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Canada’s renewable energy industry has suffered a great deal from ham-fisted attempts at implementation and education from­­­­ governments and environmentalists alike. So it’s sometimes tempting to believe that greater education is all that stands between our ostensibly well-reasoned opinions and the irrationality of others.  

Don’t believe in climate change? You will after you read this report. Fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs? A two-week seminar will convince you to support my beloved Montreal Canadiens. Opposing a wind farm in your back yard? Let me share some science with you.

And to some extent it’s true: greater education on some subjects has been shown to produce a relative consensus of opinion. But only to a point. There’s more to opinions than facts, and there’s much more to swaying already dug-in opinions than lobbing fact-grenades at the entrenched until they surrender.

In fact, a barrage of facts can have the opposite effect, further solidifying an opposed view. Facts conveyed without any consideration for the other elements of persuasion may consolidate an us-versus-them dichotomy where facts lose their power to impress.

Too often, wind farms are muscled into communities with abstract appeals to the greater environmental good. Opposition has arisen at every turn despite general acceptance of the necessity of fossil fuel alternatives. At the root of the problem is a fundamental failure to understand that opinions are formed of equal parts fact and emotion. Think, for example, of how one’s opinion of a family member’s actions might differ from those of a stranger’s. In the climate change debate, values have carried much more weight than facts in influencing public opinion.

Recently, members of the renewable energy community have embraced a more holistic approach to education: one that includes social, political and economic benefits.

Says Steve McKague of the Teeswater Community Power Co-operative, “If someone drives by a wind turbine and says ‘That project is putting a new pool in my community or building a new park in my community,’ we're hoping that they won't see it in such a negative light." His co-op wants to involve the entire community in the renewable energy project, allowing them to share the benefits together.

Other groups are also discovering that the co-op model is a powerful vehicle for persuasive renewable energy education. Beatrice Ekoko of the Hamilton Association for Renewable Energy co-op describes the evolution of the organization which “started off with the goal of becoming a renewable energy co-op [and] ended up as an association that would educate the community about the benefits of renewable energy as well as promote and facilitate renewable energy opportunities for the city.” Energy co-operatives bring renewable implementation down to the community level, offering a stake in the project to a much wider range of citizens.

The way that renewable energy projects are introduced to communities and the way they are framed – as initiatives with local benefits – has proven to matter at least as much as the facts surrounding energy use and climate change. Renewable energy co-operatives may be the solution to the problem of how to educate persuasively without arousing opposition.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.

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