Public discourse on energy storage - the importance of local narratives and system benefits

Energy storage is increasingly recognized as integral to the further decarbonization of electricity grids in Canada, yet progress to date has been slow and inconsistent.  To complement ongoing research on the market and technical feasibility of storage, we wanted to better understand how public discussions around energy storage may be influencing deployment of the technology.   To do so, we conducted a comparative media analysis of public discourse on storage in Ontario and Alberta, Canada’s leading jurisdictions in storage development (the paper has been submitted to an academic journal for review). 

We analyzed 143 storage-related articles (89 from Ontario; 54 from Alberta), published in eight top-circulating provincial and national newspapers in both provinces from 2007-2017. These included (in order of highest weekly circulation numbers): The Toronto Star, The Toronto Sun, The Hamilton Spectator, The Calgary Herald, The Calgary Sun, The Edmonton Journal, The Globe and Mail and The National Post. We then applied the Socio-Political Evaluation of Energy Development Framework (SPEED) to demonstrate the risk and benefit framing of ES in news media, the various storage technologies mentioned, and the broader narratives and language used to describe ES in both provinces.

While Ontario and Alberta are expected to be the first Canadian provinces to overcome economic barriers to storage diffusion, the two jurisdictions continue to face both similar and unique barriers to ES development and commercialization. Varying institutional structures and political heritages, environmental constraints (e.g. infrastructure, geology), unfavourable technology costs, and non-existing or unclear regulatory and market rules have been identified as key challenges for storage development in the two jurisdictions. For instance, the legacy of government intervention in Ontario’s electricity system was an important factor in the public ES discussions we analyzed, which often recalled debates on past energy policy consequences, renewable energy development and nuclear divestment. Likewise, Alberta’s longstanding investment in oil and lagging coal-phase out revealed some tensions within clean energy technology discussions in the province’s news media. Nonetheless, the two provinces share common energy planning goals, such as increasing renewable energy capacity and diversifying energy economies with cleaner alternatives, both of which have created entry points for provincial-level energy storage discussions.

Encouragingly, we found a higher frequency of positive rather than negative framing of storage in both jurisdictions, indicating a generally optimistic technological perspective on storage in news media when compared to recent studies on other energy technologies, such wind energy and carbon capture and storage. Our framing analysis also revealed growing public recognition of the potential for storage to facilitate green economic growth, enhance electricity grids and contribute to climate change mitigation. Although earlier discourse (2007-2009) contained more skeptical discussions, a positive shift in perception on storage in both provinces was observed by 2016.  This may be linked to changing socio-political factors such as policy drivers (e.g. Alberta’s 2015 Climate Leadership Plan), market and regulatory improvements (e.g. Ontario’s 50MW storage procurement process) and local storage project development (e.g. Alberta’s Drake Landing solar-storage community), though further research would help to identify causal factors in this regard. Overall, we also found greater coverage on storage benefits than risks in both provinces. A combined benefit-risk frame assessment for both provinces is shown below.

 Percentage of articles from all sampled Ontario and Alberta newspapers that mention SPEED frames

When we applied the SPEED framing to each respective jurisdiction, we found some distinct provincial level variation in public issue framing of storage. Alberta’s media coverage was more risk-oriented, specifically in its economic framing (e.g. market, finance discussions), which focused on high costs, unfavourable economics of scale, and the potential threat storage may pose to fossil fuel sectors and other industry supply chains. Ontario, on the other hand, focused more on economic benefits of storage, such as its ability to optimize existing grid assets, create new job opportunities within the clean technology sector, and increase market competiveness for old and new players (e.g. developers, start-ups, utilities). The provinces showed similar perspectives on technical framing of storage, discussing for instance the benefits storage could offer grid performance, including increased system efficiencies and flexibility for management of intermittent energy production. Alberta, however, was more focused on positive environmental benefits of storage (35 % of all articles) which appeared in many fossil fuel divestment conversations and aligned with emerging provincial climate change plans, while Ontario was more focused on the positive political implications of deploying storage (15% of all sampled Ontario articles), such as its potential to strengthen stakeholder collaboration among different levels of government and possibly alleviating residual contention around green energy projects in the province.

 Percentage of articles from all sampled Alberta newspapers that mention SPEED frames

Our  analysis also revealed a tendency to focus on high profile technologies, such as Hydrostor’s and Toronto Hydro’s Underwater Compressed Air system in Lake Ontario as well as Tesla battery Powerpacks and fuel cells (mentioned in over 25% of all sampled articles). Other storage systems, such as ultra-capacitators and power-to-gas, were largely absent in public discourse (appearing in <4% of articles).  The prominence of high-profile storage technologies in the media suggests that public acceptance of energy storage will be heavily influenced by representations of specific technologies, and not the potential of storage in general. Power-to-Gas, Power-to-Liquid and Solar-to-Fuels, for instance, have been said to offer promising attributes in a low-carbon energy transition context, but were not as frequently discussed as the aforementioned high profile examples.  

 Percentage of articles from all sampled Ontario newspapers that mention SPEED frames

Should this trend continue, public acceptance of storage may become limited or skewed in favour of high profile storage applications, which could hinder the deployment of some storage technologies over others. Accordingly, storage proponents may consider strategic communication initiatives on the diverse applications and benefits of storage in general.  For example, continued development of pilot projects, community information sessions, and media campaigns can help to demonstrate the benefits of different storage technologies, and thus to help the public better understand the potential of storage in existing energy systems.  

We also looked for common narratives and industry “buzzwords” used in media to describe ES. This analysis revealed that storage has become an important social topic, now embedded in public conversations on climate change, economic development and technological innovation in Canada. In Ontario media, storage is commonly identified as “a transformative technology” “a game-changer” and “the holy grail” or “missing link” to building clean, reliable energy systems and economies. Such language is used more sparingly in Alberta’s media coverage, reflecting some uncertainty from provincial stakeholders regarding storage. The use of these buzzwords, in Ontario specifically, positions storage as a recognizably important component of achieving low-carbon energy transitions. Further, it not only reflects current public perceptions of the value of storage to electricity grids, but will likely continue to inform public views of storage and increase awareness of a changing energy landscape in Canada.

Overall, our study provides some key insight into the social dynamics around storage deployment in Canada and raises some interesting points to consider. For one, media representations of storage appear to be informed by local or regional narratives, rather than national or global dialogue around storage. In some jurisdictions, such as Ontario, this could result in stronger social acceptance for storage and may help ensure suitable deployment strategies. In others, local or regional factors could lead to public opposition and tension between system actors operating at different levels (e.g. local, provincial, national).  Furthermore, as our research suggest, local narratives could be reinforced by the tendency to focus on specific technologies and projects in the media, and not the overall benefits of storage. 

Incorporating regional public framing of storage into energy communication and policy design will help mitigate these challenges and smooth project development, as will initiatives to engage communities on the system benefits of storage in general.   Similarly, identifying perceived benefits and risks of storage and responding to them with appropriate legal and market strategies could also help with storage diffusion processes and reduce opposition to development.