European Geologist Journal 56

Communicating geothermal geoscience results to improve public policies and social acceptance of geothermal energy

 

by Dario Bonciani 1, *, Amel Barich 2, Marco Vichi 1, Alice Pippucci 1 and Loredana Torsello 1

1  Consortium for the Development of Geothermal Areas (COSVIG)

2  GEORG – Geothermal Research Cluster

Contact: d.bonciani@cosvig.it

Abstract

Geosciences applied to the exploitation of geothermal resources have achieved significant scientific progress. The adoption of geothermal research results in public policies can contribute to meet the challenges set by EU Strategies. Geoscientists are facing challenges to communicate scientific results to stakeholders. There are many studies on geothermal that are ignored by policies and public actions, hindering promising chances of including geothermal energy as an important player in the ongoing energy transition. This is partly due to difficulties in communicating geoscientific content efficiently to non-technical audiences. The article aims to analyse past experiences, current practices, and future opportunities to better communicate scientific results as a means to better support policy making and highlight the role of geoscience in achieving sustainability goals. 

Cite as: Bonciani, D., Barich, A., Vichi, M., Pippuchi, A., & Torsello, L. (2023). Communicating geothermal geoscience results to improve public policies and social acceptance of geothermal energy. European Geologist, 56. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.10463545

1. Introduction

Geothermal is a renewable, reliable, versatile and stable source of heat and electricity, with a high-capacity factor and low levelised cost of energy [1]. It can play an important role in decarbonising the energy mix, which emits 75% of EU (European Union) greenhouse gases. Geothermal is a strategic resource to achieve the Paris Agreement targets, to keep global warming within safe levels aligning with the European policies for green transition and full decarbonisation by 2050. This includes the European Green Deal and Fit for 55 packages [2]. Geothermal heat can decarbonise 25% of the EU energy needs [3], while fluids will provide raw materials.

Despite this and although the European Union Strategy for Solar Energy (COM(2021) 221 final) states a target to triple the geothermal capacity by 2030, dedicated measures to achieve a significant deployment of geothermal energy are lacking [4, 5, 6, 7]. Low visibility, citizen engagement and minimal impact in policymaking affect geothermal, comparable to challenges faced by other geosciences [8]. Although used for thousands of years, geothermal is considered an emerging technology [10, 11] with low awareness of its potential [12]. The lack of familiarity leads to confuse different technologies, such as deep and shallow geothermal systems, or petro-thermal and hydrothermal deep geothermal projects. These misunderstandings and difficulties in communicating complex technical information may result in unfounded public resistance [13, 9]. Sub-surface technologies are perceived out of sight and out of mind; an unfamiliar realm and a source of concerns [14, 15]. The scientific community often pays less attention to communicating with the public and may find difficulties to adapt contents and disseminate results through non-scientific media. Many earth scientists believe that their research is not acknowledged by policies and have a limited understanding of the policy-making processes [8, 16].

Technology, society and governance interact closely; communication about the environment and energy technologies shapes the public opinion and changes policies (Figure 1; [17]). It is important that information is shared effectively, to avoid disputes and encourage adequate policies.


Figure 1: Connections between society, industry and governance.


Echoes of the social conflicts on geothermal in Monte Amiata (Italy) reached the national Government and the European Parliament [18], while opponents to a project in the Canton of Jura (Switzerland) collected signatures to call for a vote to ban deep geothermal [10].

Communication should become part of the geoscientists’ activities and reliable information on the underground may contribute to decision-making. Surveys in Italy [18, 12] reported preferences of local communities to receive information from researchers and local scientists, instead of administrators and companies [11]. This trust in scientists encourages a dialogue between experts and non-experts [19].

The geoscience information translation into the public and policy sphere requires deep understanding of how people receive, perceive and process information and interaction with communication experts. Participatory engagement and dialogue are effective communication strategies [14]. Books, brochures, maps and the virtual reality can support geoscience communication and education [8]. Traditional mass media (newspapers and TV) target a substantial segment of the population [20], although they tend to exaggerate positions in the geothermal debate [21] and in some cases are considered not impartial. The internet [11] or social media are preferred, despite the risk of extreme simplifications. Alternative ways to educate on geothermal is through geotourism [22].

Next chapters provide examples of geothermal science communication to citizens and policymakers involving authors and institutions, at both international and national levels, in two of the main “geothermal countries”: Italy and Iceland. Grounding on these experiences, recommendations on how to report geoscience results to a non-technical audience will be provided, with the objective to help promote effective communication on geothermal.

This research is part of the social engagement and communication preparatory work to be implemented within the COMPASS Project [23], aimed at proposing sustainable and cost-efficient solutions for managing geothermal wells in supercritical contexts.

