Wind turbines cut carbon emissions, but they’re unpopular with community groups and environmentalists. Find out why this is more about trust than science.
The countryside around here is ideal for wind farms. It has a very high elevation. The open fields let the wind blow freely from any direction, and the land isn’t expensive to acquire.
It’s quite impressive to drive past one of the major wind farms that have sprung up and see the turbines all rotating in unison. People get the feeling that they’re looking into the future that our planet needs to stop fossil fuel emissions and rescue the climate.
Neighbours of wind farms don’t always share that rosy view. Community groups raise persistent complaints about noise, vibration and damage to water wells.
Complaints About Noise, Vibration and Damage to Wells
Some people living close to wind farms have chosen to move for what they call health issues. This puts a surplus of homes on the real estate market, and the departure generates negative publicity.
Those trends lower property values. That raises more concerns among other homeowners and resistance to the wind power development snowballs over time.
The US Department of Energy’s Berkeley Lab conducted a survey of more than 1,700 households within five miles of a wind turbine installation. Researchers asked respondents how they felt about the local wind farm. They also covered whether they’d had any stress reaction to it and how fair they thought the approval process was, among other things.
Only 8% of Households Had Negative Opinions of Wind Farms
When the results were tallied, only 8% of households had negative or very negative opinions of the local wind farms. Those who lived less than half a mile away had more negative responses. However, those attitudes were still in the minority at a total of 25%.
As for sound, 84% of respondents reported hearing no sound at all. However, among those living less than half a mile away, 81% agreed that there was some level of noise.
The team went more in-depth into the 16% of respondents who could hear sound from the wind turbines. Of these, 51% didn’t find them disturbing at all, while only 18% said that they were very annoying. Even among those who live less than half a mile away, only 19% said that they were somewhat, moderately, or very annoyed by the sound of the wind turbines.
Most Respondents Said that the Process Was Fair
On the question of a fair approval process, 54% said that the process was fair. In comparison, 29% agreed that it was very unfair or only slightly fair. Interestingly, of those who spoke at town hall meetings about the wind farms, about 50% spoke favourably, and 50% spoke negatively.
These figures suggest pretty clearly that opponents of wind farm developments in local communities are a vocal minority. They speak up, and they create a compelling controversy for journalists to dig into, but they don’t seem to speak for their neighbours.
The Larger Issue Has to Do With Bats
Even so, there’s one issue about wind farms that does carry some weight. That’s the concern about airborne animals. Many people have heard about migratory birds’ deaths, but the more significant issue has to do with bats.
Hundreds of thousands of airborne bats worldwide die from collisions with wind turbine blades. The blades seem to us to be rotating slowly and majestically. In fact, they’re moving at about 80 kilometres an hour.
Data from Bird Studies Canada suggest that the average turbine in Ontario kills something like 19 bats per year. The industry has made adjustments, like changing the turbines’ angles and shutting them off during light winds when bats are active, but the debate is ongoing.
Not All Obstacles Involve Science or Engineering
Not all of the obstacles blocking a resolution of the wind turbine controversy involve science or engineering. The journal Energy Reports published a study this week from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
The study suggests that even though green energy entrepreneurs and wildlife activists share the same values, that isn’t enough to build trust between the two groups. The researchers believe that the relationship between them needs to include a better understanding of one another’s beliefs and emotions around the current approach to wind energy.
The researchers call the challenge a “green-green dilemma.” We ran into something similar in these pages when we talked about the World Wildlife Fund in Congo coming into conflict with local indigenous people over their “fortress conservation” policies.
Researchers Call the Challenge a “Green-Green Dilemma”
The researchers surveyed 537 representatives of six groups they identified as stakeholders in the wind turbine controversy. These include people in the wind energy business, environmental consultants, conservation authorities, scientists, volunteers and non-profit environmental groups.
Everybody they spoke to agreed that the sustainable use of nature was a fundamental value. Despite this, they still said that they didn’t trust each other. It seems that shared values aren’t enough to build coalitions among like-minded people.
Team leader Dr. Tanja Straka explained, “Decision-making is seldom a purely rational process.” Who we decide to work with and trust has a lot more to do with how they make us feel and what we believe.
How They Make Us Feel and What We Believe About Them
Facts and figures don’t help unless the groups can clear the air. Dr. Christian Voigt heads up the Institute’s Department of Evolutionary Ecology. He explained, “When planning dialogues between stakeholder groups, creating a trustworthy ground for the participants to share and discuss their views should be as important as communicating evidence-based knowledge.”
He concluded that greater trust “could help improve bat conservation in wind turbines projects, ultimately facilitating the ecologically sustainable energy transition to renewable sources and protecting our biodiversity at the same time.”
Whether it’s complaints from the neighbours or environmentalists’ concerns, the wind turbine controversy isn’t based on science. Providing scientific solutions to the opponents of wind energy isn’t going to end the conflict.
Trust in One Another’s Positive Intent
What’s missing is an attitude of trust in one another’s positive intent. No collaboration ever works if that approach isn’t there on all sides.
We don’t have time for these rivalries inside the green movement. The experts have told us that we have to hold global warming below 1.5˚ C and preserve 30% of our land resources to conserve wildlife by 2030.
That’s never going to happen if people who are committed to these goals bicker among themselves. To preserve the biosphere, we have to learn how to heal the cultural environment in which we relate. Otherwise, the natural environment in which we live doesn’t stand a chance.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
National Survey of Attitudes of Wind Power Project Neighbors
Trust me if you can: why stakeholders in the “wind energy vs biological conservation” conflict have low mutual trust and how to increase it
The human dimensions of a green–green-dilemma: Lessons learned from the wind energy — wildlife conflict in Germany
Mass Extinction Happening Now
Biodiversity Targets: Canadians Need Actions Not Words
WWF Congo Conflict and Fortress Conservation