The shift to a low-carbon energy system needs to appeal to the public's values rather than focussing on the technology.
A two-and-a-half year study commissioned by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) and published today found that the British public fully understand and support the need to change the country's energy system and move away from fossil fuels.
But a mistrust of both government and energy companies could hinder people's acceptance of change and policy makers must create a long term vision that appeals to their core values of efficiency, cleanness, fairness and safety if they want to push through reforms.
“The key thing is values and the fact people are prepared to have energy system change if a longer term vision is put in place,” said Dr Nick Pidgeon, who led the research team based at Cardiff University.
“Often new technologies are developed that help energy system change so the focus is on what that technology does, be it smart metering or fusion power or new types of solar energy.
“It’s not so much about thinking about the technology first, you should think about the values first and say how that technology is going to play out in reality.”
The finite nature of fossil fuels played a major role in people’s desire to move towards renewable energy with 82 per cent of people surveyed as part of wider research saying they were worried about the country becoming dependent on energy from other countries.
“People are very worried about energy security issues. Not the phrase itself, they don't recognise that, but they do recognise the issue that underlies it,” said Pidgeon.
Almost as many (79 per cent) said they want to see a reduction in fossil fuel use in the next few decades and a similar number (81 per cent) would like to reduce their energy use, the poll of 2,441 people across Britain revealed.
The report also found that despite its green credentials carbon capture and storage was not viewed favourably by the public as it is seen as a “non-transition” technology that does not help to wean the country off fossil fuels.
And while people are split on nuclear power, 66 per cent said they would be willing to accept some nuclear power as long as this is combined with a focus on increasing renewable power.
“They realise you couldn't deliver this overnight and all sorts of compromises have to be made, but energy policy and energy policy change has to fit in with a long term trajectory,” said Pidgeon.
Support for renewables among the public is strong, with 85 per cent backing solar power and 75 per cent in favour of wind despite controversies over the technologies, and three-quarters of those polled (74 per cent) were concerned about climate change.
“It's often said people don't want change and people object to all sorts of change but actually we found with this issue, and when the policy problematic was explained to them, they were actually very enthusiastic about change,” said Pidgeon.
But the research also uncovered a worrying lack of trust in both the Government and the large energy companies that may act as a stumbling block to change.
Dr Catherine Butler, who was also part of the team said: “I think it was very prevalent across all groups and there was concern about the profit making nature of energy companies and what their role would be in energy system transition.”
“People see government as more accountable to them than energy companies but there are still significant trust issues about whether government will or will not deliver these things,” she added.
"If Government or energy companies are saying your bills are going up because of renewables, that isn't necessarily going to be taken on trust."
Alex Laskey, president of Opower which works with power companies to save consumers money on their energy bills, said suppliers needed to rebuild trust with their customers.
"The relationship between the big six and customers in the UK can't be salvaged and completely repaired overnight," he warned.
But the UKERC report is published on the same day as separate research from energy giant RWE npower showed household energy bills will rise £240 a year by 2020 due largely to the mounting cost of government green policies.
The "big six" power provider claimed energy company profits were not to blame for rising bills and said consumers should know the true cost of government investment in greener forms of energy production and efficiency programmes, which it said will be the main driver behind a hike in bills from £1,247 today to £1,487 by the end of the decade.
Paul Massara, npower chief executive, said: "Government policy is rightly delivering the transformation we need to address the UK's poor housing stock and encourage investment required in new infrastructure, but achieving these aspirations comes at a cost, and this is what needs to be clearly communicated to consumers.
"The fact is that if people don't take action to reduce energy consumption, their bills are going to rise. If we can't be upfront about that, we won't be able to convince people to make big changes to be more energy efficient."
RWE npower said the cost of investing in low-carbon power sources accounts for less than 3 per cent of the average household bill, but this will rise to 5.5 per cent by the end of this decade.
Meanwhile, energy profits have risen from £18 on the average dual fuel bill in 2007 to £59 this year and npower predicts that profits will rise to £71 in 2020, staying constant at around 5 per cent of the bill.
Greg Barker, minister for energy and climate change, said of the npower report: "Global gas prices, not green policies, have been primarily pushing up energy bills. That is why it is vital we crack on with securing investment in a diverse energy mix that includes renewables and new nuclear, as well as gas.
"We must also continue to drive up the energy efficiency of the nation's housing stock, particularly the homes of the most vulnerable households."
He said government policies were keeping bills lower than doing nothing, with a typical household saving £65 today and £166 by 2020, compared with if the UK remained reliant on fossil fuels, failed to tackle climate change and did not make homes more efficient.
But UK households seem to be in a better position than those in Germany who are having to put up with increasing energy bills to pay for subsidies to renewable energy producers and energy intensive industries – a situation that has prompted the EU to consider opening a competition investigation.