New Berkeley Lab study explores possibilities for more fair and transparent wind energy planning processes

March 22, 2022

Information access, public participation, and fair decision-making are key to wind energy’s “procedural justice”

Expanding wind energy deployment to meet climate and policy goals requires willing communities to host wind projects. Previous research finds that perceptions of the fairness of a wind project’s planning process strongly influences attitudes among host communities. Yet, few studies provide a detailed inquiry into wind farm planning processes in the United States in the context of fairness. The “fairness” of a wind planning process can be viewed through the lens of procedural justice, or the ability of communities who stand to be affected by a siting decision to participate as equals in the decision-making process.

A new study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers published in Energy Research and Social Science asks how the structure and implementation of wind farm planning processes influences four aspects of procedural justice: participation, information, decision-making, and considerations of local context. It takes as case studies two state-led wind farm planning processes.

The mixed-methods study leverages survey data, interviews with developers and public officials, and permitting documents. We identify four ways in which wind farm planning processes can evolve to enable procedural justice:

Afford non-compensated neighbors of wind projects similar information and participation opportunities as compensated landowners

Genuine participation opportunities offer the public a seat at the table, and is a requisite for planning fairness. For both Bent Tree and Blue Creek wind farms, the general public had limited opportunities for participation, but compensated landowners – people who owned land on which turbines were placed – had earlier, more meaningful access to the developer. Limited participation by non-compensated residents is structural to planning processes, which often have no more than one mandated public meeting. On the other hand, compensated landowners have access to private, early meetings with the developer. Compensated landowners were identified as key decision-makers: as one local official put it, “once the leases are signed, it’s a done deal”.

Advancing wind project planning to be more procedurally just means creating opportunities, in structure and implementation, to engage a public beyond compensated landowners.

Provide additional resources for and knowledge-sharing opportunities among county and township governments

Local governments negotiate land use and community compensation with the developer, along with permitting parallel infrastructure like transmission lines. They also respond to resident concerns, particularly in the absence of an in-person developer presence. Public officials reported being “caught off guard” by their scope of work. They received most of their information from the developer, with whom they were negotiating, indicating information asymmetries between developers and local governments. Interviewees pointed to knowledge-sharing through rural energy boards and farm bureaus as ways to address information limitations.

This gap in resources and knowledge is important considering that these negotiations partially determine if and how a wind project delivers socio-economic benefits. A well-resourced county can ensure that their residents share in the benefits of a local wind farm.

Create structures for participation, information provision, and decision-making surrounding wind farm construction, operation, and decommissioning – not just siting

Wind projects continue to impact communities - positively and negatively - across the full lifecycle of the project, yet the public is only consulted during the early planning phases. For both Bent Tree and Blue Creek, once the wind farm was approved, there were no meetings nor information provided beyond mailed construction notices. Open-ended survey responses pointed to this lack of follow-up: respondents reported concerns about noise, increasing utility bills, and asked questions about what decommissioning or abandonment of turbines might mean for farming land.

The US’s current approach to wind deployment assumes that public participation, and the provision of information, is only needed before construction begins. As a wind farm progresses through its lifetime, so too do local knowledge and concerns; current planning processes are limited in their responsiveness to shifting information and priorities.

Consider local and historical contexts of power generation and resident connections to the land

A history of power generation informs how counties make decisions, and the connection that residents have with their landscape impacts their engagement with a planning process. Some of our interviewees were in the process of permitting the second wind farm of their careers, and pointed to the Bent Tree process as a key resource for navigating ongoing planning processes. Others discussed how community characteristics – like whether residents made their livelihoods from farming or from working in a nearby municipality – impacted engagement with the wind farm planning process.

For planning processes, these findings imply that information and participation opportunities should be responsive to the institutional memory (or lack thereof) that local governments have with respect to wind siting, and to community-specific concerns that vary based on livelihoods, property types, and tenure.

Procedural justice is complex and multi-faceted, but the findings and considerations outlined in this research offer concrete guidance to local decision makers and wind project developers seeking to improve fairness, and thereby, acceptance.

For questions about the study, please contact Salma Elmallah at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (salmae@lbl.gov).

We appreciate the support of the Wind Energy Technologies Office (WETO) of the US Department of Energy under Contract No. DE-AC02-05CH11231.

 

 

 

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