Western Massachusetts Wind Energy Symposium Workshop Report

Roopali Phadke , Brianna Besch , Ava Buchanan , Natalie Camplair
Saturday, December 1, 2012


Concerns about energy independence, climate change, and rural economic development have driven state governments to enact laws requiring electric utilities to increase renewable energy generation. Federal and state subsidies have also promoted renewable energy development. Many rural communities across the nation are debating the benefits and impacts of wind energy development on their local landscapes and economies. Local governments are in the difficult position of deciding the best processes to manage wind energy development so that policies comprehensively address the concerns of all residents involved.

Wind energy is an important topic to residents, government officials, and developers in western Massachusetts. While Massachusetts currently ranks 30th in the nation for installed wind energy capacity, it ranks 19th in terms of long-term wind energy development potential.* Although much of this potential lies offshore, Berkshire and Franklin counties have some of the greatest land-based wind resources in the state. There are currently 13 large-scale turbines in the area with an additional 19 turbines coming on line in the next year with the completion of the Hoosac Wind Project. Hoosac will become the largest operational development in the state.** Several other projects in the area are also under consideration. Given this reality, there is an opportunity for citizens to explore their landscape preferences and express their concerns about pending and future development.

The western Massachusetts Wind Energy Symposium was organized by a Macalester College research team in partnership with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission with the broad goal of encouraging public deliberation about wind energy development. At the event, participants from northern Berkshire and western Franklin counties were charged with providing guidance to towns, county planning officials, and wind developers about public perceptions of opportunities, impacts, and project design preferences. The symposium also attempted to explore how a deliberative process could build consensus and influence wind energy development practices.

The Macalester College research team selected participants from a pool of applicants. The team worked with local partners to assemble a participant group representative of local census data. Particular attention was paid to balancing age, gender, income, location of residency, and level of education. Interested local residents submitted an application providing this personal information, as well as answered one question about their opinion on wind energy development in their region. Wind energy has been a controversial issue in this area, with many residents taking a staunch position in support or opposition. Reflecting the wind energy public deliberation scholarship, the research team attempted to select an applicant pool that avoided a polarization of opinions. Over half the participants who were invited to attend stated on their application that they were “neutral” or “needed more information to decide” about wind energy in their region.

Of the twenty-four residents who participated, the majority were between the ages of 50 and 64, and there were two more male participants than female. The participants came from 16 different towns in the area, most of them residents of Berkshire County, the more populous of the two counties. The highest percentage of participants (63%) had been residents of western Massachusetts for more than 20 years.

Participants were offered a $100 stipend in compensation for their time although municipal officials could either decline or accept a smaller stipend to comply with state ethics laws. Before the event, participants were mailed a dossier with background information about wind development in Massachusetts. The symposium was facilitated by Patrick Field, Doug Thompson, and Ellie Tonkin from the Consensus Building Institute (CBI) based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The symposium was designed to engage participants in a number of discussion exercises throughout the day, including interactive polling, visual simulation analysis, and landscape mapping. The day began with introductions, followed by a photo essay composed of images of western Massachusetts, displaying examples of local agricultural, industrial, and recreational land uses. A few participants also submitted personal photos for the photo essay. Next, a keypad poll gauged participants’ opinions and attitudes towards wind energy. Participants also filled out a questionnaire about their opinions of the impact of wind energy on a more specific set of issues. Following the full-group session, participants divided into three smaller groups to discuss landscape preferences and values and possible techniques to mitigate the visual impacts of wind development.

After a lunch break, the large group reconvened for a question and answer session with a panel of experts on climate change, wind technology, and wind energy siting policy. Afterward, participants divided into small groups a second time for a discussion about policy guidelines or “best practices” for wind development. The recommendations from each of the small groups were compiled into a larger list and then voted on using keypad polls. Finally, participants filled out another opinion survey and a questionnaire in the afternoon, which were identical to the morning versions, in order to identify any changes in opinion throughout the day. The findings from the symposium exercises are described in Section III.

Wind Energy Symposia

The western Massachusetts symposium is part of a broader research project aimed at better understanding the role of public deliberation in the siting of wind energy projects. The research is funded through a National Science Foundation grant (# SES 1027294) to Roopali Phadke at Macalester College.

This report was prepared by a research team from Macalester College. Throughout the symposium, the team collected demographic data about participants, gauged their familiarity with wind energy, and elicited their perceptions about landscape impacts. This was done through the use of interactive keypad polling, photographic analysis within focus groups, writing exercises and a final evaluation. The data were brought back to Macalester College for coding and analysis. This summary was prepared as a way of reporting back to local participants, informing local policy makers about community perceptions, and developing a symposium model for the future.

Read the full Western Massachusetts Wind Energy Symposium Workshop Report.

* According to the National Renewable Energy Lab and an Ernst and Young study titled, “United States renewable energy attractiveness indices,” February, 2012.
** The Cape Wind offshore wind project would increase the wind generation capacity of Massachusetts by 450 MW. This project obtained state-level permits in 2009 and federal-level permits in 2010. When construction begins, the project will take at least 2 years to complete.