Market Insights

Engineers, Social Scientists Can Bridge the Renewable Energy Technology Gap

September 18, 2023 by Claire Turvill

For renewable energy technologies to take off, engineers and social scientists must work together to bridge the gap between technology and society, say researchers.

Introducing renewable energy systems as a long-term solution to climate change is multifaceted. Researchers from the Technical University of Denmark explored the socio-technical gaps present in the development of wind farms and the public’s acceptance of expanding infrastructure.


Researchers in Denmark say public support is needed for renewable energy like wind power to become successful.

Researchers in Denmark say public support is needed for renewable energy like wind power to become successful. Image used courtesy of Pexels


Resistance to Renewable Energy Adoption

Wind energy is quickly growing as a leader in renewable energy systems but is limited by increasing resistance to adopting renewable energy technology. 

According to the paper’s authors, design decisions for renewable energy are often reached without engaging the public. As a result, societies risk forfeiting public support for the critical energy transition. 

The paper emphasizes that to achieve global decarbonization objectives, the technical sciences must collaborate more closely with the social sciences and humanities, focusing on engaging with and delivering value to local communities and society at large.


The authors illustrate the stages of the socio-technical process.

The authors illustrate the stages of the socio-technical process. Image used courtesy of EurekaAlert


This increased need for public involvement extends across various phases, including the planning, development, design, and end-of-life stages. Notably, pivotal decisions are made during the design phase, determining whose interests are considered and whose are not. Recent research indicates that these decisions are embedded within the algorithms employed in digital design tools rather than through public engagement or discourse.


Ensuring Renewable Energy Support

In Denmark, the home of the paper’s authors, wind energy has a long and successful history. Denmark has a robust energy policy framework that promotes renewable energy, and the country has set ambitious targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

However, the authors note that, in 2022, only a handful of onshore wind turbines were newly installed as small-scale cooperative investors have gradually found themselves marginalized. Their ability to invest has diminished due to complex factors, including technological advancements (upscaling), shifts in support and financing mechanisms, and changes in ownership models. 

These changes have been further driven by the European Union's mandate for wind power to undergo public tenders, where competition favors constructing large-scale wind farms with minimal state subsidies. This shift has led to the gradual disappearance of the original foundation of Denmark's wind energy sector—the local cooperatives. Unfortunately, this transition has occurred without fostering public discourse, escalating local opposition to wind power over the past decade.

Without public support, Denmark's wind power is growing slower than required to meet 2030 climate goals.


Bridging the Socio-Technical Gap 

A significant gap emerges concerning how to actively involve societal stakeholders in the design of wind turbines. The design of wind technology is inherently socio-technical, even if societal actors are not directly engaged, as it involves concepts like envisioned users and the general public. Many societal concerns regarding wind turbines are closely related to their design. These include issues such as noise, wind turbine size, shadow flicker, and obstruction lights, all of which prominently feature in public discourse.


Researchers at the Technical University of Denmark say the public should be involved in renewable energy decisions.

Researchers at the Technical University of Denmark say the public should be involved in renewable energy decisions. Image used courtesy of Unsplash


The operational phase of wind farms presents a challenge related to understanding how individuals connect with, interact with, and perceive the existence of wind farms within their daily environments and landscapes. 

This understanding is crucial for enhancing decision-making in wind farm operation and management. It necessitates a holistic perspective that includes a dynamic comprehension of residents' apprehensions and viewpoints. This entails considering their social and historical context and potential transformations over time. 

The most significant research gap in the end-of-life stage of wind turbines revolves around the interaction between various stakeholders and the temporality of wind energy infrastructure. The relatively short operational life of wind turbines (around 20-25 years) makes wind energy landscapes dynamic and subject to changes in regulations and suitability for renewed projects. This raises questions about governance, public engagement, procedural justice, and restorative justice in end-of-life decisions.


An Interdisciplinary Approach

Essentially, technical scientists should aim to have a more holistic view of the technology they are hoping to implement. This includes engaging with the public in areas where renewable energy technology is planned to be installed in order to gauge the effects on daily life.

In order to achieve a socio-technical perspective in the deployment of future renewable energy technologies, the authors advocate for the development of interdisciplinary thinking and methodologies, a reevaluation of research funding, and the advancement of innovative educational programs to better understand the socio-technical aspects of wind power deployment.