Wind farms remain the most environmentally benign form of electrical generation we have ever managed to create, with solar farms a close second. They have the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per MWh, full life cycle. They mix boundary layers of air over fields, drawing moisture and warmth at night down to growing plants, reducing the likelihood of frost and increasing yields. They shade livestock. They take up about 1% of agricultural land in the areas that they spread across, usually the less arable corners, and perhaps 2% when placed on ridgelines. Their few downsides, such as the low bird and bat mortality figures, pale in comparison to the toll of fossil fuels both directly and through global warming.
But that doesn’t mean that they are universally accepted by communities where they are being established. It’s important to provide care and feeding to those communities, to provide them the immunization that they often require from those irrationally or ideologically opposed to wind energy and to assist them in healing breaches that occur. Wind farms bring change, and change is often difficult.
A few years ago I toiled as a volunteer in the trenches of global wind energy social acceptance. I ran a blog used by wind energy advocates globally, Barnard on Wind. I was Senior Fellow – Wind for the Washington-based Energy and Policy Institute think tank, authoring a still-referenced report on global court cases related to wind energy and health (tl;dr: judges almost universally agreed that there are no health impacts). I assisted local groups in Ontario, the United States, Australia and elsewhere to counter disinformation and to find ways to communicate the benefits of wind energy to their communities. I worked to counter the virulence of anti-wind documentaries made in the USA and Canada. I remain connected to the American Wind Energy Association, Global Wind Energy Council, and the Canadian Wind Energy Association by ties of social networks and respect.
This has given me a global perspective on the challenges communities face as wind farms enter their areas. There are real, if slight impacts, but it’s the psychology of your neighbors that is critical to understand. For the purposes of this assessment, let’s break the process into phases: pre-construction, construction, and operation.
In the run up to a wind farm being constructed in a region, there may be some divisiveness and acrimony in the community. Some of it will be for more rational reasons, some for less. Some people will need to be brought on board, some will be opposed.
First, representatives of the company building the wind farm will be going door to door to the properties that their modeling shows are suitable for a wind turbine. They’ll be offering leases for the use of about a quarter acre of land per turbine for from $6,000 to $18,000 per year in the USA, with an average of around $8,000. Just as rural dwellers want cell towers and microwave repeaters on their properties for the revenue, they want wind turbines. And often the people who have the best land for wind generation are the people who had marginal agricultural land. A few wind turbines on a property can invert long-standing have/have-not status ratios in a neighborhood. That can lead to some acrimony, and it can lead to the former ‘haves’ who don’t get a wind turbine for their property leading the fight against all wind turbines.
Depending on the community and the company, they may negotiate a community investment as well. That might be a new town hall, a new baseball diamond, or an annual stipend into community coffers. The community should negotiate for that kind of investment. Wind farms have a capital cost of about $2 million per MW of capacity, and annual revenue streams in the tens or hundreds of millions for reasonably sized ones so there’s a lot of money to be negotiated for. Don’t be afraid to work hard to get it for your community in general. As always with negotiations, you don’t get what you don’t ask for.
People who live in rural areas where wind farms can exist tend to be more conservative than urban dwellers, and a wind farm is a visible addition to an area. Some people will be opposed solely on the basis that something is changing, much of which can be explained by the same NIMBYism that sees urban neighborhoods oppose condo buildings which will ‘change the character’ of their street.
But the conservatism plays out another way. It’s become fairly common for conservative parties to use renewable energy and global warming as wedges with their base. As a result, there’s been a partisan shift away from acceptance of the reality of global warming and our causing it, and with it a disdain for wind and solar as forms of generation. This is diminishing somewhat as time marches on, global warming becomes even more evident and wind farms spread around the world, but it’s still there.
Then there’s the completely flaky stuff people will believe. There are a few anti-wind organizations and individuals who have spread complete nonsense around the world. Your more credulous neighbors who have a bias against wind farms will find it very easy to get a lot of material full of fear, uncertainty and doubt. As a supporter, you’ll end up seeing lists of mind-bogglingly silly things that are attributed to wind turbines, and some people will believe it. Some will watch one of the three or four anti-wind turbine propaganda documentaries that are out there, or start following one of the two or three common online gathering grounds for anti-wind types. Some will get hysterical. A lot of time will be spent pushing back on the nonsense, slowly and painfully. And a lot of respect will be lost for some members of your community.
