Wind farm developments are often greeted with well-organized and fierce opposition from local communities. This opposition was exemplified recently in Kahuka, Hawaii, on the island of O'ahue, by protests surrounding the Na Pua Makani wind farm and the Bear River and Monument Ridges wind projects in Humboldt County, California. It is a common occurrence throughout the Midwest as distributed energy resources (DERs) are developed, most often in rural environments, to replace fossil-fuel generation.
"Community acceptance" refers to the attitudes and actions of the individuals and community that will live and work in the vicinity of renewable facilities, whether wind turbines, transmission lines, or solar/battery arrays. The need (or at least desire) for some level of local community acceptance of a proposed renewable project is tacitly recognized through various state and local statutes, ordinances, and regulations requiring public input in the form of public hearings and comment periods. It is one leg of the "social acceptance" stool of renewable energy development, alongside "socio-political acceptance" (government policies) and "market acceptance" (economics). Yet community acceptance tends to get short shrift in the development process.
Instead local opposition to wind farms, transmission projects, or any kind of DER is often mockingly chalked-up to NIMBY-ism ("not in my backyard"). NIMBY-ism is the idea that some people just act selfishly by opposing projects that they know to be socially or environmentally beneficial but that directly impact them. Negatively labeling the motivations of local opposition without truly understanding those motivations, or how they are formed, damages renewable energy development broadly. NIMBY-ism is an unhelpful pejorative and a convenient scapegoat for the failure of a developer or other stakeholders to achieve community acceptance for a project.
I want to give credit to Geraint Ellis and Gianluca Ferraro, and the Joint Research Centre (JRC), Science For Policy Report, for their excellent 2016 paper titled, 'The social acceptance of wind energy'. Their report examines the prevailing academic research on community acceptance of wind energy. This research supports my professional observations regarding "community acceptance" issues in the United States, particularly in the Midwest. The JRC is the European Commission's in-house service that aims to provide evidence-based scientific support to the European policymaking process. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in DER development anywhere in the world, because the same principles will apply.
Local opposition to a single development can engender broader opposition to DERs in general and have negative policy effects for renewable development. A good example is the Missouri legislation, HB 1877, that would limit a public utility's use of an eminent domain which was filed in direct response to a single transmission project approved by the Missouri Public Service Commission (PSC). The legislation would curtail a public utility's right of eminent domain to transmission projects having substations at every 50-mile interval capable of buying and selling power in state. The legislation hasn't been passed yet, but the effort shows the link between strong local opposition to a project and its potential impact on broader energy policy. A DER project, if successfully accomplished in the face of strong local opposition, could result in less renewables because of the backlash it generates. I have personally experienced this "never again" reaction by communities.
Understandably, renewable energy proponents tend to focus on the other two legs of the "social acceptance" stool: 1) government policies like state renewable standards, production tax credits, or corporate energy goals that have led to 2) market acceptance and success. These legs of the stool are easier to deal with because they are abstract and don't involve actual communities with specific locations and project designs. Further, developers have an economic incentive to care about community acceptance only to the degree it is necessary for the successful completion of the project. In other words, there are no economic incentives to develop long-term relationships with the affected community. Because of this short-term economic incentive there is often a lack of trust between the community and developer.
So how can the process of garnering community acceptance for renewable development be improved? Currently, the consent process is largely a top-down process that attempts to coax a community into non-opposition of a preplanned project. Often the developer finds the standard toolkit for achieving community acceptance is woefully inadequate, consisting of a "generous benefits package" (from the perspective of the developer), glossy corporate poster board presentations "educating" the community on the project, and enticement of local officials with prospects of increased tax revenue. What is left out is any meaningful relationship between the community and the renewable asset itself — the DER becomes a "foreign occupier" of the local community.
It is with this approach that one finds themselves before an angry mob of farmers and rural folk being told that transmission lines effect the quality of goat butter and causes childhood leukemia. That is not NIMBY-ism. That is, "I don't trust you Mr. Developer. And I don't think you have me, my family or my community's best interests at heart." This lack of trust may also extend to regulators and other policymakers being perceived as being pro-development. Worse, it is this top-down approach that boxes-out the local community from the early stages of the decision-making process, that ignites conflicts within a community by forcing its members to take sides on a development during the consent process. The failure to garner community acceptance turns neighbor against neighbor as each community member must decide whether to get-on-board and at what price or to take action in opposition. This happens at the local diner and Friday night high-school football games across the Midwest.
Community acceptance of a renewable energy project must be understood holistically as a product of complex interactions between personal traits and beliefs, social relationships within a community, and the community's relationship with the world and powers outside of itself. For example, community acceptance will differ significantly depending on who owns and operates the facility. Communities have different relationships with their incumbent utility versus an independent developer. Similarly, communities react differently based on the aesthetic, environmental, or cultural significance put on the landscape and their sensitivity to disturbance of that landscape. Communities will react differently based on perceived "fairness" of the consent process or financial benefits being offered. There is no silver bullet or magic key that unlocks community acceptance to a renewable energy project, because each community and project is different and complex.
There is something missing in the way we are developing DERs and that is the notion of "energy citizenship." That is the idea that energy infrastructure and technology profoundly affects who we are and how we view ourselves in the world. The internal combustion engines changed how modern human beings live and view themselves. Smartphones are having the same effect. With DER development, often we are asking local communities to accept transformational change to their environment, with little or no consideration of what we are truly asking for. We expect a 70-year old farmer in Burton County, Missouri, to adopt the views of Greta Thunberg in a matter of months because an easement is required over his land. And if he resists and doesn't take the deal, we blame selfish NIMBY-ism or ignorance.
But there may be another way. In 2008, Denmark passed the Promotion of Renewable Energy Act mandating that no less than a 20% ownership interest of wind projects be offered to the local community — defined as anyone living within 4.5 km of the wind turbine or within the municipality in which the turbine is located. The community ownership approach recognizes that ownership of DERs is significantly more valuable than what's typically offered in terms of community economic benefits. It recognizes that it's far better to have community buy-in than a pay-off. Community ownership uses local institutions and sources of social capital to build trust with the community. It involves the community as an owner early in the decision-making process. Community ownership builds upon an ethos of energy citizenship.
Over 10 years ago, I was involved in a novel experiment in community ownership of a biomass fuel facility. Formed as a cooperative, it drew upon the labor and resources of over 450 farmers in western Missouri to produce a carbon-neutral fuel pellet from agricultural residue to co-fire with coal. Unfortunately for that project, the market leg of the stool was not strong at the time. But the community acceptance was strong, because people understand ownership, energy, and citizenship. It was ground-up, not top-down renewable development. If America truly wants DERs, it will support distributed energy ownership.
In the next part of this series I look forward to further exploring regulatory compliance and more issues of community acceptance and ownership of DERs.