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Debunking Myths about Wind Energy

May 1, 1995
Paul Gipe

Tilting at Windmills: Public Opinion Toward Wind Energy


 

Surveys point to broad support for wind energy despite vocal objections to some projects.

 

Portions of this article have appeared previously in Wind Energy Comes of Age and in the May issue of Independent Energy magazine.

In the spring of 1994 an angry mob confronted a group touring proposed sites for a new wind power plant near Mojave, Calif. The armed vigilantes were responding to rumors that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management was planning to build a wind farm next door to their remote homesteads. Though there was no truth to the rumors and the incident was settled peacefully, the event illustrates the sometimes highly-charged atmosphere around proposals for new wind plants, or for power plants of any kind, in the United States.

Concern about the effects of new wind projects is not limited to North America. On the other side of the Atlantic Sir Bernard Ingham, former press secretary to Margaret Thatcher, leads the so-called Country Guardians in its campaign to rid Britain of the wind turbines he says are devouring prized landscapes. Ingham, a master of the sound bite who has dubbed wind turbines "lavatory brushes in the sky," could affect half a billion dollars of new wind investment.

 The likelihood of such opponents delaying or preventing projects from proceeding concerns both policy makers and the investment community. Developers have to acknowledge the importance of public opinion, says Markus Christen, a vice president of Credit Suisse in New York, because the public can forge the regulatory and political process. "This has to concern any investor in a particular industry." Craig Reynolds, senior vice president for energy project finance at GE Capitol, concurs. "Whether we're doing a wind farm or a coal plant, local sentiment is a check point," Reynolds says. Fortunately a spate of new opinion surveys show broad public support for wind energy. This bodes well for an industry poised for a resurgence in Britain and North America.

Partly in response to the noise generated by Country Guardians, no nation has studied the public's view of wind energy more than Britain. Among the numerous surveys, four stand out: a survey by the British Broadcasting Corporation, a survey by the Countryside Council for Wales, a survey by the Department of Trade & Industry, and a before and after survey in Cornwall.

The BBC survey is significant, says Andrew Garrad of the British consulting firm Garrad Hassan, because of the BBC's perceived neutrality. The BBC survey redresses an imbalance in previous BBC coverage of wind energy in Britain. Early BBC radio reports were "aggressively biased," says Garrad and others in the budding British wind industry.

 What is most significant is that the survey was not commissioned by the wind industry, says Marcus Trinick, an attorney with Bond Pearce solicitors. "We were not aware of the study until it appeared." Trinick welcomed the poll because he hopes "it will restore the debate about wind energy to a sane level." The survey says very clearly that people who live near three wind farms not only accept them but also that would not mind seeing more. For Trinick, the BBC survey has already had positive repercussions. His firm won planning permission to install a 50 turbines at Llyn Alaw for British utility ManWeb and its U.S. partner Kenetech. The site is only nine kilometers from Rhyd-y-Groes, one of the areas surveyed.

 Earlier surveys in Wales by the Department of Trade and Industry and the Countryside Council found results to those of the BBC. Both surveys also carried significant political import. The Trade and Industry study surveyed local opinions shortly after construction of the Wind Energy Group's hotly contested Cemmaes project. The Countryside Council's publicized attempt to suppress the unexpected results of its survey embarrassed the quasi-public agency, which opposes expansion of wind energy on aesthetic grounds.

BBC Survey

 The University of Wales' environmental and countryside planning unit surveyed opinion for the BBC at three sites: Llandinam, near Europe's largest wind power plant built: Rhyd-y-Groes, a project within sight of the Wylfa nuclear power station on the island of Anglesey, and Taff Ely in populous south Wales.

 The majority of those surveyed, 67%, favored wind development in Wales, 21% were opposed. The level of support ranged from 61% in favor at Rhyd-y-Groes, where 30 medium-sized wind turbines are distributed among the hedgerows, to 76% at Llandinam, where 103 turbines were installed by a consortium of British, American, and Japanese companies. Though not the 100% endorsement wind developers would like to see, "70%-75% is still a lot of support and shows a large majority in favor" of wind energy says, Garrad Hassan's Andrew Garrad. Only 22% were opposed to further wind development in Wales.

 The survey found that most (40%) felt wind's chief attribute was its environmental superiority to other fuels, 13% said that wind was safer than nuclear power, nearly all of whom lived near Wylfa nuclear power station. Nearly one-fifth thought wind had no benefits. As expected, wind energy's principle drawback is its aesthetic impact on the landscape (32%), that some noise from the turbines is audible (12%), and each turbine individually generates a small amount of electricity compared to a conventional power plant (10%). Less than 1% found wind energy had any electromagnetic impact or disturbed wildlife. Yet 32% of those polled said that wind power had no drawbacks whatsoever.