Making sure that you have a list of the common anti-wind talking points that are spread with clear and simple debunkings of them helps. The site Wind Power Rocks took the content of the Barnard on Wind blog a few years ago and created a cleaner, simpler and more effective set of material to help with that. Cutting and pasting the rebuttals into social media when the disinformation pops up is a good way to neutrally communicate reality without being confrontational. Similarly, AWEA has an excellent blog, Into the Wind, so checking in there for information is a good idea.
Social media is place where a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt will be spread, and there are people who spend all day every day spreading it. Making sure you’ve set up a positive community social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram will really help. Unfortunately, as Tigercomm found through a study of US wind farm operators, the companies have mostly ceded this ground to opponents for the past several years, at least in the USA. Spend some time with the company to divide up some responsibilities so that you both can be contributing to social license for wind farm.
Another type of vaccination your community may need is to keep traveling anti-wind propagandists out, or to counter their messages if those in your community who are opposed invite them in. When I was assessing court cases related to the non-issues of wind energy and health, it became apparent that court cases followed anti-wind propagandists such as Sarah Laurie, Carmen Krogh, and Nina Pierpont into areas that they visited. Baseless health fears followed these people, and in some cases led to legal challenges which virtually all failed, at great expense to the community and the legal system.
If those opposed in your community invite someone to speak about wind energy and its impacts, investigate them thoroughly. If they are associated with groups such as Wind Concerns Ontario, The Society for Wind Vigilance, the Waubra Foundation, Stop These Things, or Save the Eagles International, they will be spreading baseless lies that can make it much more difficult for a community to remain intact. As always with this type of fake news, there are two primary strategies. First, make sure that the reality is out there before the propagandists show up. Communicate early and often. Second, ensure that there is at least equal representation at any event to make sure that someone can counter the propagandists. Third, ongoing follow-up with reality-based statements to the disinformation that they spread will be required.
Finally, consider getting professional help. Time and again I’ve seen professional anti-wind PR campaigns from part-time residents of rural areas who have retirement or vacation properties there. They made their money in resource extraction, tobacco, or something with equal challenges, and are used to hiring professional PR flacks for campaigns. A tiny island south of Australia, King Island (great cheese, many lovely people), was considered for a large wind farm and the people who wanted golf courses instead hired the same PR company that was used by very conservative politicians to try to sell coal exports. A wealthy Australian created an entire anti-wind organization just to prevent wind turbines from being barely visible at the end of the valley from his occasional country home. The people opposed to wind are often amoral. They have theirs and are very willing to fight to keep others from getting some too. Suggested North American companies include Tigercomm, RenewComm, Davies Public Affairs. (Full disclosure: I am acquainted with the principals of all three companies and have professional relationships with one.)
It’s work, but it’s worth it for your community, your neighbors and your friends. It will pay dividends over the coming years.
One of the many advantages of wind generation, and one it shares with solar farms, is that it doesn’t take long to build. The entire construction period for an average wind farm will be under two years, and in many cases some turbines will be generating electricity long before the farm itself is finished. Some wind farms are built in stages, but each stage doesn’t take that long and there are usually gaps of a year or two between those stages as we’ve seen with the 4,000 MW wind farm on the St. Laurent River in Quebec or the 20,000 MW Gansu Wind Farm in China reaching completion in 2020.
During construction itself, there will be some short-term impacts. Some new roads will be cut, possibly to get to ridgeline turbine locations. It’s possible some trees will be removed, which will be unfortunate. Ensuring replacement reforestation is a good idea. There might be some temporary turbidity in streams and rivers as the relatively small areas cleared for roads and pads erode a bit until they stabilize.
There will be some big trucks moving through your community with concrete and rebar for the bases. There will be other big trucks moving in the masts, blades, and nacelles. Large crane trucks will show up to assemble turbines. Other trucks will bring the substantial electrical equipment necessary to bridge from turbines to transmission grid. In some cases this will damage local roads and in some cases the equipment might pass across someone’s field or lawn. Repairs will be made, and of course the wind farm firm should be on the hook for these based on prior negotiation with the community so that there is no conflict in rapid resolution and payment.
During construction, there will be jobs for some members of the community. Some will be skilled labor, others will include unskilled labor. There will be multiple, spread-out construction sites for the individual turbines, so there will be lots of work for night security guards for the duration. There will be an uptick in use of local accommodations and local dining and drinking establishments. A fair amount of money will flow into the community during construction.
