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‘Social Acceptance of Wind Energy Projects’

Posted by Guest Blogger on April 04, 2017 at 12:37 PM

SEAI & IEA Task 28 Seminar, ‘Social Acceptance of Wind Energy Projects’

29/03/17, Clayton Hotel Burlington Road:    

David West, Dublin Friends of the Earth

 

On an unusually sticky, breathless day in March, before this seminar, bringing international and Irish research collaborators together to discuss best practice for social acceptance of wind energy projects, there was a thicket of rural residents and placards outside protesting against onshore wind farms. The demonstrators dispute the merits of wind energy, raising the point that energy gathered at night cannot be stored and daytime wind supply cannot be guaranteed. Major, negatively impacting assertions were disturbance from constant, low frequency noise generated from the turbines and their proximity to homes, as was a deep distrust of developers. It was their contention that it is they who benefit financially from such installations not the local community. This was an appropriate introduction to the tenor of the international examples presented inside, particularly with regard to the latter point.

Tom Cronin, senior advisor with DTU Wind Energy and the Danish Department of Wind Energy spoke on the lauded and often referenced, bottom up, Danish, community ownership model and of its evolution. From grass roots in the 1980s and due to the very fact of their being purpose-built, community cooperatives social acceptance had been successfully garnered from the start. However, with the ramping up in scale, advances in the technology and subsequent rise in costs over time this model is being consigned to nostalgia, even in Denmark, and in its stead have stepped the commercial developers.

Experimentation with hybrid, financing models of a local enterprise, cooperative or municipality with a commercial developer are ongoing but not proving very successful and community involvement in new developments has declined. The reason given for this is poor communications and marketing on behalf of the developers. Investigation has shown that concern by locals voiced on social media has not been engaged and answered and this has allowed distrust to grow and fester over the lack of consultation with the local communities. So, even in hallowed Denmark, it would seem that the wind has been taken out of their sails and that the progress of wind energy enters the Doldrums.

Having completed a phD at NUIG on public preferences for community consultation regarding the high potential for wind energy in Ireland, Noreen Brennan put the current situation in an Irish context, which both differed and mirrored the Danish scenario. Whereas in Denmark there has been a larger and longer community involvement in wind energy projects this has not been the case in Ireland where a general attitude of nimbyism to large, moving and noise generating structures in the communal landscapes pervades. The increased scale and cost of the turbines since earlier models installed in Danish community cooperatives has further caused potential, community, wind energy interest groups here to largely disengage, daunted by the scale of the capital investment and financial risk required, as well as a dearth of government incentives.

This has also pushed such projects into the sphere of the commercial developer who, just as in Denmark, they distrust and who they believe will be the only ones to benefit financially from impositions put on their community. Although the commercial developers would prefer community part-ownership through a hybrid model, given the hard economic times Ireland, especially rural Ireland, has had, and is still going through, the lack of appetite for financial investment from within communities is understandable. Through focus groups it was discovered that, without a supporting framework to initiate their own projects, what locals sought was compensation based on proximity to turbines and much more detailed communication and consultation from the developers, with strong preference for a community representative. There is the question then of from whose pocket should this representative be paid?

Confirming this mutual reluctance and distrust as a common impasse across the continent as the pace of the movement toward renewable energies increases in line with our environmental commitments was Michaela Dragan of Wind Europe. She corroborated the reluctance of commercial developers to offer little more in detail than a sales pitch, advocating the merits of wind energy to the community, if they were not willing to invest as co-owners in a project. Although the uptake has not been substantial there have been successful European hybrid projects. The best model for which has been public : private partnership of shared responsibility for raising of finances between the developer, as major shareholder, and a public institution or municipality, borrowing from investment funding. Dissemination of such public participation and partnership has been organised via public information evenings and school visits promoting wind energy and incentives such as energy bill discounts.

The theme of shared public : private partnership and the procedural justice and benefit distribution challenges to this was continued by professor Patrick Devine-Wright of Exeter University. For shared ownership to be the viable and preferable option of both sides bridging the gap of mistrust is therefore vital. Again Denmark was cited for its commitment to community and environment having enacted the ‘Renewable Energy Act’ of 2009, which made 20% equity to residents within 2.5km of a wind farm mandatory. However, in lieu of, and even with, such government leadership the stumbling blocks remain. Community energy activists often withhold access to land and planning permission because they are typically not consulted at the early phase of the decision making process and are only latter informed at a review stage to raise objection to, what are by then, already existing plans. Developers often debate the democracy of the selection of community energy activists and their expertise and capacity to cope with the complexities and speed of large scale projects, budgets and timelines.

Additionally, incentives to keep share prices low, decreasing the financial risk in order to promote community uptake, cannot be guaranteed to not be sold elsewhere with the result that the project could be part-publically but not locally funded and owned. Community energy activists would also, by their nature, often prefer the expertise and manpower of such projects to also remain local. With time ticking towards two degrees to midnight, if communities are dissuaded from initiating their own projects due to the costs, financial risks and lack of government support there is a real need for more ‘pragmatic community energy activists’ and ‘pro-community developers’ to meet in the middle and communicate openly to break down the distrust and move renewable, part-community owned energy forward.

Such community wind initiatives in the UK have had limited success in England, with Scotland, however, showing the way. Research scientist Joe Rand of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California stated that, from a survey of 1.3 million residences and 600 projects, social acceptance had been historically taken for granted in the US but that this, however, could be attributed to their location usually being very isolated. He noted that such space was used up and that projects were now coming closer to home. Yet, social acceptance of wind farms of up to ten turbines tended to be high. This was deduced to be so because with low numbers and residential proximity they were most likely to be community projects. In addition, although there were some general, negative records for landscape impact and noise production, positive attitudes were noted to have risen after construction, when the planning procedure could be assessed as to having been fairly conducted.

Questions raised from the floor included concern from a psychologist around the absence of empirical research beyond the visual, environmental and financial impacts, for example, into the affects of noise pollution on the community’s mental health. However, the common thread through all the international examples on social acceptance of wind energy projects was a cynicism in the community grass roots not just for developers but also for planners and government, which lead to the question; who are the champions for renewable energies? A representative of the National Economic and Social Council (www.nesc.ie) assuaged the room that work has been done to plan and outline potential government policy on community engagement and support and Duncan Stewart lead a plea for all parties to get together, abandon misinformation, disinformation and distrust, and to communicate and move wind energy, among the other renewables, forward and with some necessary haste.

So it is up to us; public, private and especially government to move beyond aspiration, to meet, communicate meaningfully, collaborate, plan and begin to lead Ireland out of, not just fossil fuel divestment but, fossil fuel consumption and to do this by drawing our community of public and commercial consumers into the process of energy generation, leading to greater understanding of our energy consumption, as well as the financial benefits.

 

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