The “Not in My Backyard” (NIMBY) problem can put a real lid on wind energy uptake if a sufficient number of backyards are marked as off-limits. And we need those yards. A windmill can’t exactly function to peak capacity when tucked furtively away in one’s garage.

But what creates the dissent? Environmentalists can’t figure it out: windmills, to an environmentalist, look like the purest form of global progress.

Yet, many individuals, communities and even countries persist in opposing them. What are they seeing that windmill proponents are not? Confusion breeds resentment.

We find a way into this puzzle through the noise complaints of the Netherlands. A University of Groningen study exposed the fact that support for wind turbines was sharply divided in the densely packed country, with a rift between those complaining about the noise and those for whom it was a non-issue. The complaints, however, have very little correlation with one’s proximity to a turbine. In fact, many of the residents closest to the turbines barely noticed the noise at all.

It turns out that a significant number of those residents who reported perfect contentment with the noise levels of the turbines were also deriving direct economic benefits from the power the windmills were producing. At 45 decibels – roughly the volume of a conversation heard from the next room – the constant background noise did not bother these respondents at all, while others reported annoyance at levels of 30 decibels and below – less than the volume of a library whisper.

In other words, it’s not noise if it’s YOUR noise.

Conversely, we might consider that the noise of our windmill, from which our neighbour derives no direct benefit, may well sound like nails on a great big spinning metal chalkboard.

It’s the difference between listening to your music playlist at work and your colleague humming “Call me Maybe” into your ear. Same noise level – big perception gap.

These findings suggest that NIMBY cases may decrease if we increase the amount of public engagement. More importantly, a lack of public ownership is what creates these problems in the first place.

So what I’m saying is, we can’t do without our neighbours.

Even in a country as modestly populated as Canada, just about every wind turbine is going to be in someone’s backyard. Giant wind farms – the kind that can make a serious contribution to our energy load – need a very large backyard. And it doesn’t make economic sense to install wind farms far away from human settlements anyway, because energy is lost in transportation over long distances.

Even as a genuine turbine supporter, I would have questions if one was installed in my backyard without warning. How much noise will it make? Won’t it kill birds? What are the economic benefits? 

On the other hand, if I had a financial stake in the turbine’s success, I might be inclined to brush off some of the potential inconvenience.

NIMBY doesn’t mean that your neighbour is Ebenezer Scrooge. It should instead be seen as a warning signal for insufficient public engagement.

If we’re committed to turning wind power into a significant source of energy then we’ll take these warnings seriously.

 

A\J recently published a column on wind energy's limitations that caused quite a stir. Read about the backlash.

The Renewable Energy Blog features weekly posts by Stu Campana on current renewable energy issues, and the broader scientific perspective, international political climate and social variables they involve.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.

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