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Public Perception Key to Wind Energy Project Success

October 22, 2012

picThe development of new sources of renewable energy is crucial in achieving energy security, and wind energy is certainly one of them as wind turbines installed at various locations across the country are gradually increasing their contribution to electricity generation. As these projects develop, it is imperative to take local communities into consideration before starting new initiatives, as their support is an integral component of successful projects.

Maria Petrova, a postdoctoral research fellow at CIERP, recently completed research on measuring the perceptions among local communities about wind energy projects. In her presentation entitled Public Perceptions of Wind Energy Projects in Massachusetts, Petrova shared results demonstrating that communities tend to support such projects provided their benefits are explained to residents in a timely and coherent manner.

Petrova did a survey to examine perceptions of wind energy projects that are being developed in Massachusetts under the same legal and political framework.  Three towns in the state were chosen: Falmouth, Hull, and Kingston. These projects are sited in residential areas and possess similar capacities, but they are at different stages of development and have different levels of community acceptance.

The survey results showed that Massachusetts residents, in general, are supportive of wind energy projects. In Hull, following the success of the first wind turbine, the local community decided to install another turbine as they saw tangible results of the project. Both turbines now supply electricity to 1,100 homes along with supply to traffic and street lights.

Petrova found that the community in Kingston started to implement the wind energy project as soon as the renewable portfolio standard was adopted in 2002. After extensive consultations and hearings, the town moved ahead with wind energy projects and now boasts five wind turbines – both privately and publicly owned.

In Falmouth, however, the enthusiasm over the turbine was marred by health fears and noise concerns. Now the turbines in the area are operated only during the day. Community meetings are regularly organized by the Consensus Building Institute, and both sides relay their concerns over wind projects to try to find mutually acceptable solutions to the problem. When asked how the wind turbines fit into the landscape, most respondents in Falmouth say that wind turbines create noise and are intruders in their space. They also feel that wind projects have changed their life for the worse. 

However, the residents in Hull believe that wind turbines are an attractive feature of the landscape and their life has changed for the better. The same pattern of completely opposite responses is further reflected in other research questions.

Petrova said that property values are a major cause of concern among residents, as property values may drop following the installation of turbines. The survey shows that Falmouth residents do not think these projects provide financial benefits to them or to the town, whereas the respondents in Hull see benefits from these projects. From an environmental policy point of view, Falmouth residents are concerned about negative effects of such projects on wildlife and their health.

How the residents get to know about these projects is also an important issue. People in Hull learned of these projects during the planning phase; in Kingston, most respondents learned about them during the construction phase; Falmouth residents were informed about these projects at a much later stage. The residents become aware of such projects through town hall meetings, newspapers, and other forms of media, and they acknowledge that receiving adequate information is critical for building public opinion on wind turbine projects. 

Human geography issues also determine how these projects are seen by residents. Do they see them as intruders in their community? Socio-economic concerns tell us whether property values go up or down, how such projects affect tourism, or if there are financial benefits to the community. Environmental policy issues deal with wildlife concerns, health concerns, greenhouse gas emissions and the reduction on oil dependence.

The increase in energy demand is largely driven by growing requirements for electricity as the world population is expected to touch 9 billion by 2030. Earlier, OECD countries were driving the demand, but with the rise of emerging economies, the demand for energy is now also coming from non-OECD countries. In the face of mounting pressure on finite resources, renewable energy sources have huge potential to help tackle resources constraints.

Natural gas contributes the most to electricity generation in Massachusetts and amounts to around 74%, nuclear energy supplies 12%, coal power plants contribute up to 9%, and the share of renewable energy sources (solar, wind, etc.) is around 4%. Massachusetts is one of the few states in the US that started exploring the potential of renewable energy early. The ambitious plan is to generate 15% of electricity in Massachusetts through wind energy by 2020.

To meet that goal, the participation of local communities is important in taking informed decisions and making them stakeholders in renewable energy projects. Petrova said that if a project is presented with all the relevant information, people are willing to assume ownership. If they see tangible benefits coming to their community, they will make sure that it is done, which is the key to success.

Article by Sachin Gaur, MALD Candidate F13

View her presentation slides here.