There will be complaints about the roads, the trees, the noise, any turbidity and the like, but that’s low grade usually, especially if you’ve discussed this with the wind farm company up front and ensured that they will take care of it rapidly and at their expense.
Nonsense opinions and disinformation will continue to fly, and a small subset of your community are likely to work themselves up into a full froth. You’ll get sick of hearing from them. But you’ll need to stay positive and continue to provide factual, neutral information to counter them both in person and on social media.
After the turbines are in and the wind farm is in operation, a lot of the hue and cry will die down. Almost everyone will discover that the turbines aren’t particularly noisy or visible most of the time, that they are widely spread out, that they are far from homes, and that almost every concern was overstated.
Property values won’t decline. Properties with wind turbine leases often will appreciate in value faster than the average, and that may again cause some resentment about the fiscal benefits. All the credible studies using standard mechanisms for assessing property values statistically find this.
A couple of people with bedrooms closer to a wind turbine might complain. Typically the wind farm company will work with them to find a suitable compromise, which has included companies paying for a row of trees, water features which make a little noise, and soundproofing blinds for bedrooms. Shrewd neighbors of yours will find a way to take advantage of this and get free upgrades to their homes. Companies budget for this. And of course this round of upgrades comes with local economic benefits as mostly it’s local people doing the work and getting the money.
If someone gets sick, it will be because they are making themselves sick. They’ll blame pre-existing conditions on the wind farm. They’ll worry themselves into high blood pressure, and then blame the wind farms for the high-blood pressure. They’ll realize that they have tinnitus, and blame that on the wind farm. Some will have read too much of the nonsense and they’ll make themselves mildly sick through the power of suggestion, something called the nocebo effect, which is the opposite of the placebo effect.
But no one will be being made sick by wind turbines placidly turning in the breeze, just by their own minds. How do I know this? Well, I spent years on the subject, reading all of the peer-reviewed health literature, talking with acousticians and public health professionals and writing about it in material such as the court cases study I published. My writing on the subject has ended up in the journal Noise and Health and in books such as Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Communicated Disease by my colleagues and friends Simon Chapman AO Ph.D. FASSA HonFFPH (UK), Emeritus Professor Public Health, School of Public Health, Sydney University and Fiona Crichton, LLB, MSC Hons, Ph.D. Candidate,University of Auckland. Very bright people have been trying to figure out since the mid-2000s why people are blaming wind farms for health issues that they just aren’t causing, and it’s pretty clear that it’s health scares spread by anti-wind groups creating psychosomatic illnesses.
And the money will be flowing into your community. A 115 MW wind farm with 50 turbines means that leases will be bringing $300,000 to $900,000 into the pockets of people in the community that wasn’t there before. A bunch of that money will trickle into the rest of the community. Any community benefits you negotiated for will still be paying dividends.
The wind turbines in operation mostly just sit there, but they need a minimum amount of security, even if it’s just a weekly security inspection by someone to make sure kids haven’t tried to jimmy the locks on the turbine bases.
There will be operational inspection teams through moderately regularly, often with drones these days to inspect the blades and masts. They’ll need to eat and stay somewhere, so more money into the community.
Every year there will be roughly a week of maintenance on the turbines, and that will mean more skilled maintenance people in eating and drinking at the local water holes and staying in the local accommodations.
Some bright sort will probably figure out that a wind farm actually attracts some tourists, and start a sideline bed-and-breakfast aimed at wind farm tours or the like. Once again, the studies show zero negative impact on tourism, so agritourism opportunities just tick up a notch.
The vast majority of opposition to wind farms occurs before they are built. The majority of NIMBYs give up at a certain point. The majority of people who were worried stop worrying once the turbines are just a feature of the neighborhood. There might be a tiny percentage who remain freaked out.
And some mending of fences will need to occur in the community. Wind farms are often somewhat divisive and harsh words are spoken. Some reconciliation and grudge burying will occur. Some will fester, but if it wasn’t the wind farm, it likely would have been something else. Some people just like holding grudges.
After a few years, no one will remember the region without the wind farm. It will be like the old barn on your neighbor’s property or the duck pond, just a part of the scenery. But all the money will keep flowing into your community regardless. And you’ll be part of the solution to our global warming problem.