 To embattled wind developers preparing for their first public meeting on a new project, one BBC finding seems particularly heartening. The overwhelming majority of respondents (79%) had not attended any meetings concerning the proposed wind plants. Of those who did attend, half went solely for more information. Of the 268 residents surveyed, only 6 attended a meeting specifically to object, 19 to register their support.

The BBC survey implies that developers should not construe the lack of vocal opposition as a sign of universal support. Of the three sites studied, only Llandinam encountered support during the planning process. At the other two sites reactions prior to construction were evenly divided between those in favor, those opposed, and those undecided. A skilled activist could organize those opposed and those on the fence into a potent political force. As Martin Wolsink has observed in the Netherlands, it only takes one determined activist to derail a project.

 As surveys elsewhere in Europe have found, support increased once the wind projects were actually installed. The number of respondents favoring wind power increased markedly at two of the three sites, and increased modestly at Llandinam. Prior to installing the turbines, residents' reaction were mixed: 32% favored the Taff Ely project, 36% favored the Rhyd-y-Groes project, and 65% supported the Llandinam project. Of those initially opposed, noise topped their list of concerns, followed by visual intrusion. Though the majority in the BBC survey did not change their position after the projects were completed, some did and of those that did two-thirds switched from opposition to support.

The corollary is that some switched to opposition, most notably at Llandinam. If this indicates an erosion of support over time as the project's warts become more apparent it could spell trouble for operators in years ahead. The hidden message is that operators cannot take support for granted even at Llandinam. The number of those opposed to TriGen's Llandinam project nearly doubled from 8 to 15 after completion, while those in favor increased from 43 to 49 respondents. These opponents, in consort with Country Guardians, were sufficient to make the operator's life miserable and ultimately win a parliamentary investigation of their complaints. The BBC report's author, Kevin Bishop, specifically warns that the overall results hide a cluster of opponents near the wind farm, who find noise from the turbines disturbing.

 Despite results from other surveys to the contrary, the BBC study found that a majority (63%) of those who could actually see wind turbines from their homes still favored wind energy. And on wind energy's most nagging problem, the appearance of the wind turbines themselves, 43% of all those surveyed responded positively, while 36% responded negatively. The Taff Ely site, despite its visibility from South Wales' M4 motorway and the high population density of the region, generated surprisingly little opposition. Subsequent media coverage of the twenty turbines, says the survey, has been limited.

 The BBC survey concluded, possibly in reference to the BBC's own controversial coverage that "certain media reports" focusing on "opposition to existing wind farms are unrepresentative of the wider picture."

DTI Survey

 In the Department of Trade & Industry poll, the surveyors interviewed residents living near Cemmaes in mid Wales both immediately after construction was completed and one year later. Three fourths of those interviewed saw the two-bladed WEG turbines every day. After one year of operation, 95% were "supportive" of wind energy. Only 16% thought that the wind turbines were "noisy." The overwhelming majority concluded that the turbines did not "spoil" the scenery, whereas 22% believed that they did. More than four-fifths of those surveyed (86%) favored the Cemmaes wind project after construction, and 11% were neutral. Only 3% objected.

Two-thirds described the turbines as visually "interesting." More than 90% of the respondents said they were "not bothered at all" by the appearance of the turbines on the skyline. The interviewers found 54% of respondents held positive attitudes towards the appearance of the turbines, 27% were neutral, and 12% objected. Three-fourths of those who could see wind turbines from their homes expressed positive attitudes.

Though noise and visual impacts concern many who live near wind plants, it is of greatest concern to those who live elsewhere and look to the countryside for respite. This was the uncomfortable lesson the Countryside Council for Wales learned.

 CCW Survey

 The Countryside Council surveyed opinion in four different areas of Wales, three in the vicinity of operating projects and one, used as a control, where there were no wind turbines. The surveys in late-1992 and early-1993 included residents near Llandinam where they expected to find a groundswell of opposition to wind energy based on blaring media coverage, including that of the BBC, of noise complaints. The Countryside Council was so shocked by its own survey that it attempted to quash the results. The effort backfired when Parliament intervened and ordered release of the publicly-funded study, prominently thrusting the results into the public arena.

