have a middle-of-the-road opinion of the energy transition – and middle-of-the-road knowledge.

In the survey of around 6,700 people about 40% said it was most important that the energy transition delivers cheaper energy. Only about 25% prioritise reduction in the nation’s carbon emissions. Increasing Australia’s energy independence is also seen as an important measure.

Overall, most people take a neutral to positive view of having new energy infrastructure like solar farms and wind turbines constructed near them, including people living in capital and major regional cities, and country towns.

Those living out of town – such as on a rural property – had more negative views towards the construction of renewable infrastructure. 

“On the whole, Australians are on board with the idea of either a moderate-paced or a fast-paced transition of energy systems towards more renewables,” CSIRO social psychologist John Gardner, a co-author of the study, tells Cosmos.

“But they have concerns, and those concerns relate a lot to local impacts and local benefits of communities that are going to be affected.

“We didn’t see a distinction between city folks and rural folks. What we saw was a distinction between people who live on large properties, people who live ‘out of town’, and everyone else.”

Large-scale solar was viewed more favourably than other energy forms – though down on a 2020 edition of the survey (82% would tolerate one within 10km of their home, compared to 95% previously), ahead of windfarms and transmission lines.

Emotional sentiment towards all four forms, however, was mainly neutral, with only 18% of people saying they’d outright reject living near any new infrastructure development.

An insight into the social challenges of energy transition

Australia’s energy transition is a hot-button topic, with the federal government ramping up plans to build new transmission infrastructure and extend its fleet of off-shore wind turbines coming up against community opposition.

Elected on a promise to speed up country’s migration to cleaner energy, the Albanese Labor Government’s policies are also being challenged by moves from the federal opposition to put nuclear on the agenda.

The public’s attitudes towards nuclear energy wasn’t tested, and it was only included as an option in a single question about level of reported knowledge on various energy types.

Gardner says the survey was designed to test the public’s views on existing, under construction or proposed transitionary infrastructure projects like onshore wind, offshore wind, solar farms and transmission infrastructure.

“We didn’t include hydro-electricity because there’s currently only one place where that’s happening [in construction], which is Snowy 2.0, although there are a few more proposals, but that’s quite niche technology because it’s in one place,” he says.

Gardner thinks nuclear could be included in future editions, given its rise as an energy talking point.

The CSIRO study shines a light on the level of energy literacy among Australians.  On average, people felt they had only ‘moderate knowledge’ about rooftop solar panels – the most of any form of transmission.

Knowledge about renewable energy falls away from there – large-scale solar farms, household and smart meters, on and offshore wind, then nuclear are closer towards Australians having limited knowledge.

That no one form of new energy generation technology saw respondents self-describe as having better than moderate knowledge might point to a literacy gap among the population, at a time when governments are rapidly seeking social licence.

Gardner says people aren’t “buckets” that can be filled with information. Instead, he says the population should understand the reason why some infrastructure may be favoured over others.

“There’s some kind of minimum level of knowledge that’s necessary, if you’re going to understand something for yourself,” he says. “But it is more important that people have an idea of why this change is happening and what it’s for.”

That narrative is a key driver of social acceptance for new tech, along with public understanding of the benefits, impacts and fairness of proposed infrastructure.

“What we find is that, for people that have a greater grasp of that narrative, they are more comfortable with supporting the transition. And people that do not have a sense of the narrative, they are less comfortable with supporting the transition.”

CSIRO to brief stakeholders, survey set for repeat in 2025

The report will be made available to the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, which contributed to the research, and for public view through an online dashboard.

Other stakeholders in the energy sector, including the national regulator and electricity market operator will also be briefed.

“And a number of others, groups like Energy Consumers Australia, there are many people across the sector, that are interested in better understanding how the general population is thinking about this kind of thing,” Gardner says.

Gardner hopes the survey will be conducted again next year, in order to track shifts in public attitudes towards the transition.

“It’s important because you cannot just provide the technology or the industrial development or the change in energy sources without understanding how people are feeling about that and how they’re responding and what they are concerned by,” he says.

“It’s people’s concerns that will need to be addressed for these technology and infrastructure changes to be successful.”

The CSIRO has made the full survey data, including by gender, age, and location available online.

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