2. Materials and Methods

This study aims to investigate effective communication strategies for conveying complex geoscience findings, particularly in the context of geothermal energy, to non-expert audiences, including policymakers and citizens. The research methodology commenced with an extensive literature review, focusing on communication initiatives and key publications. Special attention was given to initiatives in which the authors were directly involved, such as EU-funded projects, including GEOENVI [24], GECO [25], DEEPEGS [26], GEOTHERMICA [27], and CROWDTHERMAL [28].

Additionally, the review considered local and national experiences, with the authors’ participation, including communication efforts in Italian geothermal regions, initiatives to engage high-level policymakers in Italy, and communication campaigns in and from Iceland, such as #GeothermalFriday and #LetsTalkGeothermal.

The analysis encompassed various facets of communication strategies tailored to different non-expert target groups, namely policymakers and citizens. Key aspects under examination included the objectives of these communication efforts (e.g., awareness raising, policy advocacy, addressing environmental and safety concerns, facilitating project decision-making, education, and event chronicling), the diverse communication channels employed (e.g., newsletters, newspaper articles, websites, social media, videos, seminars, public events, meetings, factsheets, and position papers), the choice of language used, and the core messages conveyed.

The results derived from this comprehensive analysis have culminated in a set of recommendations for geoscientists seeking to effectively communicate their research outcomes to non-expert audiences, ultimately aiming to enhance awareness, foster social acceptance, and influence policy decisions in support of sustainable geothermal energy utilisation.

3. Background analysis

Efforts have been put in place to communicate geothermal to policymakers, with the final aim of facilitating policies to increase its deployment. Sector organisations, public bodies and informal clusters interested in geothermal development publish informative volumes, policy briefs and factsheets or position papers. They organise events and bilateral meetings or send emails to relevant policymakers. Earth scientists and technicians usually provide scientific basis to these messages and initiatives. Citizens and local communities, but also policymakers, are reached by different kind of communication tools which contribute to raise their awareness and inform them about scientific advancements.

Actions directly financed by the EU pay importance to communication activities tailored to different groups of stakeholders, including non-technical public consisting of policymakers and citizens. These activities are usually also aimed at improving social acceptance and promoting policies on geothermal energy.

The following subchapters report a review of all experiences where the authors’ organisations were directly involved.

3.1. Geoscience communication in EU funded geothermal energy projects

Within the framework of science and technology funding initiatives, the EU has recognised the significance of effective communication as an integral component of its funding criteria. EU guidelines emphasise that communicating research, development, and innovation projects should transcend mere reporting of project activities; it should encompass the explanation of the underlying science and the processes involved [29]. Communication strategies within EU-funded projects entail specialised efforts that converge to bridge the gap between intricate scientific concepts and methodologies and public comprehension. These bridges are essential for cultivating trust and ensuring the sustainability and adoption of the solutions and knowledge being developed.

As an emerging industry, geothermal energy is still establishing its reputation and role within the broader renewable energy landscape and the EU’s energy transition agenda. Due to its context-dependent development process, geothermal energy heavily relies on geoscience, particularly subsurface knowledge, to assess its utilisation potential and environmental impact. Geoscience communication strategies within EU geothermal projects employ diverse approaches tailored to each initiative’s requirements and scope. Typically, an educational component is incorporated to raise awareness about the project’s objectives.

For projects such as GEOENVI and Geothermal Emission Control (GECO), which respectively address deep geothermal environmental impacts and carbon capture, storage, and utilisation within geothermal energy, social media campaigns and webinars have played a pivotal role in disseminating knowledge regarding the methodologies employed to assess and mitigate geothermal energy’s environmental impacts. In GEOENVI, a combination of national and EU-level seminars, coupled with targeted communication campaigns, facilitated discussions on project outcomes. An Environmental Database on the project’s website provided comprehensive information on environmental effects. Furthermore, weekly updates on technical subjects were shared on the project website and social media platforms, accompanied by the hashtags #GEOENVI and #ThisWeekGoodNews. GEORG has similar initiatives called #GeothermalFriday and #LetsTalkGeothermal (Figure 2).


Figure 2: #GeothermalFriday Outreach Initiative by GEORG – Geothermal Research Cluster.


Overall, the strategy aimed to increase awareness, harmonise regulations, and garner support for deep geothermal projects across Europe. In the case of GECO, which focused on testing the Carbfix solution [30] across diverse geological settings in Europe, an online permanent exhibition was created to showcase its four demonstration sites (Figure 3). This exhibition detailed the science and technology developed throughout the project’s duration. Additionally, in-person workshops and summer schools were integral components of GECO’s knowledge dissemination plan. Moreover, project deliverables were simplified into factsheets to facilitate result communication.


