All’s fair in love and WAR: The conduct of Wind Acceptance Research (WAR) in the United States and Canada

Energy Research & Social Science, Vol. 88, June 2022

Co-authored with Jessie Crawford MSc., MSU CSUS

The number of studies examining social acceptance of wind energy in the United States and Canada has increased considerably since the 1980s. Here we conduct a methodological review of wind acceptance research (WAR) literature in response to four articles published in this journal. These include a recent synthesis of WAR by Rand and Hoen in 2017 recommending better incorporation of results into development practices and comparability of case studies; a 2020 investigation by Walsh and colleagues into potential research fatigue in unconventional oil and gas development research, and finally calls by Sovacool and others in 2014 and 2018 to increase the theoretical depth and reflection in energy social science. Using a systematic review of 114 WAR articles and an online survey of 41 corresponding authors, we investigate the location of WAR study sites, the success of different WAR designs and incentives, the disciplines and theories dominating WAR, and finally dissemination practices. Our results show that, outside national surveys, WAR is geographically concentrated in regions distant from the highest installed capacity and focus on projects that are novel, controversial, or unique to a specific region. We find little support for research fatigue. Additionally, most WAR lacks an underlying theory. We conclude by recommending greater qualitative analysis of study site selection criteria and greater integration of existing WAR theories and WAR with solar acceptance research. Finally, we urge scholars to ensure and communicate a clear purpose, value and financial benefit to WAR participants and meaningfully consider the broader community contexts examined.

PhD Student/Research Assistant in Community-Centered Large-Scale Solar Energy: Fully Funded!

The Energy Values Lab in the Department of Community Sustainability (CSUS) at Michigan State University seeks one highly motivated PhD student to begin study in Spring or Fall 2022 and assist with a new research project focusing on community-centered large-scale solar development in the US. This project will involve conducting case studies and interviews in existing large-scale solar communities, assisting with surveys, classifying large-scale solar sites, and analyzing and disseminating data. The research will be both quantitative and qualitative and will incorporate a community-based participatory research (CBPR) and structured decision-making (SDM) approach.

CSUS is an interdisciplinary department that addresses contemporary issues of sustainability in agriculture, recreation, natural resources, energy, and the environment. Consistent with its mission to assist in the development of sustainable communities, the department offers offers two graduate majors: Community Sustainability (MS and PhD) and Sustainable Tourism and Protected Areas Management (MS and PhD). In both graduate programs, CSUS embraces international as well as domestic applications, engagement, and opportunities.

Please email Asst Professor Doug Bessette for more information about this position:

Please apply here. The application period opens September 1, 2021.

Understanding Socio-Technological Systems Change through an Indigenous Community-Based Participatory Framework

Moving toward a sustainable global society requires substantial change in both social and technological systems. This sustainability is dependent not only on addressing the environmental impacts of current social and technological systems, but also on addressing the social, economic and political harms that continue to be perpetuated through systematic forms of oppression and the exclusion of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. To adequately identify and address these harms, we argue that scientists, practitioners, and communities need a transdisciplinary framework that integrates multiple types of knowledge, in particular, Indigenous and experiential knowledge. Indigenous knowledge systems embrace relationality and reciprocity rather than extraction and oppression, and experiential knowledge grounds transition priorities in lived experiences rather than expert assessments. Here, we demonstrate how an Indigenous, experiential, and community-based participatory framework for understanding and advancing socio-technological system transitions can facilitate the co-design and co-development of community-owned energy systems.

Tracking Renewable Energy Values, Benefits, and Concerns in Michigan: In the Media and at Public Meetings

Prepared for the Michigan Energy Office Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy

This report identifies the most commonly mentioned values, benefits, and concerns associated with utility-scale wind and solar development projects, as identified over the course of a 3-month pilot project in the State of Michigan (MI). Bessette and DePew attended 11 public meetings and conducted an in-depth content analysis of over 200 print and online Michigan news media articles associated with wind or solar development in the state. As such, the values and beliefs reported here are associated specifically with 11 solar projects and 16 wind projects1, each at different stages of development across the state. While all of the public meetings we attended occurred during the Summer of 2019—with the exception of one meeting for which we reviewed its transcript (in Kent County: 4/23/19), the news articles reported on here predominantly span the last two years (2018-2019). Due to the short duration of this project, the results described herein are not intended to be representative, but are instead intended to serve as a meaningful sample of the values and concerns held by residents experiencing wind and solar farm development in their communities.

It is our recommendation that efforts be taken to meaningfully address the values and concerns reported on here in current and future wind and solar development processes in Michigan. In particular, we recommend translating these results into a community-specific and resident-focused guidebook entitled, What you need to know about wind and/or solar development in your community.” Such a guidebook could be made available online or for print and distribution at public meetings or by local officials and renewable developers.

