Windfarm with blades moving at sunrise

Redirecting Anti-Wind Energy

Individuals, communities and politicians can turn a debate stalemate into an opportunity for collaboration.

During the last 10 years in Canada, as well as elsewhere in North America and other parts of the world, proposed wind energy projects have spawned fierce opposition and intense controversy. It’s not headline news when members of the public react against possible changes to their neighbourhoods.

During the last 10 years in Canada, as well as elsewhere in North America and other parts of the world, proposed wind energy projects have spawned fierce opposition and intense controversy. It’s not headline news when members of the public react against possible changes to their neighbourhoods. But many energy and environmental analysts, who see a switch to renewable energy as long overdue, have been dismayed by this hostility to a source of electricity that they see as much more benign in its environmental and health impacts than the coal, nuclear or even gas-fired electricity generation it displaces.

Opposition is so determined that members of one anti-wind group in Ontario have initiated a lawsuit against their neighbours who have signed contracts to host wind turbines on their properties. Some on both sides even fear physical violence is a possibility; there was, for instance, an anonymous notice in a local newspaper threatening that any farmer’s field with a wind turbine would be “subject to having foreign materials placed in the crops that would seriously damage harvesting equipment.” And the rage and vitriol expressed in information sessions for wind projects, in social media and in letters to newspapers have grown all too common.

This negative reaction is not universal. Even in Ontario, where opposition is strong and well-organized, a representative of the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CANWEA) noted in a personal interview that many wind farms have gone forward with little conflict. In fact, an Oracle Research poll in January 2013 found that 69 per cent of Ontarians agreed that “Ontario should be a leader in wind and solar energy production.”

Another survey in British Columbia determined that 76 per cent of respondents believed that wind energy should be further developed in that province. And in countries like Denmark and Germany, the widespread introduction of wind – beginning decades ago – has met with general public acceptance. Indeed, a 2009 draft report by Brendan Haley of the Carleton University School of Public Policy and Administration, entitled “The Social Implications of Nova Scotia Renewable Energy Scenarios,” described the public response to wind projects as typically U-shaped. There is often initial local enthusiasm when a project is announced, followed by increasing concern and opposition during planning and construction, and eventually by acceptance after operations begin and people become used to the new facility.

So if there’s broad support for wind and other renewable energy sources, what fuels such vehement opposition from local groups and some large provincial organizations?

Consultation, consultation, consultation! And participation, participation, participation!

Since the 1980s, land use planners have coined a variety of acronyms for local opposition to projects. Of these terms, LULU is the most values-neutral: Locally Unwanted Land Use. The acronym’s negative connotation (“It’s a LULU !”) has to do with the difficulties planners and politicians often face in siting a necessary but locally undesirable facility. It’s an acknowledgement that local feelings are potentially explosive, with an implicit warning that the siting process must be sensitive, fair and well-designed. Experts in public engagement have long claimed that social friction about such contentious issues can be reduced by real opportunities for public dialogue early in any process and transparent, consultative decision-making. Asked about what was needed when siting new wind facilities, the response of one BC wind company’s representative was, “Consultation, consultation, consultation! And participation, participation, participation!”

In terms of public policy, there’s no question that the approach taken in Ontario, whereby the province passed top-down legislation prohibiting local municipalities from using their by-laws and zoning to block a renewable energy facility, has frequently been cited as a key reason for local resentment. Nevertheless, in Germany, where wind power is well established, municipalities can reject a wind facility in a proposed location, but must provide zones where wind energy is accepted. And in many parts of the US, Europe, Australia and Canada where municipal authority has not been restricted, there has still been vigorous opposition.

Some commentators believe that for wind energy to be more widely accepted, other important elements of public policy must include broader public distribution of economic benefits from wind, as well as more local experience with ownership of the technology. For these reasons, in contrast to Ontario, the Nova Scotia government’s approach has been to deliberately encourage participation by First Nations, municipalities and other community groups through the COMFIT program for smaller renewable energy projects, usually less than 2 Megawatts but up to 5 or 6 MW. This echoes Germany’s positive experience in promoting local acceptance of renewable energy through direct involvement in project ownership. However, Nova Scotia’s ambitious, legislated target of 25 per cent renewable electricity generation by 2015 does also require large scale wind farms, against which there has still been some local opposition.

And this brings us back to considering the talking-past-each-other quality that often hijacks the wind debate. Some other local opposition acronyms also address this least tractable dimension of environmental controversy: personal motivation.

The phrase most frequently found is NIMBY, or Not In My Backyard. It’s seen to be about protecting one’s personal domain but being indifferent to urgent societal needs as well as to the fate of other people’s backyards. Other terms focus on the political dimensions of local conflicts. Not In My Term Of Office, or NIMTOO, implies opposition as political opportunism. Similarly, Not In My Election Year, or NIMEY, is about avoiding a contentious decision until after a forthcoming election. And some public stands are simply characterized as broad – and predictable – knee-jerk negativity: CAVE (Citizens Against Virtually Everything); BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything); and NOPE (Not On Planet Earth).

Such terms are shorthand for opinions about the underlying – as opposed to the proffered – motives for opposition. For both rational and emotional reasons, it is extremely significant if the wind controversy is not primarily about certain publicly contested facts, but instead involves other undisclosed issues. Perceived dishonesty about motives will undermine trust within a community, and a perceived hidden agenda makes factual debate feel irrelevant and encourages emotions to run high.