 Contrary to the Countryside Council's expectations, surveyors found that wind energy in Wales "had so far met with widespread approval, and even enthusiasm." They went on to note that "uncertainty and opposition emanate from a minority only," and are "closely associated with a lack of information and lack of experience of actual development." More specifically, three-fourths or more of those living near existing wind plants were willing "to see development take place within their own neighborhood." With the exception of Rhyd-y-Groes on Anglesey, where 17% said wind turbines should not be built in their neighborhood, only 3-8% objected to wind turbines at the three other locations. Between one-half and three-quarters of the respondents in areas with existing wind plants thought the wind turbines were in keeping with the landscape. "Contrary to some press reports," says the study, the survey found that 72%-92% of respondents felt that the wind turbines had caused little disruption. Four out of five of those living near Llandinam and its 103 turbines said they would favor further development. About nine out of ten of those surveyed in all four areas agreed that wind energy was clean and would reduce pollution. The turbines were found neither noisy nor otherwise threatening. Only 11% of those surveyed at Llandinam found the turbines "noisy." Most damaging to the Countryside Council's opposition to wind energy was the realization that while nearly all those surveyed agreed that wind turbines were conspicuous, only "small numbers regarded them as intrusive." At Llandinam only 20% found the turbines visually objectionable.

 Cornwall

The clearest example of a change in attitude towards wind energy, once a community has learned to live with the technology, occurred in Cornwall, where a survey measured the public's response before and after wind turbines were installed. With open water on the west, the English Channel on the east, and a spine of nearly flat treeless uplands stretching the length of the peninsula, Cornwall is an ideal area for wind energy.

As early as 1980, Cornish dairyman Peter Edwards considered building his own wind farm. Edwards first sought planning approval in 1989, finally receiving permission two years later, with noise emissions strictly limited because of local fears. By late 1991, Edwards had commissioned Britain's first commercial wind power plant.

Though small by international standards, the project comprises only ten turbines, it stirred controversy well out of proportion to its size. Neighbors feared the noise would drive them away. Owners of second homes and tourists from urban England, who frequent Cornwall, worried that the turbines would despoil their summertime destination. To gauge the effect of the controversy on the development of wind energy elsewhere in Britain, DTI sponsored a survey of the public's response to the Delabole wind farm.

During the summer of 1990, researchers polled nearby residents and residents of Exeter (the nearest major city) about their attitudes towards environmental issues, wind energy in general, and towards the Delabole project. The poll was repeated during the summer of 1992, six months after the 400 kW turbines were installed.

 During the first survey, two-thirds of those rural residents polled near Camelford identified themselves as "green" whereas three-quarters of those polled in urban Exeter so identified themselves. Opinion near Camelford was split on whether wind turbines should be built at Delabole, with two-thirds favoring the project and one-third opposed. Respondents in Exeter decidedly favored the project. A majority of the Cornish group thought the wind turbines would spoil the scenery and a majority in Exeter thought they would not. And more than 40% of the Cornish respondents thought the turbines would create a noise nuisance. Overall, the Cornish residents were less favorably disposed toward wind energy than those living in Exeter.

 After installation, attitudes toward wind energy changed noticeably among those most affected: the residents near Camelford. Prior to installation, only 15% of those surveyed in Cornwall thought that noise would be insignificant. After the turbines were in service, says Brian Young, who conducted the survey, 80% of those polled in Cornwall found that noise was not a problem, 12% were unsure. Young, an Exeter consultant, found that among the Exeter group, which had not seen or heard the wind turbines, only 27% thought noise was not a problem, and 19% still thought noise was a problem and 54% were undecided. This led Young to conclude that noise is "less of a nuisance than people who had not lived near them would anticipate." In other words, noise is more of a concern for those who have never heard a wind turbine.

 Opinions towards Delabole's aesthetic impact also changed. After installation about 28% of the Cornish sample still thought that the wind turbines spoiled the landscape, whereas more than half had thought so prior to the project. In Exeter, 29% thought wind turbines spoiled the scenery, agreeing with their Cornish neighbors. Young determined that this group of aesthetic objectors in both samples believe wind turbines spoil the scenery whether or not the respondents had ever seen wind turbines in Delabole or elsewhere. It was unnecessary to see them. The mere thought of wind turbines on the Cornish landscape was unacceptable. Still, nearly 60% of the Cornish sample found that wind turbines did not spoil the scenery, despite the fact that more than 90% thought preserving the scenic beauty of the countryside was important. Young determined that Cornish residents' negative opinion of wind energy's scenic impact prior to the actual project, like their concern about noise, had resulted from fear of the unknown.