Addressing these concerns may be especially important in MI as development of utility-scale wind and solar energy systems is often quite contentious, perhaps more so than in other Midwestern states. At public meetings, across social media, and in the popular press, MI residents and representatives often laud renewables as a panacea or stamp them as a menace. Often these arguments are informed by or speak directly to individuals’ deeply held values, beliefs, and fears about either renewable energy in general or the specific impacts that may be associated with local projects.

These values and concerns are sometimes informed by, but not always supported by, the results of technical analyses or economic projections. This type of affect-rich, heavily value- laden, debate is not uncommon in the public policy sphere and is critical for unearthing and articulating individuals’ and communities’ most important values and objectives (Arvai, Gregory et al. 2012). A rigorous accounting of these articulated values ultimately allows for a more accurate and explicit analysis of tradeoffs, and hopefully more value-focused and value- consistent policy development and decision-making processes (Bessette, Wilson et al. 2019).

The perceived risk of the Line 5 Pipeline and spills under ice

Using the psychometric paradigm of risk in conjunction with surveys of the Michigan public (n = 638) and a regional planning organization (n = 65), we examine the perceived risk and concerns associated with underwater oil pipelines, the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline in particular, and oil spills under ice. The fate of Line 5 is heavily debated in Michigan, specifically the portion that traverses the Straits of Mackinac, which can be ice-covered for months. Scant literature examines how individuals perceive the risk associated with Line 5, its alternatives, or potential spills in open water or under ice. Here we identify considerable concern regarding both the pipeline and the potential for spills under ice on behalf of the public, and increased concern about spills under ice on behalf of the planning organization. Organization members’ concerns are significantly predicted by beliefs about the difficulty in remediating spills, however not by beliefs about spills’ likelihood, difficulty in detection, noticeability, or consequences. Our results identify the need to better examine and communicate the risks associated with underwater pipelines and spills, both in open water and under ice, as well as options for remediating oil captured under ice. Furthermore, we recommend the adoption of decision-making and risk governance processes that explicitly expand analysis of the social, economic and environmental tradeoffs of underwater pipelines such as Line 5.

Farmers vs. Lakers: Agriculture, amenity, and community in predicting opposition to United States wind energy development

Utility-scale wind energy is now the largest source of renewable electricity in the US. Wind energy’s continued growth remains contingent upon finding adequate resource potential and transmission capacity, along with communities willing to host turbines. While previous research on the social acceptance of wind has relied predominantly on case studies, resident surveys, and reviews of development practices and strategies, here we use a new method. We use a wind contention survey of energy professionals (n = 46) to assess the contention associated with 69 existing wind farms in four US Midwest states and identify underlying characteristics, i.e., agricultural, land-use, and demographic characteristics, that may have predisposed communities to either support or oppose wind farm development. We then use publicly available data to parameterize and model those characteristics using wind farm contention as our dependent variable. Our analysis shows that a greater proportion of production-oriented farming and fewer natural amenities in a community are associated with reduced opposition to wind farm development. Additionally, and perhaps counterintuitively, communities with a greater percentage of residents that voted Republican in the 2016 Presidential election demonstrate less opposition. Rather than negating the need for employing best practices in community engagement, stakeholder development, and participatory decision-making processes, this study can help prepare developers for the type of reception that might await them in potential host communities.

The promise and reality of social and cultural metrics

In addition to evaluating the economic, ecological, and health impacts of major public policy initiatives, impact assessments typically also need to identify and evaluate an action’s social and cultural (S/C) impacts. A wide range of S/C metrics have been suggested, and guidelines exist to help ensure their thoughtful and comprehensive development. Nevertheless, many of the S/C concerns identified as part of impact assessments remain vague, are difficult to measure or understand, and are more closely attuned to existing data than to concerns expressed by stakeholders or residents of Indigenous communities. Furthermore, S/C impacts are often deemphasized or, in some cases, outright ignored during project generation and as part of final decisions made by elected officials. Here, we examine the promise of well-designed S/C metrics and contrast it with the reality of how they are commonly deployed, with specific reference to four case studies in North America: municipal planning decisions in Oregon, wildlife decisions in Ohio, renewable energy decisions in Michigan, and pipeline decisions in the western United States and Canada. We argue the importance of moving beyond assessment to decision making, pointing out five reasons why critical S/C impacts are often neglected, and presenting recommendations for the design of clearer, more comprehensive metrics that will contribute to more socially responsive policy choices.

For more visit Ecology & Society; our paper is open-access.