Facilitating Wind Energy Siting: A List of "Do's and Don'ts"

April 14, 2011

Recently, CBI and Raab Associates, Ltd., with support from the U.S. Department of Energy, brought together more than 100 wind developers, state regulators, environmentalists, local officials, and technical experts to share ideas about how to site wind energy facilities.

The Facilitating Wind Energy Siting workshop, held at Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts enabled advocates, opponents, and experts to engage in three days of constructive discussion about the "right way" and the "wrong way" to go about siting wind energy facilities. Recognizing that it can even be extremely difficult to win approval to build even a single wind turbine in an unpopulated area, the workshop surfaced the following practical list of "do's and don'ts".

Here’s what not to do:

  • Don’t tout the national or global benefits of wind energy when people care about how decisions affect them locally. Greenhouse gas reductions and increased independence from foreign oil sound good in the abstract, but they don’t offset adverse local effects.
  • Don't surprise people and announce plans to build something without giving everyone in the area a chance to say whether and how a project should be built. It's better to have several siting choices ready to go, rather than just one.
  • Don't build wind turbines too close to the nearest abutters. Adequate buffers make for good neighbors.
  • Don't tell people that wind farms will be so quiet they won't hear anything. Human perception of noise is a complex and idiosyncratic phenomenon.
  • Don't be afraid to talk about the ways in which the profits from a wind energy plant might be shared with the community. Joint ventures are easier to negotiate than hostile takeovers, and some of the public may see land development for energy as the latter.
  • Don't presume that 100% of the people in an area will accept a proposed wind energy facility just because it meets all federal, state, and local guidelines. Some people don't like change of any kind, regardless of the benefits that might be created. Some might view themselves as particularly adversely affected (a vista disrupted, nighttime sleep disturbed, etc.).
  • Don’t assume the media will necessarily cover the "whole" story and present all viewpoints. A few angry, upset, media-savvy citizens on a mission can dominate the narrative and drown out a large majority of the silent public.

Here are some things to do:

  • Do find a way to involve all the relevant stakeholders in discussions about when, where, and how to build and operate wind plants. Consider using a skilled, neutral facilitator without an agenda to manage these conversations.
  • Do consider contingent agreements, for instance, consider an insurance policy to compensate those who live near a proposed facility for any measurable decline in property values caused by the wind development. It is possible to buy "property value insurance" to ensure that no one suffers any losses.
  • Do realize that everyone reacts differently to noise and visual impacts. That doesn’t mean they are wrong or crazy. It does mean they have different opinions, views, and experiences.
  • Do engage in joint fact finding so that all sides have a chance to frame the questions that they want to have answered. Let them help select experts they trust to provide good technical advice. Avoid the "dueling experts syndrome" which will be great for well-paid consultants, but won’t necessarily produce credible, trusted information.
  • Do realize that hundreds of wind farms have been built across America (and in other parts of the world) and that past experience can be instructive, both in the positive and the negative. One small, failed development can affect the public’s view across an entire region.
  • Do realize that there are risks and benefits associated with any technology, and that the job of elected and appointed officials is to reduce risk and ensure that benefits are shared, not to gloss over the negative impacts and assert that there are no risks.
  • Do encourage states to involve the public in formulating state wind policies. Battles over specific sites and projects do not add up to general policies about where, when, and how to encourage the construction of wind energy plants. Pre-approval of certain kinds of sites, set-back and noise requirements, aesthetic and environmental protection rules, community benefit agreements, and monitoring provisions can help to avoid the need to address each of these questions over and over again at every site.

In our view, the traditional "town meeting" or "hearings" approach to energy facility siting rarely leads to informed agreement. Stakeholders learn little at raucous public meetings other than who is mad, to what degree, and at whom. Local media are often not willing or able to interpret and disseminate critical background information that would allow people to make informed decisions.

To encourage reasoned debate and non-partisan information sharing, communities – citizens, town officials, elected officials, agencies – need to engage in carefully managed problem-solving. Professionally facilitated stakeholder engagement, involving professional intermediaries chosen by the stakeholder, ensures an even playing field where such informal problem solving is possible. Robust public engagement should take advantage of all the communication tools of the modern age (the web, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc.).

We feel that the "Facility Siting Credo" summarizes the best way to ensure a fair, efficient, and wise outcome in wind energy siting.” The Credo, prepared by the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program, has been carefully tested in hundreds of siting disputes. New Models for Consensus Building and Acceleration of Large-Scale Energy Infrastructure Projects", co-authored with Jonathan Raab of Raab Associates, describes in greater detail how to apply six principles for using consensus building when siting large-scale energy infrastructure.

Wind siting is certainly hard to do — but it’s no harder to do right, than it is to do it wrong.

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