NEWEEP Convenes Conference and Workshop to Advance Social Acceptance of Well-Sited Wind Projects in New England: A Wind Powering America Success Story
July 5, 2011
The New England region, which has a high population density and windy locations that are prized for scenic and recreational uses, faces unique social acceptance challenges to siting wind energy projects. Those charged with making siting decisions for proposed wind projects have been deluged with conflicting information and claims regarding the project's impacts and benefits. To establish a dialogue to address barriers in the region, the U.S. Department of Energy's Wind Powering America (WPA) initiative provided funding and support as part of the 20% by 2030 FOA announced in 2009 for the formation of the New England Wind Energy Education Project (NEWEEP). NEWEEP's mission is to seek and make available the best information possible to support good wind siting practices and decisions. On June 7, 2011, NEWEEP organized a conference and workshop in Marlborough, Massachusetts, that was attended by more than 250 stakeholders. Various stakeholder concerns were discussed while attendees learned about the current status of wind development in New England.
Ian Baring-Gould, a senior engineer and WPA's national technical director, believes that the NEWEEP conference and program was an opportunity to disseminate accurate information about wind energy social acceptance issues and advance the cause of well-informed decision-making.
"The issues with public acceptance of wind technologies in the New England area have been contentious for awhile. NEWEEP was seen as a way to open the dialogue and provide balanced, non-partisan information on the impacts of wind technology, of giving credible sources venues in which to present science-based information, primarily through a series of webinars and the conference," Baring-Gould said.
The conference, which featured numerous presentations, speakers, and discussion panels, also allowed participants to voice concerns and brainstorm issues pertaining to New England wind development.
Liz Argo, an advocate and consultant for renewable energies including wind, believes that the conference was conducted at a very high level and that attendees were given the opportunity to voice their opinions.
"It was organized very well in terms of the people who were brought together, the content, and the ability to engage without any of what we've experienced in the past. We've seen some very unpleasant exchanges between the passionately opposed to wind group and the passionately supportive of wind group. Quite a bit of effort went into setting ground rules and getting a commitment from both sides to engage. And that was successful," Argo said.
Charles Newcomb, section manager for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Wind & Water Technology Deployment, was a panelist and conference attendee. Newcomb believes that participants with differing perspectives seized the opportunity to open the dialogue that is so desperately needed in the region.
"I think the success story is that when you take the dynamic of a vast minority of people who are very vocal and you put them in a structured setting with the decision-makers and you say, 'What's the science behind this? What's the truth?' as opposed to, 'What's the rhetoric?' and 'What's the hearsay?,' they conduct themselves in a professional manner. We had no issues. I was proud of the detractors. They were brave and they stood up, impassioned, but it wasn't yelling. It was very sincere, and they were just saying, 'We're really frustrated, and we don't know what else to do.'"
The gaping difference between the individuals who are passionately opposed to wind and those who are ardently in favor of this renewable energy source is an enormous challenge in New England. Argo believes that both sides are still waiting for information that will clarify differences that exist between them, especially relating to sound and the impacts on human health.
"Of course that's what we're all waiting for right now: to resolve the difference of opinion. A definitive resolution of he said/she said. There was some information about real estate studies and whether there is evidence of property being devalued that is in proximity to turbines, but the real elephant in the room is the question of infrasound and low-frequency sound and is there any basis for the complaints from a handful of turbine installations. That's where the two groups are still circling," Argo said.
Deborah Donovan, senior consultant with Sustainable Energy Advantage and part of the team that organized the conference, believes that the comments submitted by attendees, either at the end of the conference or online, allowed the NEWEEP's organizers to not only discover what they did right during the conference but also what they can do better in the future.
"People really liked the case studies, going in depth and going through real on-the-ground experiences that community members, local officials, and wind developers are having as a wind project is proposed, constructed, and operated. People also felt they needed better research that they could rely on. What I synthesized from that is there are people out there, scientists and engineers, who have a very good idea about what makes good research and what makes biased research. They can separate the weak from the strong," Donovan said.
According to Donovan, an additional response seen in multiple surveys was that people wanted to come together as a group on more frequent occasions in the future.
"The other thing that people said they needed was more time together. More gatherings on a regular basis, varying the location, and more discussion time. I would say, in retrospect, we didn't give people a lot of time to network and interact with people they normally wouldn't see. I think that was partially due to an ambitious agenda in terms of subject matter and trying to get it all done in one day."
Additional feedback from the surveys included the need for further education and outreach, along with tools that can aid local officials in their decision- and policy-making process. Perhaps the greatest concern amongst survey respondents, according to Donovan, is the need for accurate information on various topics including financial impacts, human health, and the visual impact on individuals' environments.
Ben Hoen of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory assisted in developing the conference, attended the conference, and also served as a panelist. He believes that NEWEEP could be used as a model for future outreach and education in other parts of the country.
"I think that the NEWEEP is definitely a good model for how to get good information out there. I think they've done a very good job of trying to keep themselves from being one-sided, meaning presenting a variety of different views and letting the discussion happen, letting lots of questions come in and having the panelists answer all of the questions. In that sense, they're really good for being a model. I think there are other things that a group like NEWEEP can do. That would require, of course, additional funds," Hoen said.
In the current economic environment, funding is a critical issue. The federal funding for NEWEEP is potentially coming to a close, and the group is in transition, attempting to determine what its role will be in the future. Whatever that is, those involved with the project believe that the dialogue needs to continue and that the dissemination of accurate information is essential.
Bob Grace, president of Sustainable Energy Advantage and founder of NEWEEP, offered his opinion on the future of wind energy education in New England.
"What needs to happen is some kind of continuation of what we've been doing through NEWEEP. You can call it education or outreach, trying to inject facts and knowledge into the dialogue and to do it in a way that is perceived and understood to be objective. The conference and the preceding webinars have underscored that this is clearly a need, and that going forward more of this kind of information exchange will have to be a part of it," Grace said.
For more information on NEWEEP, including past webinars and future events, visit www.windpoweringamerica.gov/newengland/neweep/.