People who actually live near operating wind farms see them as better neighbours than fossil, nuclear, or solar plants, even if they’re located in U.S. coal country, according to a new study in the journal Nature.
Researchers Jeremy Firestone and Hannah Kirk based that assessment on publicly-available data from a 2016 survey of 1,705 people living within five miles of at least one commercial-scale wind turbine, conducted by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
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“Research on people’s acceptance of wind power, they write, usually frames the question as being a choice between wind power or no wind power,” ArsTechnica reports. “But that’s unrealistic: society needs to generate electricity somehow, so they argue that the real question should be ‘whether society should generate electricity by wind or from some other source.’”
And that question yielded a very different result.
“Around 90% of the respondents said they would prefer their local wind farm to a hypothetical nuclear, coal, or natural gas plant at the same distance from their homes,” ArsTechnica notes. “There was even a preference for wind over solar power, although that was less stark—around a third of respondents had no real preference, 15% said they would prefer solar power, and 45% said they were happier with wind power.”
The result held true across a politically polarized United States, regardless of demographic, the news story adds. “Across urban and rural areas, red and blue states, states that produce coal and those that don’t, people overwhelmingly preferred wind power. This held true even for the people who lived closest to the actual turbines, sometimes just around half a mile away from one. And this wasn’t just a case of people begrudgingly choosing the option they’d hate the least: on average, people had positive attitudes to their local wind farms.”
Firestone and Kirk considered the possibility that survey respondents were just more comfortable with a familiar technology if they’d spent longer living near a wind installation. But they found no correlation between the Lawrence Berkeley research results and respondents’ technology preferences.
“There’s another, thornier issue, which is that existing turbines might generally be installed near communities precisely because those communities were supportive,” ArsTechnica notes. “To understand the dynamics at play here, ideally you’d need to compare attitudes between people who live near turbines and those who don’t—as well as attitudes in a community before turbines are installed, and again after those same people have lived with the turbines for a while. Getting a handle on this would be important for understanding support for solar power, too.” But Firestone and Kirk still point to the much larger volume of research that has been conducted on wind power opponents, as opposed to supporters. While it makes sense to try to understand the opposition and work toward solutions, “turning the focus onto people who are happy with their local wind farms could pave the way to building more projects that are strongly supported by their local communities,” the news summary concludes.