Rethinking NIMBY: Why Wind Power Could Lead To New Ways of Defining (and Dealing With) Public Naysaying

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True story: A small college in the Midwest wanted to put up a wind turbine on their campus. The school, being on top of a hill in the middle of the prairie, had enough wind to produce upwards of 3/4 of their needed electricity, so the project made good sense. But when it came time to talk to the people living nearby, the school ran into some opposition. In particular, from a farmer who thought the noise and appearance of the wind turbine would lower property values.

The punchline: He was a pig farmer.*

The point here is not that irony is funny. (Although, it totally is.) Instead, this is about the cultural role that farmer represents. NIMBY--Not In My Backyard--is traditionally defined as what happens when people are, generally, in favor of something, but don't want the necessary infrastructure built anywhere they can see it. Bacon is delicious, but you don't want to live next door to a pig farm. Sustainable energy is great, but you don't want a wind turbine mucking up your views.

It's really easy to write off any opposition that gets labeled as NIMBY. After all, infrastructure has to be built somewhere, and everywhere is somebody's backyard. Therefore, NIMBYists are selfish twits who can't see beyond their own nose. But the truth, as per usual, is more complicated. Thanks to wind power projects, and the supposedly NIMBY reactions against them, political and social scientists are learning what we really talk about when we talk about NIMBY. Their discoveries could have wide-reaching implications, both for how we understand public opposition to infrastructure projects--and for how we respond to it and get what needs to be built built.

Note for city dwellers and others who don't get the joke: Large pig farms are generally smelly, considered unattractive, and tend to lower property values.

Real quick: I'm not planning on dealing much here with the arguments for and against wind, or with how wind power compares to coal, other renewables, or the magical electricity elves that live in our walls. That's a whole other post, to be written in the future. Whatever you think about that topic, you'll probably agree that we still have to build energy infrastructure of some sort, which means NIMBY matters.

Wind power is important here mostly because it's the reason researchers are rethinking NIMBY. See, there's a weird disparity with wind. In a traditional NIMBY situation, you'd expect to see nationwide polls that show high support for wind power, with support dropping off only in communities where a wind turbine might be built. But that's not what the researchers are finding.

Instead, the popularity plummet happens when you compare nationwide public opinion polls with nationwide academic surveys. And, at the local level, opinions aren't much different than the nationwide academic survey results.

What's going on? Partly, it has to do with the difference between the way pollsters ask questions, and the way academics do that same job. Eric Smith is a professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He told me that polls tend to offer broad questions that result in top-of-the-head responses. You don't have to have a fully formed opinion on something to answer a public opinion poll. In fact, Smith argues, most people don't. Academic surveys, on the other hand, get more into the nitty gritty, asking questions about potential downsides of a project that people might not have thought about before. If you'd been laboring under the impression that wind power had no downsides, an academic survey might force you to reexamine your position in ways that a poll wouldn't. In these kind of surveys, the majority of Americans still favor wind projects, Smith said, but that majority is smaller.

Once you're looking at the nuanced opinions, he said, there's not much difference between local and national viewpoints. In fact, protests often characterized as NIMBY are, instead, really national activism drawn to a specific place because that's where stuff is going down.

"It seems local," he said. "But it's not really. Or, at least, it's not specifically local."

In other words, what we call NIMBY is less about what people do or don't want in their backyards, and more about people in and out of the community using the backyard as a flashpoint for national opposition. If you're in favor of wind, you're likely to be in favor of it in your community. If you oppose wind, you'll oppose it in your community. But the specific location of the wind turbines isn't really a huge factor in your decisions.

I think NIMBY is something that's used to persuade people to ignore opposition as selfish, irrational. I think it's a fairly powerful political argument. But I don't think it's true," Smith said.

Frankly, if Smith is right, NIMBY might not even be that great of a political argument, because it forces you to fight an expensive and time-consuming battle that isn't really necessary. If you write off the NIMBYists, you have to shout them down. If you accept that "NIMBY" is something more honest and more nationally applicable, then you can deal with it in other, more productive, ways.

Take Denmark. I spoke with Jan Hylleberg, CEO of the Danish Wind Industry Association. In his country, he said, developers don't go into a community assuming support and writing off any opposition as NIMBY.

We respect the issues much better than years back," he says. "Before you can put up turbines you have to do a lot of detailed analysis on environmental issues. Most important though is that you need enough time to have a local dialogue about the individual projects. If you don't have time for dialog and debate, then of course you'll have more people being against the project because they haven't had the time to get involved and understand what's going on."

The other big difference in Denmark is local financial incentives. This bit was interesting to me, because I've spoken with researchers here in the states who theorize that smaller wind projects, with local public investment, would get more support because local people would feel ownership of the project. From Denmark's example, that seems to be true. Hylleberg says that if a developer there wants to put up one wind turbine, he or she has to offer the community a 20% stake. If they want to build a whole wind farm, they have to offer a least one full turbine to the community.

The solution to anti-wind power "NIMBY" may simply be expecting opposition, respecting the opponents and dealing with it via proactive communication and community involvement. Or, to be folksy about it, setting out honey for the flies instead of vingar.

Learn more about Eric Smith's research.

Image courtesy Flickr user phault, via CC.

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