 Overall 85% of the respondents in Cornwall and Exeter approved of wind energy after completion of the Delabole project. Only 4% disapproved. Of the 289 surveyed, only 7 respondents continued to disapprove of wind energy after the turbines were installed, and only 3 switched from approval to disapproval after the project was completed. In contrast, says Young, 71 people, or about one-fourth of those polled, reversed their original opinion and approved of the project after completion.

 These results parallel those of Dutch wind developer Energy Connection, which has noted general approval of wind energy in the Netherlands until specific projects are proposed. These proposals elicit a negative reaction that dampens public support, but approval returns to near-normal levels once the project has been installed and communities have had time to adjust. "The reality of a wind farm," says Garrad Hassan's Andrew Garrad, "is much better than the prospect of it." Acceptance grows as people learn that many of their misgivings were il-founded.

 New Zealand

 In another study released last year New Zealand's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority surveyed attitudes toward wind energy among 100 residents nationwide. The Authority's Auckland consultants, MRL Research Group, found only one-third of those surveyed said they were familiar with the technology while more than one-quarter said they were not at all familiar with wind turbines. This was expected in a country with only a handful of operating wind turbines. But the survey's results echo those from populations with more awareness of modern wind turbines.

 Nearly 90% thought that wind energy should be used in New Zealand. Two-thirds thought that wind was clean, abundant, and renewable whereas one-fourth found that wind turbines were unsightly and one-third felt that wind energy's intermittency was a disadvantage. Despite the objections of some, 71% believed that wind energy is the most environmentally acceptable means of generating electricity relative to the 31% who felt that way about hydro, and only 4% for gas-fired plants.

The survey found a slight generational difference with those age 45 or older less likely to consider wind energy more acceptable than other technologies. There was a significant spatial disparity between urban and rural areas that is a good sign for wind development in New Zealand. Those in rural areas were more likely than others to consider wind the most environmentally acceptable technology. Similar results have been found in Britain and on the Continent. Rural dwellers are accustomed to using the land. Urban inhabitants, though, often view rural areas as playgrounds and are less likely to accept changes in land use especially such highly visible changes created by wind development.

 Nearly nine in ten favored building a wind plant in their region and half favored a regional project even if they could see and hear the wind turbines. But opposition increased to nearly 30% if respondents could see and hear them. As with the more abstract questions about general attitudes, rural residents were more supportive of regional projects than urban dwellers.

 More than half those interviewed were willing to pay 5% more for wind-generated electricity and one-fifth were willing to pay an additional 15%. Nearly 60% felt that New Zealand should encourage the use of renewable energy

 Acceptability and NIMBY

 Though overall public support for wind energy is high, opponents to specific projects frequently note that in principle they have nothing against wind energy, "just don't put them here," a reaction commonly dubbed NIMBY, for "Not In My Back Yard." As diffuse sources of energy, renewables are likely to thrust more communities into energy decision making than before because of the tens of renewable projects necessary to accomplish the same result as a single conventional power plant. By their nature, renewables may stimulate a greater NIMBY response than other technologies. As expected, researchers in California found that wind turbines produced the strongest response of this kind.

 The Center for Design Research at the University of California's Davis campus, has examined public reaction to four energy technologies: biomass, nuclear, fossil, and wind. Led by Robert Thayer, a noted landscape architect, researchers polled residents of Solano county, a once rural area east of San Francisco. Most of those polled found wind energy desirable--somewhere. Only 9% thought wind plants were completely unacceptable, whereas opinion was more polarized about nuclear and fossil fuels. One fourth found fossil-fired plants unacceptable in the county; nearly half found nuclear plants unacceptable. But wind drew the greatest NIMBY response.

 Like Thayer in California, Maarten Wolsink has observed the NIMBY phenomenon in the Netherlands. There Wolsink finds that a negative view of wind turbines on the landscape is "the" factor determining opposition to wind energy. Other, though much less significant, factors are the disbelief that wind turbines will make a difference in improving air quality, and the fear that the wind turbines will harm residents.

 In the Netherlands, 90% of those surveyed reacted positively to wind energy. This support, says Wolsink, is tenuous and is limited by the distance between the respondent and the nearest turbine. The closer people live to proposed turbines, the less likely they are to endorse a proposed project. To further ward against complacency in the wind industry about the strength of its support, Wolsink warns that the other 10% are unsupportive from the start. Though only a small minority of residents ever consider taking action, Wolsink points out that it only takes one determined adversary to delay a project.

 Opposition is primarily determined by a negative reaction to seeing wind turbines on the landscape. But, says Wolsink, people unconsciously realize that opposition on aesthetic grounds is subjective, and is, therefore, often dismissed by public officials. They then rationalize their opposition by citing concerns such as noise, shadow flicker, and birds, which can be objectively evaluated. But visual impact remains the root cause of opposition.