There are at least a couple of elephants in the room concerning peoples’ motives for opposing a project. Preventing the intrusion of large-scale wind turbines into a local viewscape is rarely put forward as the central reason for opposing such a facility, presumably because it is seen as too subjective to be a powerful argument. Nevertheless, wind proponents often regard this as the actual reason for local wind opposition, especially if opponents use birds or health as arguments against wind in spite of never previously having shown a special interest in birds or in the huge health consequences of burning fossil fuels. A tendency to continually shift from one anti-wind topic to another, or to a different, more recent argument, also tends to raise questions about the psychological origins of such opposition. In several recent Ontario cases, for example, opponents have dropped the argument that some physical mechanism from wind turbines causes health problems and have instead asserted that stress or annoyance from turbines – or the wind controversy itself – should be enough of a health issue to stop wind farm construction.

Recent research also probes these questions, specifically whether there is a role played by the “nocebo effect.” This response, wherein socially created negative expectations induce negative effects, was first described in 1961. It is the opposite of the better-known placebo effect, whereby the expectation of a positive result causes that outcome. Earlier this year, an experimental study by Fiona Crichton et al. at the University of Auckland primed half its group of 54 subjects by having them watch news clips about health problems said to be from wind turbine infrasound (inaudible, very-low-frequency sound). After being exposed to a 10-minute period of recorded infrasound and another 10-minute sham (false) recording supposedly of infrasound, people reported more symptoms, and more intense symptoms, from both the actual and the sham exposure than a control group. These other subjects, who had not been primed with negative information, reported that both the real and the sham recordings of infrasound had little or no effect.

Another study done by Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney, audited all the noise and health complaints about all of Australia’s wind farms. Chapman’s research also supports the hypothesis that such complaints are really a nocebo social phenomenon related to the level of organized opposition to particular facilities. In fact, 31 of the 49 Australian wind farms Chapman looked at had no recorded complaints at all. Complaints, which started mainly after the beginning of organized anti-wind campaigns, were clustered around the five wind projects that were the target of major opposition. 

Personal motives must be honestly examined and acknowledged before productive dialogue about factual evidence can occur. 

Particularly in the US and Australia, some organizations have been charged with concealing vested or political interests by setting up supposedly independent donor trusts, think tanks or blogs that appear to be written by grassroots activists (aka “Astroturf blogs”). Journalists in the US have documented the funding of climate change denial and anti-renewable energy campaigns by right-wing political interests such as the Heartland Institute. Thanks to the Internet, these strategic efforts have become a source for terminology and arguments that proliferate widely among local wind opposition groups, regardless of where they are located or whether they share similar goals. And there is no question that in Ontario at least, the wind controversy has become an overtly political issue, with the provincial Conservatives vowing to stop wind energy development in its tracks. As with any politicized issue, how much is about wind energy per se and how much is about political power (and its many other associated agendas) is a question with no clear answer.

Ultimately, the hostility and intensity of the controversy is not simply caused by a clean dispute about factual truth. For public policy, factual truth does matter a great deal. But “seeking truth” – that is, seeking objective evidence about reality – first requires “speaking truth.” Personal motives must be honestly examined and acknowledged before productive dialogue about factual evidence can occur. And in a polarized situation, it is very difficult for that to happen.

One innovative program by a Canadian non-profit organization is directly designed to intervene in the quality of the turbine debate. Using principles derived from restorative justice practices, Clean Nova Scotia launched its Whirlwind project earlier this year. Their strategy attempts to change the conversation through facilitated, community-based dialogue about how the province’s energy is sourced, and about wind energy in particular. As a Clean Nova Scotia spokesperson explained in a background interview for this article, the intention was specifically process-oriented: to promote the expression of opinion from all sides and “to allow people in the middle to hear the debate in a different way.”

The idea was to get about 15 people from all sides of the debate to meet a number of different times in spring 2013, using a “talking circle” format that also included an empty chair that anyone from the community could occupy to ask questions. The sessions were recorded for a short film.

According to Bill Carr of the Atlantic Restorative Company (ARC), which ran the Whirlwind project, it was vital to get the right people to the table – community opinion leaders on the issue and actual decision-makers in government – and to ensure they understood the process and the civility and patience it required. It took 65 hours of discussion with potential participants before the “talking circle” meetings actually commenced. Asked about hidden agendas or undisclosed motives and how those affected the discourse, Carr noted that disingenuous representation always gets outed. It can’t withstand the dynamic of the talking circle.

Whether anyone’s opinion was changed is unclear, but that wasn’t the point: what people did feel was that they were heard. As for measuring success, one indicator is that after the conclusion of the formal project, the participants asked to continue talking. At first some of those people were barely able to be in the same room together.

Can this approach be used more widely? Such a process requires skilled direction, and is both labour- and time-intensive. Training trainers is intended to be one way to extend the project’s reach. Another extension is the documentary, Whirlwind, which will be shown at film festivals and in communities around the province, followed by facilitated discussion. It does still remain to be seen how far the impact will travel beyond the relatively small number of direct participants in the talking circle sessions. And the approach does not address how best to go about the public policy issue of “truth-seeking” – that is, of making sense of conflicting factual claims.

But then, it’s not clear that any process in the wind debates so far has made much progress in clarifying the factual issues in the public mind. Adversarial processes, like our legal and political systems, and the rigorous testing of good scientific inquiry, have their uses. But perhaps we should be looking at other models in public affairs to encourage both “truth-speaking” and, ultimately, “truth-seeking” in order to move forward on contentious public issues. 

Susan Holtz has been a private consultant on energy and environmental policy and was based in Nova Scotia for much of her career. She was the founding Vice Chair of both the Nova Scotia and the now-disbanded National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy and has served on numerous other advisory bodies and panels, including the federal Auditor General’s Panel of Senior Advisors and the George’s Bank Environmental Review Panel. As well as energy and other topics related to resource and toxics management, her interests include the development of institutional capacity in areas such as sustainability reporting and assessment. Now retired, she currently lives in Prince Edward County, Ontario, where she is active in the grassroots County Sustainability Group. She has been involved with A/J in one way or another for decades.