Roopali Phadke: Against the wind

  • Article by: ROOPALI PHADKE
  • Updated: August 1, 2008 - 5:00 PM

Social acceptance is one of the biggest obstacles to extracting energy from air.

Oilman T. Boone Pickens is going to solve our economic and security problems with wind energy. His advertisements on prime-time TV and in the pages of the Wall Street Journal proclaim that our addiction to oil has led to "the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind."

The Pickens Plan would substitute wind for natural gas to meet 20 percent of the nation's electric-power needs. The natural gas that we currently use for electricity generation would then be used to offset fossil fuels in the transportation sector. Pickens argues that the new wind economy requires $1.2 trillion for turbines and transmission lines. He plans to use his vast oil wealth to fill some of the gap. He launched his plan last year when his company Mesa Power announced it would build a 4,000-megawatt wind farm, the world's largest, in Texas at a cost of more than $12 billion. His future projects include thousands of additional wind turbines across the nation's wind belt, from Texas to North Dakota.

What's the problem with the Pickens Plan? We've been told that the main obstacles to wind power are financial and technological. The Pickens Plan buys into this logic. But senior wind leaders know more. They have revealed that while technology and investment matter, one of their biggest challenges to installing large wind farms is building social acceptance.

Don't Americans love wind power? A 2008 Zogby International public poll reported that 85 percent of the 7,000 Americans surveyed agreed that federal incentives should support wind-energy development. While polls show that most Americans overwhelmingly support wind power in theory, few communities are asking for large-scale wind projects in their back yards. From Oregon to Maine, communities are protesting wind power for a number of reasons. Those living near proposed turbines claim that is unfair to ask them to bear the burdens of sound and visual pollution, as well as the potential impacts to migrating birds and wildlife, in the name of global warming and energy security. While aesthetic claims have been hard to substantiate with solid scientific evidence, many opposition groups have successfully charged that wind developers make their deals in corrupt and highly unaccountable ways that sidestep local democratic processes. The attorney general's office in New York state recently initiated an investigation of First Wind and Noble Environmental Power for improper dealings.

Wind-energy advocates often contend that community resistance to wind power is limited to the patrician regions of the Northeast. The Cape Wind project proposed off of Cape Cod is the best-known example. However, the wind belt has not been impervious to opposition. In Kansas, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius struck a balance between protecting the environment and building wind power. She implored wind developers to show restraint when it comes to developing in the Heart of Flint Hills, a tall-grass prairie region.

Another example is closer to home. Though Minnesotans overwhelmingly support wind, the atmosphere couldn't be more different across the border in Wisconsin. Green-energy advocates in Wisconsin have struggled to construct a mere 53 megawatts of wind power in the state. The lag is reflected in ordinances, such as in Calumet County in eastern Wisconsin, where a moratorium has been placed on "industrial"-scale wind development until the environmental impacts are better understood.

It is important not to lump all grass-roots wind opposition together. On one hand are organizations that represent longstanding environmental and historic-preservation interests with legitimate concerns about project transparency and the potential footprint of wind development. On the other hand are dubious groups, little more than one Web page deep, who seem to oppose any form of wind development and challenge the very notion of global-warming mitigation itself. To the chagrin of the wind industry, it is evident that these opposition groups, whatever their size and motivation, are gaining traction and are stopping wind projects in several parts of the country.

Minnesota presents an interesting exception to this story. Its legislators and citizens overwhelmingly support wind power. Minnesota ranks third in the country for installed wind capacity, and major projects are planned throughout the state. Minnesota's community wind legislation, known as C-BED, aims to increase locally owned assets and technical capacity while reducing carbon footprint. Almost 300 megawatts of Minnesota's wind power exists in the form of community wind projects. This didn't happen overnight. Minnesota organizations such as Windustry, Fresh Energy and the Institute for Local Self Reliance have been sowing a social value for wind for the last 10 years.

While the Pickens Plan is bold, it lacks a nuanced understanding about the obstacles to wind power. Where there is a lack of social acceptance, it is often the result of industry players who assume that "green" power is always welcome and can operate outside the bounds of the democratic process. The Pickens Plan shares some of this hubris.

Building wind turbines from Texas to North Dakota is not an impossible task. It is one that will require a national conversation about what will be lost as much as about what will be gained. This conversation must include but not be directed by oil-industry executives, who are deeply implicated in the vast wealth transfer that makes so many Americans distrustful. This leadership must come from the White House, from Congress and from the federal agencies that are expected to regulate energy and implement policy.

The achievements of the Minnesota model can contribute a great deal toward creating the social revolution that will seed the energy landscape of tomorrow. Our example is as important to the nation as the Pickens Plan is toward securing our clean-energy goals.

Roopali Phadke is an assistant professor of environmental politics and policy in the Environmental Studies Department at Macalester College. She currently serves as the project investigator on a National Science Foundation-supported study on the social acceptance on wind energy in the United States.

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