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  • Dr. John Colton

Developing a Social License for Tidal Energy Development in Nova Scotia


Marine renewable energy (MRE) provides meaningful opportunities for regions like Nova Scotia to contribute to carbon reduction strategies, to develop greater energy security, support economic development, and serve as a catalyst for innovation of MRE technology. While this has been certainly true for offshore wind development, the same might apply for the development of wave and tidal energy production. Given the potential for MRE development with respect to wind, wave and tidal energy there has been a growing interest in exploring the role of social acceptance or social license with respect to marine renewable energy development projects. Nova Scotia, Canada is well positioned to develop tidal energy in its Bay of Fundy and has already initiated research projects and stakeholder engagement processes to develop the social acceptance or social license necessary to advance this type of renewable energy development.

What is Social License?

The term social license originated two decades ago in the mining industry context but has since been widely adopted by proponents (i.e., government and industry) of energy projects, to address a range of stakeholder issues largely dealing with issues of trust and legitimacy. Social license is intangible and “associated with acceptance, approval, consent, demands, expectations, and reputation.” It is not a statutory framework but rather a concept that implies that developers and government will do the right thing in moving a project forward. The right things might include extensive stakeholder consultation, early and on-going engagement, sharing of relevant information and data, and knowledge that stakeholders’ voices are heard. Collectively, these efforts may result in a “social contract” which, like other contracts, may be broken if expectations of the benefits and impacts are not realized.

While measuring social license is challenging, four factors emerged from earlier research that include: economic legitimacy, socio-political legitimacy, interactional trust, and institutionalized trust. Simply stated, economic legitimacy refers to the perception that the project will provide economic benefits. In most instances, this implies job creation both short and long term, local and regional economic development, and the development of a local supply chain. Socio-political legitimacy is the idea that the development will contribute to regional well-being, the project respects local ways of life, and there is a shared vision for the future. Interactional trust refers to the perception that a development project addresses and is responsive to the concerns of stakeholders, that what is promised is delivered, that the project is perceived as beneficial, and relationships between the project and stakeholders are good. Institutionalized trust implies that the project provides support to those impacted, decision-making is shared, stakeholder concerns and interests are considered, and that data and other information relevant to the project are shared.

Nova Scotia Tidal Energy and Social License

Nova Scotia’s vision for tidal energy development has been guided, in part, by the Nova Scotia Marine Renewable Energy Strategy and an earlier Department of Energy Discussion Paper on Marine Renewable Energy Legislation for Nova Scotia. These documents discuss how tidal energy development should proceed, providing the context for how a social license might be developed in Nova Scotia.

Developing tidal energy in Nova Scotia is a game changer and the challenge for government, industry, and other proponents of tidal energy development is building legitimacy for this type of development. As noted earlier, social license can be distilled down to the issue of legitimacy noted as a “condition reflecting cultural alignment, normative support, or consonance with relevant rules or laws.” Building legitimacy for the Nova Scotia tidal industry is challenging. It is important to note that the first test turbine deployed failed, having its blades blown out by the powerful currents and sheer volume of water. While this initial test provided significant insight into engineering and water flow dynamics, the image of the turbine pulled from the water with its blown blades influenced public perception regarding developing tidal energy in the Bay of Fundy. With respect to legitimacy, it is uncertain whether stakeholders or the public at large view tidal energy development as a viable form of renewable energy development. However, this has not stopped the flow of tidal energy related research, the development of tidal energy stakeholder networks, and the deployment and retrieval of a second Open Hydro turbine.

