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Mandy Stoker, director at E4 Environment, gives her views on the media’s coverage of the anaerobic digestion sector.
In the waste and renewable energy sector, there is little more frustrating than the careless language used in relation to green technology. No matter how beneficial renewable energy systems are to the environment, there is a sense of suspicion surrounding them. Attend a local council consultation on a planning application for an anaerobic digester and you will likely hear it described as an “industrial gas producer”.
The terms “bioaerosols” and “dust” are also banded about, most likely in relation to a supposed health risk. Not only do terms like these imply a negative environmental impact, but they sustain misconceptions that anaerobic digestion (AD) plants are a threat to the health of rural communities.
Single AD installations are talked up and out of proportion until they seem directly linked with mass industrialisation, mass food shortages and mass environmental destruction.
A small AD plant down the lane can very quickly become linked to all manner of evils if presented using slapdash terminology. Making this worse are the headlines by the likes of, you guessed it, the Daily Mail (UK-based newspaper). Like something from a Roald Dahl novel – and about as fictitious – anaerobic digesters are referred to as “great green guzzlers” that cause “mass destruction to farmland”.
This characterisation of green energy makes it monstrous and a threat to our beloved countryside. It is tempting to answer back to this depiction of renewable energy solutions, especially when their statistics are painfully insignificant and misleadingly woven into their sensationalist narrative. So why is there so little support for anaerobic digesters, and how have they become such a target?
The daily fail
It seems to begin, like with so many other targets of NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard), with poor education. When a planning application goes in for an AD installation, there is no need for the technology or its potential benefits to be described thoroughly. This leaves the local community guessing. They can either research AD independently, or rely on the mixed opinions of others. It is certainly easier to hear about it down at the pub than to spend hours online.
Although it seems apparent to environmental professionals that the Daily Mail is portraying AD in a negative light, it is frustrating to think how someone sceptical of green technology might be influenced by talk of the “great green guzzler” that causes “HARM” (yes, the Daily Mail capitalised this to EMPHASISE THEIR POINT) to the environment.
Without accessible sources of information and a positive media presence, it would be incredibly easy for communities to turn their backs on AD.
Also, it goes without saying that anaerobic digesters are not at all glamorous. Like a super-sized digestive system, they eat up waste and produce gas. In a society that remains squeamish about human and animal waste, AD seems to disgust those who are not aware of the benefits.
In reality, most farms applying to install an AD plant are muddy, drizzly, functional places that are designed to maximise the quantity and quality of produce.
Although it is lovely to see the lambs in spring, farm life is often far from “cute”.
The agricultural industry is becoming increasingly mechanised and technical, yet is seems public perceptions lag behind, preferring not to view farms as centres of production, algorithms, and computer-driven combine harvesters. Whilst providing the perfect market for innovative renewable energy solutions such as AD, agricultural life is not generally perceived as cutting edge. So, when the media picks up on a handful of cases where plant has malfunctioned, it is all too easy to play on the theme of a threat to the rural idyll.
It seems the solution to this poor communication over AD is to kick-start a support campaign that sets out to educate the general public on the virtues of renewable energy. As part of this PR facelift, farmers should be giving testimonials, students should be visiting these sites on school trips (what a lesson in biology!) and local news should be covering the benefits of AD instead of focusing on controversy. There is a perceived disconnection between “industry” and “countryside”, which needs to be broken down for the sake of introducing renewable technologies. If it is that easy to create a news story from a single occurrence of an AD plant malfunctioning, bodies such as Anaerobic Digestion Bioresource Association (ADBA) should be able to drown out hyperbolic negativity with stories of triumph.
This article was first published in Bioenergy Insight’s March/April 2017 edition by Mandy Stoker, director at E4 Environment. Visit: http://www.e4environment.co.uk