Not all proposed large wind energy farms are controversial and there may be reasons why: Part one

Large wind energy farms can be very controversial. But in some communities they are not. This is the first of two articles exploring some of the reasons why.

Large wind energy generators, or wind farms, can sometimes be some of the most controversial issues in a community. In other cases they do not generate much concern at all.

Research suggests a significant part of the difference is a community’s and developer’s ability to provide meaningful education, collaborative discussions, with a strong public participatory process very early in the process according to Peggy Kirk Hall, J.D., and Assistant Professor at The Ohio State University.

In this article the focus is on the research about the reasons why it may be controversial and the factors behind opposition. Part two will focus on things a community can do to further understanding and possible consensus – pro or con – on the wind energy issue.

Hall discussed these findings during a “Utility Scale Renewable Energy Development – Project Siting & Conflict Resolution” webinar December 5, 2013. The webinar was sponsored by the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development.

Hall said it is not accurate and too simplistic to characterize opposition to utility scale wind generation projects as just “NIMBYism” (Not In My Back Yard). There are legitimate concerns which need to be understood and acknowledged, along with an active effort to mitigate those concerns. In some cases, those concerns cannot be successfully mitigated, and in other cases it may be possible – which may lead to a community issuing local permit approval for a wind farm or not.

Concern or opposition to a wind farm might be categorized into three areas: (1) anticipated effects, (2) fairness of the development, and (3) values and beliefs, according to research by David Bidwell (2013). That research is: Bidwell, David; “The role of values in public beliefs and attitudes towards commercial wind energy”; Energy Policy; 58 (2013) 189-199.

The anticipated effects of a wind farm can be listed as within these categories: wildlife & habitat, health and safety, traffic, road use, noise, property values, economic impact on community and landscape. The last one, landscape, should not be passed over as just aesthetic views. Research includes a “place identity theory” where a person’s personal identity is tied to valued landscapes or place. In other words landscape has a symbolic value – so those with a strong bond to their community may view wind farms as a form of “alien invasion” according to Cass and Walker (2009).

Wind Turbine Comparison

Photo: Left, is a wind turbine installed at Laker School (near Pigeon, Michigan)  with 28 foot long blades, on a 82 foot tall tower, generating up to about 65 kW.  These are reconstructed units that were moved to Michigan from the western part of the United States.  Middle is the recently decommissioned Traverse City Light & Power 1996 unit, 72 foot long blades, 164 foot tower, generated up to about 600 kW.  Right is Harvist Wind Farm (2006) near Pigeon, Michigan, 140 foot long blades, 262 foot tall tower, generating up to about 1.65 megaWatts.

Fairness of the development, or process, includes such beliefs and results as: (1) outside interests are profiting or benefiting more than local community, (2) opposition directed toward the developer and (3) if procedural fairness such as unbiased decision making, stakeholders are treated fairly is being done. These concerns come down to the process used and the distribution of the effects. For process, there are two extremes. A community, or local government, may operate in an open and participatory manner, or at the other extreme would be closed and institutional, along with everything in-between. Distributional fairness has to do with how residents feel the benefits are being shared. One may perceive outside interests are getting all the benefits and profits, with little for the local community. This can translate into one’s feeling that locals are being treated unfairly. Often, research shows, that leads to opposition directed toward the developer.

Values and beliefs include environmental values where wind energy is seen as a clean, renewable, carbon-free way to generate electricity and environmental opposition to wind energy locally, known as “green on green” conflicts. One might also characterize it as a local versus global perspective. Bidwell’s research suggests:

  • Anticipated effects of a wind farm on the local economy have the single greatest effect on people’s support or opposition.
  • The more a person is attached to their place, or neighborhood, the more a person is likely to express caution toward wind energy farm.
  • Fairness of the development, or process used was not a significant predictor of support or opposition toward a wind farm. Farness of development did have a contributing relationship with the above points.
  • The more a person is considered to have altruistic values toward other humans and community (place identity), the more likely one might express caution toward a wind energy farm.
  • General environmental beliefs (altruistic values toward ecosystems) by a person tend to result in enthusiasm for wind energy.
  • Higher education attainment slightly raises the measure that one would be cautious toward a wind energy farm development.
  • Persons holding traditional values (family, safety for loved ones, honoring elders, showing respect, self-discipline, resistance to temptation) has a strong link to a person with a strong self-identity to place and likely to include skepticism of wind farm economic benefits.

Michigan State University Extension has specific resources that center around the planning and zoning aspects of this issue. They can be found at this land use page website. Part two of this series focuses on things a community can do to further understanding and possible consensus – pro or con – on the wind energy issue.

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