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United States

Developing remedies to anti-wind sentiment

There are more than a thousand anti-wind-energy groups globally. Understanding these increasingly sophisticated and vocal sources of opposition is a crucial first step to developing effective strategies for overcoming their concerns.

Some anti-wind organisations have been funded by the deep pockets of established energy sectors, be it coal, oil and gas, or nuclear, and are not truly local movements. Others represent genuinely felt concerns. Regardless of their initial impetus, anti-wind groups are proliferating, with strong opposition evident in parts of Australia, the UK, the US and Canada.

Anti-wind feeling is sometimes bolstered by public figures. Mitt Romney, a contender to lead the Republican Party for the US presidency, fought Cape Wind, the US's first offshore project, citing "the failure of windmills and solar panels to become economically viable". In the UK, the Queen's husband, Prince Philip, has dismissed turbines as "absolutely useless, completely reliant on subsidies and an absolute disgrace".

According to the US Chamber of Commerce Project No Project database, public opposition to wind in the US has made it as difficult to develop a wind farm as a coal-fired power station. Fortunately, there are a bevy of remedies to address anti-wind feeling.

Many developers have faced local residents organised in opposition to a proposed wind farm, calling on officials and politicians to deny permitting, place moratoriums on new approvals and introduce other setbacks.

The answer? Authentic and transparent community engagement and partnering is often key for wind developers. Local citizens' influence over, participation in, and control over what occurs within their locality is increasingly integral to the success of projects.

Community engagement, from day one, as well as positive regard for all, especially naysayers, is highly effective. Developers that work with local communities stand out from their peers. Not only are they recognised and envied by the wind industry, communities catch on that they are dealing with the 'good guys'. Increasingly, it is these developers that are winning consent, landing power purchase agreements and selling assets.

Developers that approach communities strategically, identifying key players, political ties, social networks, historical roots, cultural phenomena and media allegiances can breed healthy, even enthusiastic, support.

A far less effective approach is to leave opposition to a project unaddressed until it cannot be ignored any longer. This is a high-risk strategy. When health and safety impacts are questioned a community's concerns can often be addressed and ameliorated, especially given the substantial amount of research available indicating wind farms are safe and do not result in adverse health effects. As an example, the Canadian province of Ontario's chief medical officer recently concluded that low-frequency noise and infrasound from turbines are not related to adverse health effects.

Another area of contention is subsidy. Despite the fact that subsidies directed toward wind energy are about one fifth of those received by non-renewable energy generators, their mere existence is offensive to many anti-wind groups. Explaining why financial support for wind is justified is crucial.

When opposition cements, counteracting the argument that wind energy is dangerous becomes more challenging. As determined opposition takes hold, the wind developer is vilified, challengers emboldened, and policymakers influenced - for the worse.

The development that languishes in an angry community is not only stressful to the developers, it is also detrimental to a company's morale, destructive of its reputation, and divisive to the community at hand. It is up to us, as an industry, to collectively, compassionately, and intelligently address the issue of wind-energy dissent before it is too late.

Tiff Thompson is principal at NIMBY Consulting, an alternative dispute resolution firm specialising in customised community relations strategy, aiding renewable-energy projects

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