Varied interests in the energy and power sector viz., CDM, carbon rating, Monitoring & Evaluation, Energy Management, Rural Development; Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy related matters; Demand Side Management (DSM), Energy Audits, Distributed Power Generation (Biomass, Wind,Solar and Small Hydro), Participatory Management.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

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The Case for Early and Engaged Public Outreach for Wind farms!

They're Saying What About Wind Farms? The Case for Early and Engaged Public Outreach

Steven Sullivan
Co-Founder
GEOS Global, LLC
Marion Trieste
Co-Founder
GEOS Global, LLC
Peruse a magazine, turn on the television or surf the web and it's likely you'll see them: wind turbines used as a sign of progressive thinking in everything from banking ads to car commercials. National surveys show overwhelming public support for increasing wind power. Governments are demanding utilities obtain more of their power from renewables. Yet spend time on the ground actually working to get wind farms permitted -- as we do -- and you see a different picture emerge.

At a local public hearing we attended not long ago on whether to permit a proposed wind farm in upstate New York, a woman stood up and related the following story. She said that she had recently attended a public forum where a man from the Midwest had stood up and told how a dairy farmer he knew had agreed to have a wind turbine sited on his land. He said that the farmer had originally been very supportive of wind power, but that after the turbine was commissioned, he noticed that his cow's milk production had dried up.

At the same time, this farmer's elderly father, who lived with him, developed symptoms associated with Parkinson's disease. Angered at this dual misfortune, and positive it was the turbine's fault, the farmer grabbed his ax and went outside and chopped in two the line that carried the turbine's electrical energy to the power grid. To his great relief, the man reported, the farmer found that cutting off the turbine caused his cows to produce again and his father's Parkinson's symptoms to nearly completely subside.

Not to be trifled with, the man said, the wind energy company that was originally so friendly to the farmer, brought him to court and forced him to allow the power line to be re-connected to the turbine. At this, the farmer's father's symptoms returned and his cow stopped giving milk. It was a tragic story. The woman who related all of this concluded by saying that this episode was but a glimpse of what was to come if the town approved the proposed wind farm before them.

What seems like an outrageous story morphed through the repeated telling not dissimilar from the children's game "telephone," is in fact the type of misinformation we hear more and more often these days at project permitting events. Seeing nodding heads at these types of tall tales can be sobering when you are trying to get a wind farm sited.

Another disturbing development in the field is a soon to be released book self-published by a pediatrician who posits to scientifically expose the evils of wind farms. While the book claims to be 'peer reviewed' by other doctors, the book is more anecdotal than scientific in nature. A quick review of the 'research' by anyone with even minimal familiarity with statistics or medical research reveals that no base case was established, no causality between wind farms and any health risks is proven, and the area 'studied' falls outside the training of the author and the expertise of the peer reviewers. Notwithstanding this lack of scientific rigor, stories about the forthcoming work are already appearing in the news media across the country and giving people pause about supporting wind projects near them.

Mark Twain once observed: a lie makes it halfway around the world before the truth has time to put its pants on. As public outreach professionals who have worked on siting more than a dozen wind power projects since 2003, we are increasingly witnessing rumors and misinformation such as referenced above winning the race of public opinion and stunting or killing the development of many wind farms. Aside from tight financing markets and unavailability of turbines, public opposition based on misinformation is clearly one of the major fatal flaws facing wind farm developers today.

Even more troubling than the random individuals who parrot bad information, is a growing national cadre of organized, technologically savvy, anti-wind organizations who amplify and disseminate misinformation to meet their own agenda of preventing the development of wind power. Wind power opponents have networked over the years to achieve an anti-wind power "movement" and appear nationwide at symposiums on wind power. Their voice pressures town boards to oppose projects.

President Obama has called for a doubling of U.S. renewable energy production within the next three years. However, despite the many benefits of wind power, people still have many misconceptions, ranging from wildlife impacts to human health issues which have been spread by the anti-wind groups. Confounding the problem is the fact that most people have very little understanding of how we get our electrical power today and what the impacts are from traditional means of electric generation. This emerging dynamic of individuals and groups opposing wind farm development, and public misunderstanding about the benefits and impacts of wind power, is the Achilles heel which could cause us to stumble in our renewable energy mission.

Many of the easiest sites for projects have been 'picked over' and now developers must further penetrate areas that are either remote and face transmission challenges, or are relatively densely populated and face siting opposition. So how are we to achieve our aggressive goals of siting another 20,000 megawatts of wind power during the next three years when available locations dictate that wind farms will need to be sited closer and closer to populated areas? The answer is early and intensive outreach and education programs.

In many instances, how a developer communicates with the public most directly impacted by a wind farm will make or break the success of that project. This is particularly true in most of the highly populated regions of the country. Based upon our experience in the field with wind farm development, we have distilled the following principles on which effective outreach efforts must be built.

  • Start Outreach and Education Efforts Early Within the Development Process. New ideas and technology take time for people to synthesize and digest. Commencing outreach and education efforts early within the development cycle significantly increases the odds of public support for a project.

  • The Public Must Be Educated about Electric Systems. It's hard to convince people that renewable energy is superior when people don't even understand potential drawbacks of our current energy system. It is imperative to proactively educate people on the basics of electricity, and sources of power before discussing the economic, energy and environmental benefits a project offers a community.

  • Describing Life Cycle Impact of Energy Sources Generates Enthusiasm for Green Power. Here is where the public receives education on efficiency, climate change, extraction costs, and energy security. Engaging public health and environmental professionals is the best way to highlight the effect of different energy generating activities on local habitat and well being. After fostering trust, conversations around energy security and the long term benefits of renewable power projects on a town's economy have a greater impact.

  • Myth Debunking. Often the reasons communities are resistant to host renewable energy facilities are based on rumor and not fact. Common objections include the perception that the intermittency of a power source requires the addition of an equivalent amount of dispatchable back-up generation to the grid. The threat to birds is a common fear that is often grossly exaggerated. However, overcoming these barriers is necessary to gain traction on the benefits including raising the economic base of a town, providing school tax revenue, saving local farms and even preserving property values.

  • Public Awareness and Educational Efforts Must Utilize Local Advocates. Engaging local stakeholders from the bottom up increases attendance at and the efficacy of outreach efforts including bus tours, open houses and public education forums. Key success factors for grassroots outreach hinge on identifying local advocates early on and empowering them to foster support.


--
Gopinath S
Bangalore
+91 99161 29728

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