Is a wind energy project proposed for Charlemont, Shelburne or Ashfield thought of differently than one in Wyoming, Minnesota or Michigan?
A series of symposia organized by an environmental studies professor at Minnesota’s Macalester College will analyze public attitudes toward wind energy siting in different sectors of the country.
One of the day-long sessions, July 26 at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, will give 30 participants from communities that include Monroe, Rowe, Heath, Charlemont, Hawley, Buckland, Ashfield, Shelburne, Colrain and Leyden a chance to test and express their feelings about the landscape that might be affected by wind development, and to express their concerns about the technology and the potential impacts.
“We’re trying to get the average Joe,” said Lauren Gaherty, a planner with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. “It’s a daylong event where we’ve chosen folks who really haven’t developed a strong opinion about wind, one way or the other, and walk them through how wind projects are sited and how it works, and get their ideas and thoughts about how it might be sited a little more sensitively in this region.”
The symposium, which will also walk the selected participants through various land-use tools and approaches communities can take to exert some control, is the last of four as part of a National Science Foundation-funded study that’s taken the same approach in Laramie County, Wyo., Manistee County, Mich., and Clay County, Minn.
The project is intentionally focused on different parts of the country where there has been “some impending wind development, but there’s still time to shape what the horizon looks like in the future, to get upstream of the conflict,” said Roopali Phadke, an associate professor of environmental studies at Macalester College who conducted an earlier, nationwide study that found that communities often feel left out of the loop by wind developers.
Working with the Berkshire planning commission as well as the Franklin Regional Planning Department, Phadke is still looking for participants to round out the sample geographically and demographically, with emphasis on younger members, women and minorities to achieve balance. The deadline is Monday, and anyone from the project area can find more information and apply at www.berkshireplanning.org.
The results from the earlier sessions have provided a diverse and surprising range of attitudes toward wind development, Phadke said.
In Michigan, for example, where the economy is depressed and development of renewable energy and other green technologies has been seen as a key to re-employing large numbers of laid-off automotive workers, the strong message that came across from the many participants was “they were not interested in wind development of any kind, despite the economic benefits.”
That western central Michigan region, which has seen relocation of retirees and urban exiles from the Detroit and Lansing areas, sees itself as a tourist area and one in which they don’t want their ridgelines spoiled, said Phadke. In fact, a survey of 10,000 residents found “an interest in keeping the landscape static,” she said. “People moved there for the landscape, and that became an important part of the way people imagine future land use.”
On the other hand, Phadke admitted, “We learned the importance of thinking about the timing of our research,” since a project involving about 100 turbines nearby, with “a heavy cloud over the deliberations” that made it much harder to think about the issue outside what had been proposed.
“We learned that if we’re coming into a situation where there’s already a conflict brewing, it’s almost harder to bring people to consensus because they’ve already dug their heels in. In other places, where there isn’t a struggle with choosing sides, there’s much more openness to taking the other person’s perspective, flipping it around and maybe changing your mind,” Phadke said.
Where there was acceptance of wind development, it favored community-based, smaller scale, or homestead-oriented wind turbines, but people were “really uncomfortable with the scale of corporate development” of wind projects,” she said.
In Wyoming and northern Minnesota, where there’s more of a history of mining and extracting natural gas and large-scale farming, people seemed more comfortable with industrial-scale structures on the landscape, said Phadke.
“What we heard in both contexts, which I thought was fascinating, was that if there was wind development, they were more comfortable with it being closer to where they lived, to protect the more remote places they felt were more important to the state and to recreational sites. The perceptions were really different in how willing they were to live with the technologies.”
In northern Minnesota, she said, there was also a sense of being “pioneers in the country” by developing wind turbines to mitigate global climate change.
“It was important enough that they were willing to sacrifice some of their landscape,” Phadke said. “We didn’t hear that everywhere. What is it about some communities that make them value those things more than others?”
In Michigan, where townships retain more control over wind development than in Minnesota or Wyoming, Phadke and her teammates were asked by the town collaborators to respond to 450 technical questions about wind turbines. It turned out to be a burdensome process that took six months to respond to in a 120page document that didn’t satisfy a seemingly unquenchable thirst for more answers.
“It was an immense project to try to get into translating and explaining what the emerging science and research is saying about this, especially because so much is inconclusive right now, whether it’s about property values or sound impacts,” Phadke said. “Uncertainty is the name of game, regardless what energy is the topic you’re working on. It’s the responsibility of planners to take a precautionary approach and know that the science is uncertain. But that doesn’t mean we can’t act with the best knowledge and the best ethical standards we have.”
For the symposium, in addition to the visualization tools, simulations and discussions, she said, the plan is to bring in an expert panel specifically to respond to technical questions.
“That’s always tricky, because there are so many issues and so many potential experts who can be called forth,” Phadke said. “It’s a hard game who you invite.”
The end product will be a report Phadke plans to complete in October, to share with the participants as well as with partners like the Berkshire and Franklin planning agencies to help them help communities on public opinion as far as land preferences for wind development.
The report will also be offered to a national audience, Phadke said, so that other parts of the country can look at the approach as a model that can be adapted for other energy technologies that are likely to stir controversy.
“They can look at this experiment in deliberate democracy,” she said. “How can this be a model for something we can do on fracking (hydraulic fracturing oil extraction) and other issues where there’s controversy, to get upstream of the conflict and provide citizens with an opportunity to reflect carefully on their hopes and their fears, and on the opportunities and challenges?”
Although she’s been invited to present the results to the wind industry, Phadke made clear that the research is not funded by pro- or anti-wind interests.
“Their approaches to public participation have been woefully neglectful,” she said of wind developers in general, and some have been paying the price with lengthy legal battles as a result.
The battles over wind developments tend to pit rural parts of the country that happen to be good wind sites against urban areas where the energy is used, said Phadke, who sees them as questions over “energy justice: who should bear the burden of the new energy economy?”
In western Massachusetts, Gaherty said, in addition to concerns about noise and threats to wildlife, there’s also a fear of a new technology being introduced on a large scale, in many cases seen as threatening landscapes that are “sacred” and “iconic.”
“We in western Massachusetts are used to our ridgelines being forested and not having structures on them,” she said.
On the Web: www.macalester.edu/understandingwind