Increased community engagement and acknowledgement of community concerns are some early steps that can be taken to minimise wind energy disputes.
A new study published in the journal Nature Energy by a collaboration of researchers from Canada has investigated ways in which disputes revolving around the development of wind energy in and near communities can be minimised, or removed altogether. Specifically, the report looked at four major factors which lead to disputes over wind farms — socially mediated health concerns, distribution of financial benefits, a lack of meaningful engagement, and a failure to treat landscape concerns seriously.
The research comprised the work of an expert group consisting of social scientists, a community representative, and a wind industry advocate, who together explored and offered a series of recommendations based on the four key factors they determined were of greatest likelihood to lead to disputes. This has become blatantly obvious in Canada, where the research was focused, following the introduction of a feed-in tariff program in 2009 that has streamlined planning approval, and subsequently heightening the likelihood of community disputes.
Included in the furore surrounding wind energy development is the ever-present concern over wind energy’s impact on health. A number of studies over the past several years have gone a long way to academically disproving the possibility that wind turbines have any impact on human health.
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A study published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2014 found that living in close proximity to wind farms does not harm human health.
“No clear or consistent association is seen between noise from wind turbines and any reported disease or other indicator of harm to human health,” the MIT study reports, which investigated health effects such as stress, annoyance, sleep disturbance, amongst others, and found that infrasound and low-frequency sound did not present unique health risks.
Nevertheless, concerns have remained.
The Nature Energy study does not delve into “a comprehensive review of the scientific and medical literature on the potential health concerns associated with living in proximity to wind projects” as such a review “is not the purpose” of the study. However, the researchers did point to the possibility that there are social factors which result in health issues, that some nevertheless directly correlate to the turbines themselves.
“There has been debate over whether reported negative health outcomes in nearby residents are valid,” said Tanya Christidis, a PhD researcher at Waterloo’s School of Planning, who contributed to the study by looking specifically at the health impacts section in the publication.
According to one report, “those that expect to get sick from wind turbine noise will become ill largely because of the expectation itself.” Another study mentioned in the Nature Energy report “Takes a different approach by showing how disputes over wind projects can exacerbate psychological health problems through social processes such as intra-community conflict.”
“Regardless of whether or not people are sick from wind turbine noise or from social factors they deserve to be acknowledged if renewables are going to become a key part of our future energy mix,” added Christidis.
Beyond the ever-present concerns about health, the study looked at and provided recommendations for three other factors likely to result in community disputes — distribution of financial benefits, a lack of meaningful engagement, and a failure to treat landscape concerns seriously.
Province governments should mandate more community-level decision-making and ownership of wind energy projects, so as to mitigate the concerns of community members who feel that the distribution of financial benefits is unfair. This recommendation obviously leaks into the third issue, with the authors advocating for much more meaningful engagement from local governments, as well as increased transparency surrounding the development process.
The authors of the study also believe that there needs to be greater consideration given to the environmental impacts, those issues impacting the landscape, and in particular the changes to cultural landscapes of areas with wind energy development. Beyond simply whether wind turbines are aesthetically pleasing or not — one report found that 40% living close to wind turbines found them pleasing, while 40% found them unappealing — the findings of the report were that “impacts on cultural heritage landscapes are either dealt with in a perfunctory manner or are simply ignored.” In the end, simply caring enough to engage with the community, involve them in the process, and take into account cultural landscape concerns minimises many issues.
“Designing renewable energy policy should involve steps of learning and experimentation,” the authors conclude. “Choices over procurement instruments and permitting/approval approaches should routinely be examined in light of new evidence and changing circumstances.
“We expect that policy-makers in other jurisdictions seeking to expand wind-generated electricity will face similar issues, and may benefit from our preceding recommendations,” they continued, before conceding defeat by admitting that “many of our recommendations will unfortunately remain unaddressed, without further consideration or assessment of the lessons that could be learned.”