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Wind war at Earth Day birthplace -- Tackling public opposition

Santa Barbara, California, the birthplace of Earth Day and the modern environmental movement, has proved itself to be one of the most difficult places to get a wind project permitted. Spain's Acciona recently received approval for a 97.5 MW wind plant outside Santa Barbara, but not without facing fierce and unexpected opposition from a community that has historically prided itself on its environmental concerns.

"How can a place that's the centre of the environmental movement be opposed to a wind farm? That really speaks volumes," says Robb Rice of Davies Public Affairs, which helped Acciona build enough public support to secure the construction permit and has advised many other developers throughout the US. Santa Barbara's famous environmental pedigree began in 1969 when a major oil spill from offshore drilling coated the pristine shoreline for many kilometres.

Rice says that public opposition, and NIMBY, or "not in my backyard" opposition, is growing instead of waning as more wind power stations are developed in the US and as some sites nearer to communities get developed. "It shows you how difficult it's getting because you've got a lot of NIMBYs that want to block these projects. They'll tell you they really want it, but when it ends up in their community, they don't want it."

Acciona's Lompoc wind plant will be built on agriculturally zoned land near Lompoc, California, currently used for cattle. Permission was contingent on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors rezoning the location to allow the wind plant to be built. After being surprised by the resistance within the local community, Acciona and the Davies consultants began a grassroots campaign to convince voters to alert their respective supervisors -- elected officials who set county policy, many of whom tout their green credentials -- that this would be the supervisors' chance to prove their avowed support for renewable energy. "We're making people be consistent with what they say they want," says Rice.

Other companies have tried different strategies for building public support using political and economic persuasion. Another Spanish developer, Iberdrola, has in some cases proposed modest yearly fees to residents who will be close enough to see a wind plant but do not have turbines actually located on their property.

The next major NIMBY battle will be building the transmission lines necessary for wind development, says Ben Kelahan of the Saint Consulting Group. His firm is a public affairs consultancy specialising in gauging and building support for wind farms. The group has been known to infiltrate a community in the very early stages of wind development in order to assess the likely challenges to obtaining permission before a developer makes its aims publicly known.

Last month the Saint Group conducted a national poll on attitudes towards building new transmission lines. It found support for new high-voltage transmission lines in a community was at 46% but then jumped to 83% if there was an assurance the lines would deliver significant quantities of wind power.

Attitudes towards transmission siting authority, however, show a further challenge ahead for wind. When asked who should have final authority to approve a high-voltage transmission line in their community, 60% of respondents say local government, 19% support state government approval, and 10% say the federal government. Having cited a lack of transmission capacity as one of wind power's major hurdles, the American wind sector is focusing its wires solution on giving stronger federal authority to expand transmission lines in place of local and state government.

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