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Robert FriBack to OpinionRobert Fri

When bad things happen to good windmills

Ask any proponent of alternative energy and you’ll learn that windmills are good. No pollution, no climate change, no oil, free fuel. Who could complain?

Lamar Alexander, for one. He’s the senior senator from Tennessee and he wants no part of windmills in his revered Smoky Mountains. The Kennedy clan and their friends on Cape Cod, for another. They fought the offshore Cape Wind project for years, finally losing but not without a protracted fight. And Alexander and Kennedy are not alone. Many wind energy projects have attracted passionate opposition from community groups that formed spontaneously when a new project loomed. It’s a puzzle that Roopali Phadke, an assistant professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, studies for a living. Her research into the nature of these groups has produced findings that are both surprising and a bit disturbing.

Most of the early opposition arose in the northeastern United States, where population density and land values are high. The opposition there has been successful; few wind energy projects made it to the finish line in this region. This result, along with the impressive wind energy potential in the Intermountain West, has driven most of the newly proposed wind projects westward. At first blush, opposition to wind energy there seems unlikely. There’s plenty of room for everyone, and the energy business should be an old friend in an area rich in oil, natural gas, and especially, coal. Yet it turns out that the American West can push back against wind farms as hard as the Kennedys or Alexanders.

Phadke says it’s not simply the not in my backyard – NIMBY – kneejerk reaction to change that motivates the opposition. Of course, if your backyard happens to be beautiful, then local communities will resist spoiling the view whether it’s in the Smokies or Rockies. But something more may be going on in the American West. Increasingly, people are choosing to live there to enjoy a lifestyle that is natural, unhurried, even pastoral. For them the landscape is an integral part of a way of life, a respite from the bustle of the hectic, globalized world in which most of us live. Folks don’t move into the American West just because the view is beautiful – though it is – but because the landscape cocoons their lifestyle. So, when a wind farm comes along, it’s a cultural threat, not just a blot on the view. The proliferation of wind machines profoundly industrializes the rural landscape.

It doesn’t help that electricity users far away reap most of the benefits of this industrialization. Of course, the place that gets the windmills also gets a few jobs and maybe some cash compensation, although the cash doesn’t necessarily go to the local residents. Still, if the cost is mainly cultural, money isn’t the most important currency. Phadke held a workshop in Wyoming in 2009 where participants convincingly demonstrated the role that cultural values play. The workshop report recorded a perceived “injustice” in the intrusion of huge arrays of wind machines, especially when the power they produced was exported to places considered “over the top,” like Las Vegas.

Renewable energy advocates may be surprised that wind farms aren’t warmly embraced, and may believe that local opposition to wind projects can simply be dismissed as not serving the greater good of green energy. But I suspect Phadke is onto something here. In fact, it sounds familiar, and that’s the disturbing part. The history of the energy business is littered with fine ideas that failed because the technologists and policy wonks were, well, thoughtless. They knew they had a great project and they found the perfect spot to put it. But they forgot to listen to the locals, so the project ground to a halt. Think Yucca Mountain.

The National Academy of Sciences says that renewable energy, much of it wind power, could produce a quarter of our electric energy within 25 years. That won’t happen, though, if every project encounters the resistance that we’ve seen so far. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Social scientists know a lot about how to find ways of siting controversial projects that keep most people happy most of the time. If we really want to transform our energy system into one that’s cleaner and more secure, the “design, build and defend” approach of the past won’t work any better for green technology than it did the first time around. We’ll have to learn how to ask permission.

Robert Fri is a visiting scholar at Resources for the Future, a nonprofit organization that studies natural resource and environmental issues. He has served as director of the National Museum of Natural History, president of Resources for the Future, and deputy administrator of both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Research and Development Administration. Read his full bio.