A new paper examines how pervasive wind energy opposition is in North America and the predictors of this resistance. It comes to some provocative conclusions, including this: Much of the local pushback comes from predominantly white, wealthy residents at the expense of minority communities who are more likely to live near fossil fuel plants that emit dangerous amounts of pollution.
Inside Climate News has written a lot about local opposition to energy projects, including our 2022 series about resistance to solar power in Ohio, and our story this year about an Illinois law that reduces local governments’ power to kill projects.
So, does the paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, agree with what ICN has found? In some ways, yes. In others, no.
First, let’s hear from one of the co-authors, Jessica Lovering, co-founder of the nonprofit Good Energy Collective, an organization whose mission is to “build a progressive case for nuclear energy.”
“The wealthy and whiter communities have both the resources in terms of money but also the political power in a lot of these communities,” she said. “They’re the ones that can show up to town hall meetings to protest a project.”
With a few exceptions, much of the existing scientific literature that examines opposition to clean energy development is based on individual regional or case studies, she said. These are helpful when understanding the context and nuances in specific communities, but don’t provide a full picture of the national situation.
The authors compiled a list of completed wind projects from government databases. They then pulled demographic data and news articles published between 2000 and 2016 that covered those projects and matched the news articles to each wind farm. Undergraduate students then combed through thousands of articles and recorded if people opposed the projects and how they expressed their disapproval, with methods such as protests, letters to the editor, legislation and legal challenges.
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Lovering said that given the lack of a comprehensive data set, they choose to use newspaper articles because “there’s no other way to do it.” Other methods such as surveys are very time intensive, and ideally researchers would send them out before developers start the project.
The larger point, that resistance to wind energy is growing, is in line with what we’ve seen and reported. This increase in pushback to wind farm development makes sense, considering the growth in the number and size of projects.
But the paper’s decision to frame these conflicts in racial terms is making a point that exists only at the margins of our reporting. Race was a factor in some projects, but it was a small one. To be fair, though, our observations were anecdotal, since we weren’t attempting to look at the entirety of resistance to projects the way the paper does.
For example, the resistance to a solar project near Lima, Ohio, which Dan Gearino wrote about last November, was a case of mostly white residents in a rural township outside of Lima opposing a project in their midst, while the communities of color lived in highly polluted neighborhoods just over the border in the city.
The conflict in Lima could be framed in racial terms, but there were many other factors that mattered more to the debate and had more of an effect on the outcome. The most active opponents and supporters of the project were affluent and white. The big difference was that the opponents had close ties to Republican officials who had prominent roles in local and state government.
However, the PNAS study found that in the U.S., partisanship wasn’t associated with opposition to wind energy projects, a finding that Lovering said was “surprising.”
But across the border in Canada, areas with less liberal support experienced more opposition.
I spoke with two other leading researchers who study opposition to renewable energy to see what they make of the new paper.
Sarah Mills of the University of Michigan and Doug Bessette of Michigan State University say they question whether an analysis of newspaper articles is going to be thorough and accurate enough in determining national trends.
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“We have seen that many local newspapers are biased,” Bessette said. “A lot of times multiple articles will be written by a single journalist who has a particular perspective. So relying on that as a data source can be problematic.”
Aside from questions of bias, some of the rural areas that are likely to host wind projects have no newspaper or have a paper that is so thinly staffed that it may not be providing a reliable view of what’s happening.
Also, affluent rural areas—most of which are predominately white—are probably more likely to be able to support a newspaper.
Mills said using news articles as data points has been done before in this field. In fact, a smaller regional study used news articles as a means of collecting data and found that most projects in the study area didn’t experience intense opposition.
Mills also pointed out that while the correlation between a higher percentage of white people and wind energy opposition exists, it’s not actually significant when applying a statistical method that controls for other factors. Instead, data show it’s a higher percentage of a Hispanic population that drives lower opposition.
“It’s Hispanic that shows up as being influential in reducing opposition, but white itself is not statistically significant in the regression once you control for the other things,” Mills said.
And opposition from residents isn’t the only reason wind projects shut down. So placing all the blame on the community members ignores other players, such as policy makers, developers and utilities, Bessette said.
“So that portrayal of it all being the responsibility of residents contributes to what I think is this kind of more common and frankly, a pejorative NIMBY explanation for opposition,” he said.
Mills points out that white, wealthy residents often own the most land in these communities, meaning they benefit the most financially from wind development projects.
Also, just because communities of color aren’t showing up at meetings, holding protests and taking legal action doesn’t mean they support these projects, Bessette said.
Lovering acknowledges that the drivers of wind energy opposition are nuanced. But it’s important to note, she said, that opposition movements, where protesters are more likely to be white, have a major effect on the local litigation and legislation regarding clean energy development and the outcomes of these projects.
That’s something that just about everyone who has studied this subject can agree about.
Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:
Ford CEO Says UAW Is ‘Holding the Deal Hostage’ Over EV Battery Plants: Ford CEO Jim Farley has said the United Auto Workers union is holding up negotiations that might end a strike because the union is insisting on discussing side issues about battery joint ventures. The criticism of union leadership is notable because Ford is often regarded as the most union-friendly of the three major automakers in the Detroit area, as Michael Wayland and John Rosevear report for CNBC. Union leaders have concerns that the shift to EVs will harm pay and benefits for workers, and many of those jobs are at new joint ventures between automakers and battery companies that are not covered by existing union contracts.
RMI Report Says EVs Could Reach 86 Percent of Global Vehicle Sales by 2030: A drop in the costs of electric vehicle batteries, plus a shift by automakers to focus on electric models will lead to a swift shift in the market, to the point that global market share of EVs could reach 86 percent by 2030, according to a report from RMI. Eric Walz wrote for Utility Dive about the report and some of the market factors that are leading analysts to predict such a dramatic shift.
California Takes Big First Step Toward Floating Offshore Wind: California state lawmakers have passed a bill that would require the state to buy electricity from offshore wind farms being planned for the state’s waters. The legislation is an important step toward developing floating wind turbines, a kind of turbine that would be needed in California’s deep waters, as Jeff St. John reports for Canary Media.
Massachusetts Can Expand Solar Without Chopping So Much Forest: A new analysis from Harvard Forest and Mass Audubon finds that the forest loss from building solar power projects in Massachusetts has resulted in annual emissions equivalent to those of 112,000 passenger cars. The report also suggests methods of developing solar that can preserve forests and other vital habitats, as Barbara Moran reports for WBUR. “We can do the solar that we need, and we can hold on to a lot of the nature and working lands,” said Michelle Manion, vice president of policy and advocacy at Mass Audubon.
A Minnesota Native American Community Takes Steps Toward a Green Future: Prairie Island Indian Community is celebrating some of the initial steps of a push for net-zero emissions, as Gustav DeMars reports for Sahan Journal. About two years after its inception, the project in southeastern Minnesota features a solar farm and geothermal energy wells and plans to reduce energy consumption. Prairie Island has an interesting history with energy, as it’s located next to a nuclear power plant and often critical of that plant. While some of the community’s clean energy plans were in motion before the Inflation Reduction Act, there are provisions in the federal law that are trying to encourage just this kind of investment by tribal governments.’
Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition; Lydia Larsen is filling in this week for Dan Gearino. Send news tips and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.