A future without nuclear generation and cars: propensity and resistance to change

The Institute for Economic Research presents its research and a game for thinking at EXPO 2015

From the left: Marco Borradori, Mayor of Lugano; Letizia Tronnolone, Manager of the IRE, Prof. Rico Maggi, Director of the IRE, Prof. Piero Martinoli, President of the USI.

On the occasion of the Canton Ticino days at the EXPO, on July 11th the Institute for Economic Research (IRE) had the chance of presenting two ongoing research projects and involving some EXPO visitors in a simple game dealing with energy and sustainability issues. Focus of the day was the way the citizens’ attitudes, values, beliefs and habits can favour or hinder the transition towards a sustainable and nuclear-free electric system and a sustainable transport system.

Presentation of our research

The two research projects presented by the IRE are funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. The first one, “The security of electricity supplies to Switzerland”, aims at measuring and explaining the Swiss citizens’ preferences towards both the different technologies available for electricity generation, and the need of lowering the risk of blackouts. The second one, “Post-Car World: a world without cars”, studies instead the impact of habits, tastes and personal characteristics of Swiss young people on the likelihood they will replace cars with more sustainable transport means in their everyday commuting.

A game for thinking

The guided game lasted instead the whole day and involved around 200 visitors of the Swiss Pavilion. By providing information on the characteristics, costs and environmental impacts of six electricity generation technologies and by highlighting the trade-offs implied in any energy policy decisions, the researchers let the participants think at how the availability and consideration of better information can reshape the way they decide.

First step

In the first step, each participant received a glass full of pebbles, representing the amount of resources at disposal. The pebbles had to be shared according to each participants’ tastes and beliefs among six transparent jars representing the six available generation technologies (coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind and solar). No information except of the instructions was provided at this stage. Hence, the respondents chose based on their beliefs, preferences and fears with respect to each technology.

Second step

In the second step, each participant could see how the other players voted, and received information on the average generation cost and the greenhouse gas emissions implied by the energy mix resulting from the votes. Information on the costs and emissions of each technology was also available, together with some data on the energy mix, generation costs and emissions in four countries (Switzerland, Italy, USA and China).

Third step

After considering the information provided in the second step, in the third step each player was asked to vote again on the six energy sources and divide a new glass of pebbles among six new jars. After voting, each participant could see the results of the new vote and compare information thereon with the results of the previous vote.

Results

The graphs that follow collect the results of the first and second vote. More in detail, they depict the energy mix the participant chose in each round, as well as the greenhouse gas emissions and the average generation cost resulting from it. The graphs also compare these results with the actual generation mix, emissions and generation costs in Switzerland and Italy.

The comparison between the generation mix the participants chose in each vote and the real mix in Switzerland and in Italy witnesses the willingness to replace nuclear generation (in Switzerland) and gas- and coal-fired generation (in Italy) with renewable energy sources. Solar, hydroelectric and wind technologies should ideally cover more than 80% of demand in both voting rounds. The main difference between the first and the second vote lies in the contribution of solar and hydroelectric plants, with the former losing 18 percentage points to the benefit of the latter after the information provision.

As for the average generation cost and greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the chosen generation mix, it is striking that both before, and after considering the available information, the participants opted for a mix that is more expensive than the one existing in Switzerland and in Italy. The choices they made imply greenhouse gas emissions much lower than those associated with the Italian generation mix, still largely reliant on fossil fuels, but higher than those associated with the Swiss generation mix, that benefits from the contribution of nuclear and hydroelectric plants. According to the results of the game, the participants seem ready to trade the environmental risks stemming from a slightly higher level of emissions – although still well below most industrialized countries’ averages – with the risks stemming from the existence of a nuclear plant in their own country.

Concluding remarks

The comparison between the first and the second vote confirms the hypothesis of the IRE researchers. Indeed, the participants’ decisions changed after receiving sound and reasoned information on each technology’s cost and environmental impact, and after thinking about the need to balance security, sustainability and affordability of electricity supplies. On average, the electricity generation mix resulting from the second vote is more affordable, although always characterized by low emissions. This rebalancing is obtained by increasing the contribution of hydroelectric, wind and, at times, nuclear generation, at the expense of the photovoltaic technology, which is now the most expensive one. The participants seem, indeed, willing to reconsider some of their preferences and fears with respect to each technology in order to obtain a climate-friendly, but more affordable electricity supply.

The security of electricity supplies to Switzerland, Alessandra Motz
Post-Car World: a world without cars, Antonio Borriello

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