A new national lab study is upending common assumptions about U.S. wind power, including that “not in my backyard” fights drive opposition and that people living closest to turbines don’t like them.
The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory released preliminary results last week of the first national survey of residents living within 5 miles or less of utility-scale wind. The three-year analysis documents factors driving small pockets of wind opposition that often counter conventional wisdom.
Despite public discussions about NIMBY fights, things such as the way turbines blend with the landscape, property values and auditory perceptions seem to be greater factors in whether turbines are perceived negatively, according to LBNL.
“The study uncovers significant minorities who are annoyed by the turbine sounds, do not perceive the planning process to have been fair, and have negative attitudes,” the lab said.
About 2.3 percent of respondents, for instance, were classified as “strongly annoyed” because they reported monthly health-related symptoms from turbines. But the widely discussed “shadow flicker” phenomenon – where rotating turbines cause alternating shadows – had very little to do with the complaints.
Instead, “landscape change,” turbine sounds and turbine lighting in general caused the most opposition in the “strongly annoyed” subset.
About 16 percent total said they had heard sounds from nearby turbines. Within half a mile, that rose to 80 percent, and 30 percent said they were “somewhat, moderately or very” annoyed by the sounds.
The researchers did not provide specific recommendations, although they said the information could help developers with planning to minimize challenges.
“We hope we have laid down a foundation from which wind stakeholders can build as they consider future wind developments,” said Ben Hoen, a LBNL research scientist and the study’s lead author.
U.S. wind capacity has more than doubled in the past decade. The wind industry says challenges to local wind farms are minimal, but when they do happen, they can cause headaches for developers and sometimes garner national attention.
Overall, the lab found positive attitudes were strongly correlated with whether residents were compensated and whether they viewed the planning process as fair. LBNL also documented that individuals moving into an area after wind construction began were more positive than people already in the community, suggesting “more supportive individuals might be self-selecting.”
The study documents majority support for turbines. Fifty-seven percent of respondents living within 5 miles of turbines had a “very positive” or “positive” view of them. When the distance was less than half a mile, the negatives went up, although 50 percent still said they were positive or very positive.
Almost 70 percent of respondents said they liked the way the turbines looked, and 57 percent said their nearby project fit with the local landscape. Two-thirds of those who were aware of the local planning process described it as fair.
Hoen said the positive attitudes were surprising, considering the study found that people in opposition spoke out more.
“If you look at our data on who speaks at meetings, one would not know that a large majority of the community is positive,” said Hoen.
As of 2015, about 1.4 million homes were within 5 miles of U.S. utility-scale wind.
The survey was conducted in 2016 among 1,705 randomly selected individuals within 5 miles of wind turbines taller than 354 feet. It covered 24 states and included people living near 250 wind projects.
LBNL worked with researchers from University of Delaware; Martin-Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg; Resource Systems Group Inc.; Portland State University; and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
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