Over the past several years, there have been growing concerns about energy independence, climate change and economic development. These concerns have led state governments to enact laws requiring electric utilities to increase renewable energy generation – wind in particular – and both the Federal and state governments have granted incentives to promote renewable energy development.
Yet in communities across the country, local stakeholders hold mixed views about wind energy, especially when it concerns where to build wind turbines. Some welcome wind energy for the potential economic benefits and the possibility of low-carbon electricity production. Others react with strong opposition, citing impacts on local landscapes, community identity and character, wildlife, and health issues related to noise, for instance.
What is driving the opposition to wind energy? Is it simply another case of NIMBYism — the “not in my backyard” syndrome? Or are there other, more complex, factors at play?
To answer this question, CBI assisted a research team led by Principal Investigator Roopali Phadke of Macalester College in designing and leading three intensive one-day stakeholder workshops across the country. The National Science Foundation funded the project with additional support from the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy. The research team, including a group of undergraduate research assistants and external evaluators, held the workshop in three diverse communities across the United States where wind energy development was proposed or underway: western Michigan, western Minnesota, and western Massachusetts.
The process included the following steps:
The team designed the workshops to be highly interactive and engaging, using regional aerial mapping, interactive polling, visual simulations, and alternative analysis tools. Each workshop began with a photo essay of images of the regional landscape, displaying examples of local agricultural, industrial, and recreational land uses. Next, a keypad poll gauged participants’ initial opinions and attitudes towards wind energy. Participants then completed a questionnaire about their opinions of the impact of wind energy on a more specific set of issues. They took part in a question and answer session with a panel of experts, and divided into smaller groups to discuss landscape preferences and values, policy guidelines or “best practices” for wind development, and other issues. Each group’s recommendations were compiled into a larger list and then voted on by the whole group using the keypad polls. Lastly, participants completed the same opinion survey and questionnaire as they had in the morning in order to identify any changes in opinion throughout the day.
As part of the research team, what did CBI learn from these three diverse communities facing wind energy development?1
Whether people value the landscape as ‘primarily aesthetic’ versus ‘primarily working’ is a powerful predictor of views toward wind development. Michigan and Massachusetts have a small, older, decreasing agricultural base, while Minnesota has an active, long-term, and dominant agricultural sector. In Minnesota, the participants raised concerns about wind development, but primarily focused on practical questions such as: “Can I drive my tractor around a turbine site if one is placed on land I lease to a wind developer? What transmission lines will be needed that might affect my operations?” Massachusetts and Michigan, in contrast, have active and growing tourism, second home, and retirement economies. In Michigan and Massachusetts, participants raised numerous concerns about potential impacts to property values, wildlife, visual amenities, and public health and safety. Michigan and Massachusetts participants often expressed a sentiment akin to invasion or violation of their homes and communities by an outside wind energy development. Our conclusion: if the landscape is primarily valued as aesthetic, wind energy development will be seen not only as an encroachment, but as threat to deeply help values about home, community, and landscape.
Underlying local cultural and political values drive views about the value, size, and scale of wind energy development. The workshops highlighted how certain typical cultural and political values of a region affect citizens’ reactions to various kinds of wind development. In Minnesota, residents’ questions and responses appeared to be shaped by practical concerns about landscape change and a commitment to local, working, privately-held property. The Minnesota clinic was also the most civil with the least amount of skepticism about the intent of the researchers and the exercises in the day, perhaps reflecting the more polite and non-confrontational culture of the Midwest. In Michigan, a strong commitment to the tourist economy, a large second-home market, and more skepticism about government and strong support for free markets led to greater opposition to wind development. In both Michigan and Massachusetts, some expressed the sentiment that if you were going to build one turbine, you might as well build several (not necessarily hundreds though!). For Massachusetts participants, this appeared based more on the notion the landscape was already ruined, while in Michigan, at least some expressed interest that if the landscape was going to be marred, it should at least produce a project that was economically viable. Long-time local Michigan residents who traditionally derived their income from agriculture, for instance, expressed greater ambivalence about the trade-offs between landscape impacts and economic development than did newer residents. In Massachusetts, most participants’ displayed a strong dislike for any wind development, with exceptions for the smallest possible, locally-owned, locally-beneficial wind development. These views were likely driven by their commitment to local industry, skepticism of corporations, strong values of home rule, an intimate relationship with their direct surroundings, and a legacy of the western part of the state (mostly rural) being mistreated by the eastern half of the state (mostly urban). This group showed the most skepticism toward the researchers and some participants actively resisted participating in the exercises, not necessarily surprising given that conflict is often expressed more loudly and directly in the Northeast.
Distrust of both messages and messengers is very high when there is increased opposition to or skepticism of wind energy development. The project team had no particular position or stance on wind energy development in the study areas. Considerable effort was taken to ensure that the information book for participants was balanced and factual. The project team avoided focusing on any one project, associating with any wind developer in the region, or promoting or criticizing any particular project. Nonetheless, in the two communities with a higher degree of skepticism about wind development, many participants raised repeated questions about the project team, the exercises, and whether the process and the information generated could be “trusted.” In Massachusetts, this skepticism was particularly directed at the visual simulations, with some participants reluctant to participate in the exercises because they believed that the images presented were not realistic representations of projects. We note that the research team adhered to the same best practice standards in creating the simulations across the study sites. In conclusion, if a neutral study team encountered strong anxiety in some communities, this suggests that proponents and developers of projects in these areas will face far more significant and substantial trust issues.
Landscape values are complex, nuanced, and intertwined with political values, cultural values, and economic interests. The project team found that most participants in all three workshops had strong and detailed views and knowledge of their local landscapes. They identified features and areas important to them for:
In conclusion, visual, tangible landscapes are deeply intertwined with residents’ broader cultural and political values — they are not easily separable. In our experience from these workshops, we learned that treating the landscape as a distinct physical feature or treating opposition to wind development as just NIMBYism is to sorely miss the complex social experience that stakeholders bring to the landscape where they live, work, and play.
1Please note that these are CBI's conclusions alone and are not the formal findings of the research project. Any errors or omissions are the sole responsibility of CBI.