Understanding the public love-hate relationship with wind power

Andrew Tunnicliffe 2 March 2020 (Last Updated February 27th, 2020 15:43)

The public perception of wind power has shifted over the last four decades but understanding why that is has been a major challenge. We look back at how public concerns have shaped the sector and how they can be addressed.

Understanding the public love-hate relationship with wind power
“A consistent 70–80% of people are in favour” of wind power, according to Maxime Ollic. Credit: Rehman Abubakr

“The tranquillity and natural beauty of this area has been ruined by the ever-increasing number of windfarms being created.” It’s a story you hear over and over, how wind turbines have blighted what residents say was once their picturesque vista. That particular statement belongs to a resident of Cullion in Northern Ireland. Speaking with the Derry Journal, Amanda Buchanan said people had had enough of wind turbines and the “blot on the landscape” they had become.

She’s just one of many who take issue with the siting of windfarms in their community. Perhaps it’s hardly surprising, considering by the end of 2016 the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) estimated there were 341,000 wind turbines operational globally. Newer numbers are hard to pin down but it’s safe to say the number has risen dramatically since.

The evolution of the wind Nimby

The GWEC’s 2018 Global Wind Report (April 2019) concluded installed capacity had increased by 51.3GW, in line with year-on-year growth since 2014. Given wind turbines are generally 3MW according to WindEurope, that is a lot of additional turbines. It stands to reason that, on occasion, windfarms and local communities will collide.

In the 1980s, however, opposition to such installations was rife. The decade singled the beginning of wind power on a mass scale, with the opening of the Crotched Mountain facility in the US in 1980. Just 11 years later and the opening of a farm off the coast of Denmark heralded the introduction of offshore power. At the time, the term “Nimby” (“not in my backyard”), or someone opposed on spurious, selfish grounds, became commonplace when speaking about siting new windfarms.

Today, the relationship between windfarms and communities remains fractious, at least in some parts of the world. At the end of 2019, a rash of stories about the “wildly unpopular” windfarms in Germany hit the headlines. Bloomberg reported the construction of “giant windmills” across the country had “all but ground to a halt”, in part thanks to local opposition.

However, it’s not a view shared by Maxime Oillic of industry body WindEurope. “Opinion polls show that the public across Europe is very supportive of wind energy. A consistent 70–80% of people are in favour,” he says. However he accepts there is likely a difference in attitudes towards wind power in general and windfarms in particular.

“The attitudes of people living near windfarms are complex as they’re also influenced by local needs, personal factors and emotional attachments to a place. But even then, recent polls conducted among those who live near windfarms and in rural areas in countries like Germany, France or Ireland show very high levels of support,” he continues.

Wind projects face an uphill battle

Despite this, the recent German experience appears to suggest attitudes are increasingly far less favourable. Bloomberg’s article reported that over the last two or so years, the number of new turbines had fallen significantly. It said just 35 turbines were installed during the first half of 2019, down 82% from the first half of 2018. It should be noted however that this is not just the result of public pressure, permitting issues and other burdens have contributed.

Proposed wind projects are increasingly bogged down in the courts. The country’s industry association, BWE, said in 2019 that 325 installations were being held up. Plaintiffs cite, quite ironically, environmental considerations as well as issues of noise and their potential to disrupt communications.

Local authorities too have begun to implement regulations which make it more difficult to obtain permits and then produce power cost effectively. For a country which prides itself on its use of renewables – where almost a quarter (23.5%) of power generation in 2019 was wind – the news was likely a hard pill to swallow.

Germany is not alone. The UK, where in 2019 renewable power overtook fossil fuels in the amount of electricity generated for the first time, has itself been contending with a public image issue. Recently, politicians have urged the government to roll back a decision taken by then prime minister David Cameron to cut subsidies. Declaring some were “frankly fed up” with onshore wind, his move in 2015 resulted in a dramatic fall in the number of new installations, dropping by 80% a year according to some figures.

Global enthusiasm continues apace despite concerns

Events in Germany and the UK, when compared with the opinion polls Oillic talks of, could leave even the most unprejudiced scratching their heads. So is wind as popular today as it previously has been?

“Public support for wind energy has been consistent over the years. People understand and recognise the benefits of renewable energy such as wind,” says Oillic. This, he adds, can only grow as our understanding of the damage climate change continues to wreak becomes more evident. As younger generations find their voice on the matter and pressure increases on governments to act, the use of wind power will grow further.

Despite the concerns, some the global enthusiasm for wind continues apace. Costs have fallen significantly, making the energy source one of, if not the, cheapest options today. “And the maturity of technologies like wind has shown that they are credible alternatives to non-renewable energy sources,” says Oillic.

Such advances are a positive development for those unhappy with the prospect of having windfarms in their back yards. The International Energy Agency predicts by around 2040, offshore wind will become the largest source of electricity. “Although onshore will continue to be the largest in terms of capacity, offshore will be increasing a lot in the coming years,” says Oillic, suggesting developers may be able to construct off coast more easily, mitigating onshore community concerns.

Although this can’t be taken for granted, as the now defunct Cape Wind Project attests. First mooted in 2001, the project quickly attracted scorn from residents. Together with other parties, they managed to delay the project for more than a decade before a final decision was taken to pull the plug.

Wind – the future of the world’s power

It’s fair to say that historically the appetite for wind power has fluctuated, much like the natural phenomenon itself. However, in recent years it has played an ever-increasing roll in the energy mix of many industrialised and even developing nations. Aside from offering cleaner, more sustainable power it also has an economic benefit according to Oillic. “The wind industry employs more than 300,000 people in Europe and exports €8bn worth of high-tech equipment outside the EU each year,” he says.

As governments look to step up their efforts to attain net-zero carbon targets by the middle of the century – earlier in some cases – wind power will become even more critical. Accepting meeting those goals is “technically and economically feasible”, Oillic offers caution: “The energy transition requires major planning and investment in grids, storage, clean mobility solutions and infrastructures fit for a decarbonised economy.”

He adds the process to obtain a permit for new windfarms in Europe is “still too long and in certain countries it’s taking even longer than before”. As the situation in Germany suggests, projects are prone to ending up “stuck in the permitting pipeline”, something he says needs addressing.

Whatever the future might hold, some things are easy to predict: year-on-year growth will continue for the foreseeable future, big energy companies will continue to pour cash into research and development, and more communities will oppose farms for a myriad of reasons.

For Oillic, there is one critical piece of advice when addressing the latter: “The direct involvement of local communities in wind projects is key to keeping levels of support high. Windfarms create local jobs, contribute to improving the lives of residents through taxes paid to the local municipality and direct benefits, while giving further momentum to rural and peripheral areas.” Now, arguably, it’s simply a case of getting that message out, and heard.