Wind turbines make good neighbors

Have you ever thought about living near a wind power project? How about a coal plant or a commercial-scale solar installation?
Wind turbines make good neighbors

My first foray into higher education led me to cell biology, not exactly what one might expect of someone publishing an article in Nature Energy on public preferences for competing means to generate electricity.  Although I continue to have a particular fascination with the complexity, yet elegance, of mitochondria—the energy producers of life—my journey next led to a 10-year career as a government lawyer working on environmental issues, including relicensing of hydroelectric dams.  I was drawn back to school yet again to pursue a PhD in Public Policy Analysis, desirous to consider environmental dilemmas with different tools.

We are now living in a time of transition from electricity sourced from coal, natural gas or uranium and generated centrally, to more geographically distributed facilities using the sun or wind.  In 2003, motivated by concerns over climate and health, a University of Delaware colleague and I turned our attention to a dispute over the Cape Wind Project proposed for Nantucket Sound, off of the coast of Massachusetts, USA.   That dilemma intrigued us because proponents and opponents were each making environmental claims.  

In this field of research, the question studied is typically centered around local community members’ attitudes toward and responses to a specific proposed or realized renewable energy development, where they are asked to choose between a local energy development project such as wind power or no project at all. Yet, at a societal level, the question is whether society should invest in efficiency and/or generate electricity by wind, solar, nuclear, hydro, coal, or natural gas, etc.

I had worked on an attitudinal survey of individuals who live within 8 kilometers (km) of a wind turbine on a research project led by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, with participation also from researchers at Portland State University and universities in Germany. Survey administration was complex. First, we subdivided the population. For example, the 8 km distance was broken into four groups to ensure that sufficient individuals were included who lived very nearby a wind turbine given their potential greater ability to hear operating wind turbines and to be affected by changes to the landscape.  Second, we used three modes to contact individuals to take the survey: telephone, online, and on paper.  To account for the complexity and to address the fact that not everyone contacted responds, the sample was weighted to match it to the population based on gender, age and education. 

Like many surveys, additional areas of inquiry remained after those we primarily intended to investigate had been considered.  We had included some questions in the survey touching on relative preferences for living near one’s local wind project, or in the alternative, a coal, natural gas, nuclear or commercial-scale solar project at the same distance.   

Image Credit: Jaynell Keely

As the survey data is now generally available for public use, I worked with an undergraduate student, Hannah Kirk, on analyzing these questions.  We found that approximately 90% prefer to live near their local wind project rather than a coal, natural gas or nuclear power plant. And while approximately one-third are indifferent, wind is preferred three to one over commercial-scale solar among those expressing a preference. 

Image Credit: Jaynell Keely

From a research perspective, these findings support a broader inquiry into local project social acceptance.  Moreover, because we find consistency across states with varying economies, geographic features and voting patterns, a strong preference for wind turbines among their neighbors is suggested.  For example, even in major coal mining states, 86% would prefer to live near their local wind power project, compared to only about 8% near a coal plant. 

Image Credit: Jaynell Keely

This consistency provides a hint that, despite the general red state/blue state divide that persists in the US, the transition to distributive renewable energy generation, which is not without its complexities, may be embraced deeply and widely as an elegant measure to mitigate harm that would otherwise arise from the burning of fossil fuels.

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