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Public acceptance of hydrogen

2014-07-01

An alternative exists to the technocratic approach in dealing with the public acceptance of new technologies.

Hydrogen, as an energy carrier, has multiple applications in energy storage, transport and household. Hydrogen, as an energy carrier, has multiple applications in energy storage, transport and household.

Technology developers and policy makers will be confronted, soon or later, with the acceptance of hydrogen as new technology. Thus far, they have relied on a technocratic approach. They give information on the environmental and safety aspects of the technology, thinking that an informed public will be more likely to accept it. They carry an operation of public relations, so to say. 

Is it possible to do otherwise? Yes, argue Olga di Ruggero, researcher at Delft University of Technology in her study on “Anticipating public acceptance: the hydrogen case,” made in the framework of the project The next fifty years. She is addressing “those professionals who still think of the public as ‘those who don’t know’ or ‘those who care about safety and the environment only’.” The public can be involved in the innovation process of hydrogen technologies. 

A diversity of views on hydrogen

There are a lot of uncertainties about how hydrogen, as an energy carrier, will develop in the future. We know that hydrogen can be produced through electrolysis. It can be stored, transported and used as a fuel. Specialists envision future applications in power-to-gas, maritime and automotive transport, household and residential equipment.

These hydrogen technologies will become mundane with time. “So, are people going to accept hydrogen, yes or no?” Dr Di Ruggero writes. “This question is, in my opinion, emblematic of a certain idea of public acceptance that I argue to be technocratic and potentially counterproductive.” She has the ambition of overcoming this view of public acceptance.

She wants to explain “how lay citizens frame their preference towards hydrogen in the broader context of the energy issue.” By frames, she means a set of beliefs which embed a worldview, assumptions and values. People select information and construct a frame, which encompasses a range of possible technological problems and solutions, that guide their behaviors and choices. 

Environmental and promethean

Frames on hydrogen technology, according to Dr di Ruggero, can be grouped in promethean or environmental categories. “The environmental frames cover very different gradations of green, environmental thought, making it more appropriate to talk about ‘environmentalism’,” she writes. She has observed broad variations that range from “deep green frames, like the ecotopian, to the mild liberal environmentalism or the authoritarian prescribed environmentalism.”

As we can expect, the promethean frames diverge from the environmental ones, as they are more positive about hydrogen technology. “The promethean frames are characterised by the minimisation of the environmental issues, the anthropocentric vision of nature, the priority institutions,” she writes.

The advocates of hydrogen technology might find allies in people whose frame are variations of the promethean category. “The variety of frames, especially the promethean ones, invalidate the idea of a unified risk-adverse public and of the public as ‘a barrier to overcome’,” she remarks. Some holder of the promethean frames, indeed, have a prescribed environmentalism or a technocratic worldview. 

Mini-publics

Non-governmental and consumer’s associations pretend to represent an aggregated view of the so-called “public interest.” Dr di Ruggero finds that there is a diversity of frames about hydrogen technology, both about how it will be deployed in daily use, as well as how it will be realized as an infrastructure. She suggests to involve the public in the making of policies and in the design of new hydrogen-based technologies.

Mini-publics are “small groups of lay citizens representing the variety of the public,” she writes. They are composed to have a diversity of frames being represented, contrary to the classical method based on socio-demographic representativity. By this method, policymakers and engineers can capture people’s values and preferences and embed them the upcoming policies and technologies. 

By Jean-François Auger