Figure 3: Geothermal Emission Control (GECO) Project’s online permanent exhibition of its demonstration sites.


On the other hand, DEEPEGS, a project centered on deep drilling and enhanced geothermal systems, prioritised high visibility through EU communication platforms such as HORIZON 2020 EU Research & Innovation Magazine and Euronews Futuris TV. These platforms were leveraged to convey the project’s ambitious scope. Furthermore, DEEPEGS compiled its scientific results into a publication, which was made available to project partners and stakeholders (Figure 4).


Figure 4: (a) DEEPEGS Book of Publications; (b) GECO and DEEPEGS Mini documentaries.


Traditionally, science communication has been associated with written press formats. However, recognising the evolving media landscape, audio-visual resources have gained prominence in science communication. Both DEEPEGS and GECO produced videos in the form of interviews or short documentaries (Figure 4) to succinctly summarise their project scopes and results, aiming for a broader impact. This shift towards audio-visual materials aligns with the increasing consumption of this content by the public in recent years.

3.2. Communicating geothermal science to policymakers

The authors’ entities are actively involved in activities to communicate geothermal to policymakers. The Italian Piattaforma Geotermia (Geothermal Platform) is a permanent group of entities and associations dealing with geothermal energy. This platform operates under the coordination of the national professional association of geologists and focuses on advancing the deployment of geothermal heat pumps and direct applications. It achieves this goal through proposals aimed at simplifying authorisation processes and formulating appropriate policies for incentives and information dissemination. The initiative acts through meetings and collaborations with relevant policymakers and is punctuated by press releases to emphasise the role of geothermal energy. Additionally, high-profile events, such as a conference held in Rome in June 2022, featuring the Italian Minister for Ecological Transition as one of the keynote speakers (Figure 5), served to communicate the importance of geothermal energy and its opportunities to a diverse audience. Similar events were organised by the Platform in October 2022, involving Region of Tuscany, geothermal territories, companies, and geoscientists. In March 2023, through a collaboration with the Italian Geothermal Union and the National Research Council.


Figure 5: The Undersecretary of State for the Ministry of Economic Development in 2019, during the first workshop of GEOENVI in Italy, on 17th April 2019.


To increase the awareness of opportunities offered by geothermal and communicate on technical topics related to this renewable energy, notably geological aspects, potential environmental and health impacts, their monitoring and mitigations COSVIG organised a round of non-technical seminars for its member mayors, with presentations from geoscientists and scientific journalists. At general EU level, projects like GEOTHERMICA and GEOENVI have touched upon direct communication with policy makers through initiatives like JoProShow, a map-based tool to promote geothermal in Europe, and policy briefs, respectively.

3.3. Communicating geothermal science to the civil society

COSVIG has managed the communication on geothermal energy for more than 10 years, publishing the weekly newsletter GeotermiaNews, to inform politicians and citizens in the geothermal areas of Tuscany (Italy) and to foster greater social acceptance of geothermal energy by local communities. This initiative was launched after agreements between geothermal operators of powerplants in Italy and regional and local authorities that identified COSVIG as an impartial body in charge for the institutional communication on geothermal. Articles were mainly on innovative advancements in earth sciences and geothermal technologies, events, socioeconomical benefits linked to geothermal energy, results of studies on potential environmental and health impacts, concerns and barriers. In this framework, COSVIG collaborated with a local television (TV9 Italia) to produce GEOLINK, a monthly in-depth column on geothermal areas, consisting of six episodes to raise awareness of geothermal regions, including geothermal innovation initiatives. Concerning a more specific communication on geothermal energy aspects at national level, COSVIG published for two years articles on Qualenergia, a bimonthly magazine on sustainable energy promoted by Legambiente, one of the main Italian NGOs on environmental issues. The general aim was to raise awareness on the heat under our feet and its usages, identifying benefits and limits, including barriers and solutions for its development.

Geothermal tourism, with museums, site visits and geoparks is a good opportunity to bring the public closer to this science and raise its awareness. While operators organise periodic visits to powerplants (e.g., the initiative to open power plants in Italy, GECO demonstration sites on-site showcase in Iceland and Turkey). Geoparks combine the concepts of geoscience research, information and education at all levels, bringing the public into exceptional geological heritages and in contact with communities living there. Three examples of parks, belonging to the UNESCO’s Global Geoparks Network and falling into geothermal areas, are Reykjanes (Iceland), Açores (Portugal), and the Tuscan Mining Park (Italy). The latter has a museum that explains the geothermal phenomenon through audio guides, panels, experiments, and virtual reality. In addition, a fairy tale to introduce kids to geothermal and its natural environment, was published in 2017 [31].

