Energy fuels modern economies – both literally and figuratively. Securing affordable, reliable, and clean energy has become a hallmark of successful economic development. Despite agreement on what makes energy systems sustainable, decision-makers and constituents often have strong and polarized views about how to deal with the complicated trade-offs between cost and environmental impact; regulation and individual choice; and national consistency and local control. 

The decisions around these issues are difficult and the stakes have only gotten higher in the face of growing demand for energy, and the increasingly disruptive impacts of climate change. At the CBI 20th Anniversary Symposium energy breakout session, we invited our speakers and participants to take on these challenges. They recognized that to make better-informed decisions that incorporate the views of many energy stakeholders, we must step up our efforts in collaborative dialogue and consensus building. They also recognized that collaboration might require overcoming a long history of adversarial relationships, changing the way governments and developers integrate community values and concerns into decisions, and finding new ways to unlock entrenched positions. 

Mark Boling, president of Southwestern Energy’s Value + Development Solutions, talked about how producers have begun to partner with environmental advocates to reach agreement on best practices for natural gas hydraulic fracturing in response to communities’ worries about the risks to their water quality and landscape. He made the case that industry needs to embrace not only their understanding of the risks, but also the public’s perception of the risks. 

Ignacio Toro, former director of Chile’s environmental assessment agency, talked about how the country is struggling to manage the social and environmental impacts of large energy projects in the form of large-scale hydroelectric and extensive transmission infrastructure. He noted the gaps in capacity for robust public engagement, which Chile’s government is working to fill. 

Rebecca Pearl-Martinez, with the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Global Gender Office, highlighted the important role women can play in adopting clean energy in developing countries, where energy can still be a luxury. She argued that we need to shift the conversation away from women as simply vulnerable populations and embrace the reality that women are uniquely positioned to accelerate system-wide change. 

Catherine Finneran, Sr. Director at Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, shared how CEC is working with communities to examine alternative energy opportunities that match their local values and priorities, after encountering public resistance to siting new wind turbines. She acknowledged, however, that aligning state policy with community interests can be a challenge and may require new, innovative approaches. 

While there are promising efforts to incorporate new partnerships and solutions, the participants were asked what new collaborative ideas and approaches are needed to resolve the energy debates. Some of the ideas that emerged: 

  • Collaboration requires investment (time, money, people) that does not sync well with pace and return horizons of business or politicians, so we need to find leadership and resources willing to maintain collaboration through longer business/profit-loss cycle and past the next election. 
  • Bringing women to the table may mean creating a new table, where women’s values and newly acquired training in consensus building will allow them to play a leadership role, even in cultures where their voices are often not heard. 
  • We need to expand participation of local communities in state and regional policy decisions; launch a regional dialogue on energy and climate so the conversation starts by reaching consensus on the bigger picture before heels get dug in about a specific project. 
  • Can we require energy developers to go to the kitchen table of families around a new development, like a wind farm, to earn greater public support for their initiatives? If not mandated, we need to develop more incentives for innovative collaboration between developers and communities. 
  • If we recognize that technical information on energy alternatives can be understood by many individuals across interest groups and that this information is critical to building understanding of the trade-offs, we might get closer to some solutions. Is better joint fact-finding the answer? 
  • Government decisions should merge scientific knowledge with public perceptions to reach solutions that are more durable.