Interviews with citizens in four European towns were conducted by FIThydro partners to identify the public’s opinion in the region on run-of-river hydropower plants. The results, presented in the report D5.3, indicate a number of similar perspectives across study towns and highlight potential points of conflicts that might drive public debate against hydropower.

In many parts of Europe, the public becomes more engaged in questions about the future energy supply of nations and regions. This also applies to the development and operation of hydropower plants. Public perceptions may influence the realization of projects, including the refurbishment of existing small and large hydropower plants. In order to increase the acceptance of such plants and their mitigation measures, local opinions and socio-economic effects must be taken into consideration.

To identify the spectrum of opinions on the presence and modernization of small, run-of-the river hydropower plants in Europe FIThydro partners* conducted interviews with citizens in different European towns.

Interviewing citizens across Europe

The researchers conducted interviews with citizens in the case study towns Vila Real (Portugal), Toulouse (France), Landshut (Germany) and Örnsköldsvik (Sweden). These towns represent regions with very different geographical characteristics that pose particular challenges for operators seeking to modernise and develop hydropower.

For the preparation of the interviews, Q-methodology was used to identify the spectrum of opinions on hydropower. The method is rooted in both qualitative and quantitative research and provides a good way to systematically study subjectivity or opinions.

The citizens were asked to rank 25 opinion statements, representing a range of attitudes towards the modernization, expansion or conversion of hydropower facilities. Statements include, for example:

“It is important to me that hydropower creates jobs in the region (e.g. construction, maintenance, tourism)”

“I am concerned that hydropower disturbs natural habitats”

Conducting interviews in Landshut, Germany (picture rights: © Holger Gerdes, Ecologic Institute)

The participants, recruited at public spots in the four towns, ranked the statements according to how strong they agreed or disagreed with them and also gave their reasoning for this.

The influence of location and age on opinions

In order to detect relations between opinions on hydropower and the variables age, gender, level of education, country, hydropower knowledge and purchase of green electricity, the researchers applied canonical correspondence analysis (CCA).

The analysis revealed that the country where the interview took place was the most important variable to explain differences in respondent’s agreement to the 25 statements used for the interview. Age also influenced the views on hydropower, whereas the remaining explanatory variables were less important in the analysis.

Similarities in perspectives

The results show that a number of similar opinion patterns exist in each case study region. This allows a grouping of the respondents into different types of perspectives or “world views”. Each perspective represents a different opinion, characterised by similar values and perceptions. The results reveal that similar perspectives, focusing on the same key issues, exist across the case study towns. These are:

  1. Hydropower is a climate-friendly energy source and a crucial component for an energy transition
  2. Hydropower (potentially) harms river ecosystems
  3. Local hydropower plants should bring benefits to the region, and/or should be operated by companies based in the country

Potential points of conflict

Overall, the study results indicate that hydropower production is not a highly contested topic for the local residents of the four case study regions. However, within the identified perspectives, conflicting views exist on a number of issues:

  • Ecological effects
  • Ownership questions
  • Changes in electricity prices

These points of conflict may drive public debates on hydropower and influence public acceptance. Therefore we believe that it is useful for hydropower operators and planners as well as for politicians to be aware of these issues and consider them in their decisions.

As the negative environmental impacts of hydropower are a central issue in public opinion, designing and implementing environmental mitigation measures presents an opportunity to address public concerns. To this end, operators and political decision-makers will have to develop strategies that demonstrate how specific mitigation measures may enhance the ecological status of the river ecosystem.

* The research for this study has been carried out by Ecologic Institute and the Technical University of Munich in Germany, Hidroerg and the Instituto Superior Técnico in Portugal, the Centre national de la recherche scientifique in France, and SINTEF in Sweden.

For more information, read the full report (download 1MB) on the public acc eptance of hydropower.