4. How to effectively and efficiently communicate research results

Grounding on the information collected and analysed from previous experiences, this chapter suggests recommendations and proposals to the scientific community, to better communicate geothermal science contents to a non-expert audience.

To effectively communicate geoscience results, it is essential to identify key messages and provide concise information using as much non-technical language as possible and a clear terminology, especially when addressing a non-technical audience [32]. When planning a communication strategy, it is important to consider the context of the given project in terms of area and related communities. This allows for a better understanding of the stakeholder landscape [33]. Similar considerations should be made when communicating geothermal science results in general when addressing a wider audience.

The communication should be adapted to the target audience, choosing the best dissemination tools and channels for the target group, combining formal and informal communication means [34]. Preferred forms of communication for citizens are articles in local newspapers, direct mails, websites [15] and social media. The choice of tools should consider the age of the audience. In fact, it is convenient to mix education and entertainment to actively engage an audience of teenagers (12 – 17 years old) on scientific topics: posters, videos uploaded on the Internet and various video games have been created over time for this purpose [34,35]. These communication tools are appropriate for reaching the public, but for policymakers, it is advisable to involve them through public initiatives, roundtables, and bilateral meetings, and send policy briefs or more simplified factsheets with specific recommendations for policies. These documents should also clearly articulate how the geothermal science results can contribute to meeting the objectives of EU policies.

Experts should also collaborate with traditional and non-traditional media and associations engaged in lobbying activities to raise public awareness on specific topics and increase the likelihood of research results influencing public policy. However, it should be noted that policymakers can be selective in their consideration of scientific or technical information within a policy context. They often prioritise scientific outcomes that align with short-term electoral mandates or have immediate socioeconomic implications [16], which may lead to the phenomenon known as NIMTO (Not-In-My-Terms-Of-Office) [36]. Therefore, strategic framing of research results to align with policymakers’ priorities is crucial.

Regular audience updating, with weekly or monthly communications, gives people the opportunity to have valid opinions on geothermal and enables policymakers to predict the acceptability towards geothermal technologies and specific projects. Access to information (e.g., environmental data) and non-technical reports help to establish public trust [14] and provides opportunities to disseminate positive experiences. However, the public should not be overloaded with information and a systematic collection of open (e.g., online) and FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable) data helps facilitate access. Sharing of reliable information is very important to gain public acceptance, as learnt from experience in Iceland. [37].

It is good to emphasise to the public what the possible socio-economic benefits of geothermal are, in terms of royalties for the territories, job creation, lowering of utility bills or attraction of tourism [33], but also for positive messages related to geoscience results, as done within the GEOENVI Project. However, disclosing possible risks linked to geothermal conveys a transparent and neutral communication and increases trust. This also allows comparisons and limits misinformation that can be generated by fake news and misconceptions.

As is in many geoscience-society contested sectors, simply explaining the technical science rarely motivates meaningful behavioural change among stakeholders. A more effective communication results from participatory engagement and dialogue, where individuals and communities contribute to the decision-making process [34]. Participatory processes and discussion groups also help to understand the preconditions and expectations of interlocutors [14, 26], forming the right environment for acceptance, as well as to raise awareness.

5. Conclusions

Communicating geothermal sciences, much like other geosciences, poses challenges when reaching a non-expert audience due to its inherent complexity. Yet, various publications and experiences underscore the crucial role of clear and effective communication in disseminating awareness, leading to increased acceptance and supportive policies for further development. Drawing from our experience in engaging non-experts, this research offers recommendations for communicating geothermal and related geosciences.

Clarity is key in effective communication: messages need clear identification, and concepts must be presented in an easy, concise manner. Tailoring communication strategies to specific projects, areas, and involved communities is vital. Each project’s unique context requires consideration. Employing diverse communication methods—both formal and informal, traditional and non-traditional—is necessary to engage various geothermal stakeholders, including civil society, policymakers, and politicians.

Active two-way communication significantly enhances the social acceptability of geothermal projects. Despite considerable efforts to reach non-experts, significant opportunities persist in tackling the complex challenges of developing accessible and effective geothermal communication strategies, especially within international collaborative projects.

Funding: This research was funded by the EU Horizon Europe Programme, COMPASS Project, under the grant agreement n° 101084623.

Conflicts of Interest: The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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This article has been published in European Geologist Journal 56 – Geoscience in policy making: Past experience, current practice and future opportunities

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