With respect to economic and socio-political legitimacy, a significant amount of research and networking has been accomplished. Most significantly, a recent Value Proposition Report noted the sizable extent of the economic impact from 300 MW of developed tidal energy. Projects like this could position Nova Scotia as a net energy producer like its neighbor Newfoundland and Labrador. In Newfoundland, increased energy production and export have provided significant revenue to provincial coffers resulting in increased funding to essential government services including health and education. Nova Scotia could realize the same outcomes if tidal energy development plans are realized. If this development takes into account the concerns articulated by the many stakeholders consulted in the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and the Mi’kmaq Ecological Studies (MEKS), then tidal energy development may have socio-political legitimacy as it moves from testing to commercial deployment of tidal arrays in the Bay of Fundy. Keeping key stakeholders informed throughout the deployment, operations, and maintenance stages will be critical to maintaining socio-political legitimacy, as these are the stages where consultation slackens significantly. Establishing the stakeholder roundtable as noted in the Nova Scotia Marine Renewable Energy Strategy and using this body as an on-going advisory committee for tidal energy development in Nova Scotia would help ensure on-going socio-political legitimacy.

Social license has also been supported by the level of interactional trust established with respect to tidal energy development. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Strategic Environmental Assessment Update for Tidal Energy in the Bay of Fundy which documented the extent to which recommendations were implemented from the earlier 2009 Strategic Environmental Assessment. For example, given the lack of knowledge regarding tidal energy turbines and fish interaction, the precautionary and adaptive management principles were applied to ongoing tidal energy development. This demonstrated a commitment by industry and government to address stakeholder concerns raised in community consultation sessions.

The Fundy Energy Research Network (FERN), government organizations supporting tidal energy research (e.g., Offshore Energy Research Association), and not-for-profit tidal energy test centers like the Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy (FORCE) support institutionalized trust. Collectively, organizations like these collaborate, share data, and address stakeholder concerns. In fact, FERN recently initiated a gap analysis exercise with key industry, academic, and government stakeholders. In this analysis, a key issue identified was the general publics’ public’s lack of knowledge regarding tidal energy development issues. Initiatives by various organizations have begun to address this important issue.

Given the extent to which tidal energy development issues have been addressed one might assume that a social license has been achieved for this type of energy development in Nova Scotia. In other jurisdictions where far less research and oversight has occurred, industry and government have, in fact, made claims to achieving a social license. But this has not been the case in Nova Scotia. No industry or government organization have claimed a social license. And as concerns grow among some stakeholder groups, especially people within the fishing industry that fear tidal turbines may adversely impact fish and marine mammals, organizations like the Offshore Energy Research Association and the Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy have initiated research programs in attempts to address these concerns.

In this sense, the approach to social license is more dynamic, reflecting the importance of continued and on-going engagement. This method appears to address the life-cycle of a development project and the importance of addressing concerns throughout the stages of this process. Tidal energy development organizations in Nova Scotia open to this style of engagement begin to reflect the key values underlying social license; trust and legitimacy.

Reviewing how Nova Scotia is working toward a social license for tidal energy development is an important exercise. It both identifies and reminds one of the many factors at play in this type of development. But what the many studies on tidal energy and its potential fail to highlight is the sense of attachment that people have to the Bay of Fundy. This attachment or sense of place is deeply rooted in the many people and communities adjacent to the Bay of Fundy. Developers of tidal energy and other proponents must be cognizant of this rootedness and find meaningful ways to honor this expression of attachment. Coupling this knowledge of attachment with the other research and data related to tidal energy development in Nova Scotia provides a point from which social license might be claimed.


Dr. John Colton is a professor in the Community Development and the Environmental and Sustainability Studies programs at Acadia University. Dr. Colton’s research interests include sustainable tourism, community sustainability, stakeholder engagement processes, and issues related to social acceptance of renewable energy projects. He is the co-author of the Community and Business Tidal Energy Toolkit and the Handbook of Community Engagement for Tidal Energy. He is the East Coast sustainable tourism expert for National Geographic's’ World Legacy Program and has served as an expedition leader for Northern Canadian river-based expeditions for several organizations. He is past co-chair of the Atlantic Aboriginal Health Research Program, Chair of the Centre for Rural Sustainability, and served on the Nova Scotia Renewable Energy Steering Committee that drafted the Nova Scotia renewable energy targets. He is a founding member of the Acadia Tidal Energy Institute.

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