 Altamont Pass

 In a survey of public perceptions of the Altamont Pass during the late 1980s, Thayer's researchers from U.C.-Davis found that overall, people believe wind energy symbolizes "progress," an "alternative to fossil fuels," and the "use of safe and natural energy." Those who liked wind turbines weighted their symbolic value heavily, whereas those who disliked them responded to more "basic visual attributes such as conspicuousness, clutter, and unattractiveness," Those favoring wind energy "were willing to forgive the visual intrusion of the turbines on the existing landscape for the presumably higher goals of the project," said Thayer's study, "whereas dislikers were not."

This visibility, according to Thayer, is a double-edged sword. Wind turbines visually express their function and provide the viewer with immediate feedback on their operation. "They either spin, or they don't," says Thayer, author of the award winning book "Gray World Green Heart," a discourse on landscape and aesthetics.

 The effect of spinning and non-spinning turbines on the viewer's judgment of wind energy's "usefulness" is found both in California and Swedish studies. When the turbines are spinning, they are perceived as being useful and, therefore, beneficial. Observers are more quick to "forgive" the visual intrusion if the wind turbines serve a purpose; this they can only do when they are spinning. Even those opposed to wind energy often note that they would moderate their position if the turbines "worked" more often. Reviewing comments from respondents in his Altamont survey, Thayer found that "inoperative turbines equaled or exceeded siting, design, and scenic character in causing negative" responses.

 Thayer's surveys and the more recent studies in Britain have all followed a patter seen nearly a decade ago in the California's San Gorgonio Pass near Palm Springs.

 San Gorgonio Pass

Like the controversies in Wales, those in the San Gorgonio Pass had far reaching political repercussions. In response to complaints by influential residents, such as Sony Bono of the sixties pop duo Sonny & Cher, in 1986 Riverside County hired consultants to conduct a opinion survey of Palm Springs and the small communities near the wind plants. Most (58%) lived within two miles (3 kilometers) of the wind turbines, the remainder lived 2-5 miles (3-8 kilometers) away. Of those nearest the wind plants, three-fourths could see the turbines.

 The results shocked wind's critics, as well as some elected officials who had staked careers on fighting wind turbine "blight." According to the study by Martin Pasqualetti, a geographer at Arizona State University, and Edgar Butler, a sociologist at the University of California's Riverside campus, "the vocal opposition to the wind turbines . . . was not . . . borne out in fact." While the researchers acknowledged that there was "some opposition to the development of wind power at this site, particularly in terms of aesthetic degradation," they concluded that "the majority of respondents favored the development." Slightly more than half, 51%, considered the development of wind energy good, 21% thought it was not, and 23% were neutral.

One of their more significant findings was that "two-thirds of this majority also believed further development should be encouraged." The authors, noted that "although some prominent Palm Springs residents openly advocated removing all the wind turbines, the survey indicated that the public at large generally did not hold such feelings. Only about 22% believed the wind turbines should be dismantled, while almost 50% thought they should not."

Because noise is a function of distance, those nearest the turbines should find them noisier than those who live some distance away. The survey concluded that this was indeed the case. Two-thirds said that noise from the turbines "did not disturb them, while 11% indicated that it did."

 Despite the controversy at the time, the study concluded, that "overall, the public reaction to wind development in the San Gorgonio Pass has been positive, albeit at some recognized cost to local aesthetics."

In general, the surveys on both sides of the Atlantic reveal that those who favor renewable energy are more likely to find wind's impact on the community acceptable, and those who are neutral will accept wind turbines on the landscape if they know they are beneficial. "The pattern we find," says Worldwatch Institute's Chris Flavin, "is concern early on, but if projects are done right, wind turns out to have an acceptable impact."

But local opposition is not always a result of NIMBY. Wind energy's impacts on the community only become prominent in the public's mind when a specific project is proposed. Wolsink's surveys in the Netherlands find that the public's broad endorsement of wind energy seldom plays a role when individuals weigh the merits of specific projects. Tom Gray, northeast representative for the American Wind Energy Association, "relieved to find that most people realize wind is preferable to other forms of energy." Unfortunately, "people in Mojave are not reading survey results from Britain to decide whether to get up in arms about a new project."

Portions of the following article have been adapted with permission from Wind Energy Comes of Age copyright 1995 by John Wiley & Sons. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be reproduced without the express permission of John Wiley & Sons.


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