Democracy Day: giving students a say on the future of renewable energy

The transition towards renewable energy is underway. In fact, the demise of fossil fuels is already being described as inevitable. But a remaining challenge is public perception. Aren’t solar farms and wind turbines a blight on the landscape? Aren’t they expensive? Ineffective? Environmentally unsafe? Unless we correct these misconceptions, progress will be slow.

Who decides where renewable energy assets go?

All renewable projects undergo a rigorous planning and development stage. During which, local authorities and developers engage with their communities to address concerns and explain the benefits. Young people are often left out of these debates, which not only undermines their role within the community, but also means they’re ill-prepared to make a meaningful contribution in the future.

Involving young people in the debate

Roy Horobin, History Teacher at Bridlington School in Yorkshire, believes schools should do more to prepare young people for real-world debates. Roy says, “If we’re denying children a role in these important decisions, schools should at least give students the chance to assess the hard evidence and decide for themselves. That’s what democracy is.” So, as part of the school’s Democracy Day initiative, Roy asked his Year 8 students (aged 12-13 years) to debate the theoretical siting of a wind farm on the cliff-tops near Bridlington.

We feel at home in Bridlington

Octopus already runs a local wind farm at Fraisthorpe, just a few miles from the school. Fraisthorpe’s nine turbines have a total capacity of 29.7MW. We estimate that Fraisthorpe generates enough to power over 22,324 homes (and most of Bridlington’s population). The Fraisthorpe wind farm is just one of many sites that form of our renewable energy network (which also includes solar and anaerobic digestion).

As we’d already visited Bridlington School for their Careers Day, and as Fraisthorpe plays such an important role both locally and nationally, we seized the chance to once again help Roy bring wind energy to life for his students during Democracy Day.

“Schools should at least give students the chance to assess the hard evidence and decide for themselves. That’s what democracy is.”
Roy Horobin, Bridlington School

Presenting the case for wind

This time, Natalia Paraskevopoulou from our Renewables Investment Team put together a pack of materials that would give the theoretical exercise weight. Natalia needed to be thorough, as this was a great – but rare – opportunity for the students to practise interpreting and assessing real-world data.

First, we broke down how a wind farm operates. We explained how turbines work, how we transport the energy, what data we collect on-site, and the people needed to operate them. Then, as well as drawing from our own expertise, we pulled together various factsheets describing the community benefits of a wind farm. The factsheets including annual funds contributed for local improvement projects, electricity discount schemes, ownership, skills training, and job creation.

Democracy in action

But there was another side to the story. This was to be a “public enquiry”, so for the process to be truly democratic, Roy invited a local councillor and other teachers from the school to present counter arguments. Once the students had gathered all the information together, they were split into teams and presented their findings to the students, visitors, and staff. Then, everyone voted on whether to approve the new wind farm. The result? A landslide in favour of the value of placing wind farms in the local area.

Roy said of the day: “We were given excellent evidence, as well as involving councillors and other faculty members. Our 200 students gained a better understanding of wind farms, and in the ‘public enquiry’ at the end of the day, voted over 80% in favour of the wind farm. The students had fun and gained a real insight into the industry. Also, this day involved a lot of different staff and serves as an education process for them about the industry.”

Young voices matter

And what did Octopus learn from the experience? It was great to see how the students loved engaging in political decisions. They embraced the evidence, diving into complex data and conflicting viewpoints, and let the facts inform their opinions. Far from being uninterested in their community, energy, and sustainability, they were thrilled to have the responsibility of such an influential decision. That gave everyone from Octopus huge hope in the future of renewables.

Roy said, “It was an important day for the students, because democracy matters. Schools tend to ignore this issue and I think this is detrimental to our economy, as well as denying students a chance to develop the skills and knowledge needed to make wise choices about their future.”

They might not have their say in community matters yet, but when it comes, they’ll be ready.

Octopus Group
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