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Affected locals must feel the benefits of projects

Flemish author Bram Dehouck has written a much-praised book titled A Summer without Sleep. The story is about a butcher from a small Belgian village, who is a perfectionist and famous for his pate, which has made him a well-off local entrepreneur.

The irritating humming noise coming from a new wind farm built nearby disrupts his peaceful existence. It keeps him awake at night, while two other village residents experience growing discomfort and irritation due to the shadowing effects caused by the moving wind turbine blades on their lawns. Interestingly, a clear majority of the village residents initially appear totally unaffected by the wind farm. For the butcher a continuous lack of sleep causes him to gradually lose control over his work and the once undisputed quality of his pate. Initially causing a minor local health issue it later develops into a destructive and irreversible sequence of catastrophic events affecting almost everyone in the village.

Back in 1999 I read a book called Transforming Electricity by veteran UK-based energy expert Walt Patterson. His vision, still highly relevant, is of a global electricity business in transformation, fuelled by a combination of liberalisation, changing technologies and environmental pressure. He explains that people in developed countries take electricity for granted because of its instant availability and because nothing tells us directly that we are using it or that it costs money. The consumers of the central electricity network are almost entirely passive participants, he says, but this would be different if each electrical device had a small meter showing each time how long a device has been used and what cost this represents.

Large-scale centralised power generation often takes place in remote areas causing massive and disruptive local environmental and other impacts for little, if any, local benefits in return. As electricity typically flows in a single direction from power plant to consumers, benefits are thus largely enjoyed by groups of consumers far from the power-generating source. Inflicting the disadvantages on one group of people while offering the advantages to another group is inherent to such systems, Patterson says.

But decentralised power systems in combination with so-called smart grids are on the increase. They are typically characterised by the incorporation of various renewable generating sources like wind turbines, and non-renewable sources such as on-site co-generation, and/or a power-storage capability. Another key characteristic is a two-way electricity generation and supply transport system. Patterson points out that combining power generation and power use at local or regional level has a democratising effect as local environmental and other burdens have a direct link with the local benefits of useage.

Human stories

Technology should be viewed in a much wider context than technical aspects alone and must incorporate historical, ethical and societal dimensions, said US technology historian Rosalind Williams, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Some of her research covers specific periods in history, and offers insight into ordinary people's views on technological developments and how these affect daily life. Such human stories show how technology might inflict emotions and the multiple roles different people play in them, displaying a full spectrum of human interaction with technology.

Wind power has already been affecting people's lives for centuries. The Netherlands for instance once employed thousands of wooden windmills across the country for pumping water from reclaimed land, for milling grain, pressing oil seeds and sawing timber. With limited alternatives for generating mechanical power, these windmills allowed the Dutch to live in the lowlands, the power source actively contributing to economic development and prosperity. It is likely that such concentrations of windmills were at the time not commonly appreciated but were accepted as an economic and therefore also socially accepted necessity.

These latter aspects together show the biggest contrasts with the fictional Belgian village. The modern village people did not suffer from a lack of electricity before being involuntarily confronted with the new wind farm owned and operated by an outside project developer who reaps all financial benefits.

The historic lesson, particularly from Germany and Denmark, is that if wind projects are to gain essential socioeconomic acceptance, they must offer real added value. Cooperation as a key enabler for wind project acceptance can be instrumental in maintaining the current impressive global wind industry growth path for the foreseeable future.

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