3.2. Local opposition to wind farm development

Dr Christopher Jones, University of Sheffield

Background

Local opposition to wind farm development is a simple issue of selfishness on the part of their opponents. This often paraphrased belief underpins many people's explanations about the reasons why people choose to object to local wind farm development, while simultaneously recognising the value of wind power in general. While popular, this NIMBY (not in my back yard) explanation, makes a number of assumptions about the roots of such opposition that are not necessarily fulfilled when formally assessing the opinions of opponents. Specifically, it assumes that:

(a) the opponents' issue is with the wind farm;

(b) there is a gap in people's attitudes towards wind farm development in general (positive) and locally (negative); and

(c) this gap is largely motivated by ignorance and/or self-interest.

While it is sometimes the case that opposition to proposed wind farms will meet with these three criteria, it is more often the case that one or more of these assumptions are not met, leading to a misclassification of people as 'NIMBYs'.

What's the problem?

Notwithstanding the negative nature of the term, if the assumption is that people are locally opposed on the grounds of self-interest then a natural policy response would be one of 'paying off' opponents. Granted such a policy might work to appease some opposition (particularly among those who are really self-interested); however, for those whose concerns are grounded in something other than self-interest, such a policy is likely to be ineffective, could undermine trust and/or backfire as perceived attempt to coerce or bribe.

What's the solution?

The root of the solution is in better understanding the problem; in this case embracing the diverse nature of wind farm opposition. By better understanding the make-up of opposition (and support) formed in response to a proposed wind farm, it is possible to better design and target engagement activities so that they formally address the issues relating to specific developmental context. In fact, engagement alone could prevent some of the concern arising in the first place – provided it is done in a sustained, responsive and (ideally) participatory way [14].

Understanding responses to proposed wind farms is helped by asking the following questions:

(a) Is the opponents' issue with the proposed wind farm? Where the siting of a wind farm causes controversy, it might not be the wind farm that is controversial but rather the threat of change more generally or the process by which the change is occurring. For instance, recent research has implicated people's identification with place as a potential cause of opposition. If a proposed development (e.g. wind farm) threatens a person's sense of place then this can motivate place-protective action (e.g. protesting) [15]. Thus, while the wind farm is the vessel for change, it is the threat of change that motivates resistance. In such cases people should not be treated as NIMBYs.

(b) Is there are a gap in people's attitudes? If the opposition is tied to the wind farm, it is still not necessarily the case that the objection is unique to the local context. Some people just don't like wind farms (i.e. they are general opponents) and they would object to their construction further afield too if motivated to do so [16]. Moreover, attitudes are dynamic and can be modified and strengthened by experience. Therefore it is possible that someone who is generally positive towards wind farms initially can become more generally negative over time (e.g. as they learn more about wind turbine technology). In both cases, however, opposition arising from these individuals is rooted in a more general rejection of the technology and they should not be treated as NIMBYs.

(c) Is this gap motivated by self-interest? If people's opposition is tied to the wind farm and there is a gap between their general and local attitudes, it is still not necessarily the case that their opposition is motivated by self-interest. For example, communities will often have specific environmental, ecological and cultural sensitivities that can be affected by wind farm development. Opposition grounded in a protection of such sensitivities could be seen to transcend self-interest and thus should not be treated as NIMBY. Furthermore, even if a dispute does boil down to something that is evidently related to self-interest (e.g. concern about house-prices) is it fair to vilify or dismiss residents as NIMBYs, even when sources exist to corroborate some of these concerns?

Conclusions

This case study has aimed to highlight the diverse roots of opposition to proposed wind farms (and other developments). In some cases opposition is not a matter of technology but of process and taking steps towards more inclusive participatory forms of planning should help to quell some opposition based on such grounds. In other cases, the objection might not be local but more generally held.

Again, more inclusive forms of engagement could help here; providing a valuable forum for exchange of information, which may help to counter the spread of mis-information that could serve to negatively affect general attitudes. In other cases, people might fulfil the NIMBY criteria; however in such cases refraining from registering such a classification may be prudent bearing in mind the derogatory and dismissive tone it incites?

Finally, with much of the attention and resources directed towards addressing the concerns of opponents, the often overlooked groups in wind farm siting controversies are the supporters and those who have yet to make up their minds.

In a democratic society these groups should have equal opportunity to express their opinions but, as they often remain more quiescent, they tend not to be heard. The challenge for developers and SMEs working in this field is one of engaging this often silent majority [17].