In this episode, Daniel Raimi talks with Sarah Mills, senior project manager at the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan's Ford School of Public Policy. Sarah and colleagues recently published a study looking at how people perceive the positive and negative impacts of wind energy development. We'll talk about what the study found, what the implications are for state and local planning, and what this might mean for the fast-growing industry of wind energy in the United States.
Listen to the Podcast
- “The theory is that attitudes about wind energy, acceptance of wind energy is really high in the American public, European public at large, but once a wind project is proposed for one's own community, attitudes dip … The U-shaped curve says that once a wind farm is built that attitudes [about wind energy] return to those high pre-construction levels.” (6:11)
- “If [wind developers] carry out an unfair process, if [they] behave poorly, effectively, that can just make those residents more and more upset by that project. That's the innovation here. I think developers are coming to realize that it's really important to gain social acceptance and act openly and transparently.” (17:50)
- “We see that state-level siting isn't always good even for the wind industry. Ohio has state-level siting and they have such a large set back distance now that you cannot site projects in the state of Ohio. So state-level siting does not necessarily mean you're going to overcome local opposition.” (24:47)
Top of the Stack
References and recommendations made by Sarah Mills:
- The Politics of Resentment by Katherine J. Cramer
- "Exploring Landowners’ Post-Construction Changes in Perceptions of Wind Energy in Michigan" by Sarah Banas Mills, Douglas Bessette, and Hannah Smith
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. This week, we talk with Dr. Sarah Mills, senior project manager at the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan's Ford School of Public Policy. Sarah and colleagues recently published a study looking at how people perceive the positive and negative impacts of wind energy development. We'll talk about what the study found, what the implications are for state and local planning, and what this might mean for the fast-growing industry of wind energy in the United States. Stay with us.
Sarah Mills, my friend and colleague from the University of Michigan. Thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.
Sarah Mills: Thanks for having me.
Daniel Raimi: Sarah, before we start to talk about your work on wind energy and the local perceptions of wind energy, can you tell us a little bit about how you got interested in energy and the environment and wind energy in particular?
Sarah Mills: Completely by accident. I came back to get my PhD in farmland preservation, and I had no idea what that was going to look like. We were driving up to my in-law's cottage, up north in Michigan, and drove through Michigan's biggest wind farm. I Googled it, and it turns out that the planners were talking about it as farmland preservation—wind energy as farmland preservation—so that became my dissertation. Since then, I got hooked on trying to understand what impacts wind energy has on farming communities.
Daniel Raimi: That's so interesting. Where was that? Where is that wind farm?
Sarah Mills: Gratiot County, the middle of the state.
Daniel Raimi: Got it. Sarah, your research is relevant for all sorts of reasons but perhaps one of the biggest is [that] wind energy is growing rapidly across the United States. It's now accounting for something like 7 percent of US net generation according to the latest data I saw from the EIA [Energy Information Administration]. With all this wind development happening around the United States, can you give us a broad overview on some of the geographic and demographic characteristics of where these projects are happening (what the host communities tend to look like)? And then, in broad strokes, what are some of the positives and negatives that host communities experience when wind development happens in those communities?
Sarah Mills: Sure. The first part was about the geographical and demographic spread. Outside of the offshore wind turbines in Rhode Island, all of our development is on land. Ninety-five percent or greater, depending on whose statistics you look at, are in rural communities. We put wind turbines where there aren't tons of people around, or tend to. Most of that wind development is in what I call the “wind belt,” running from Texas through to the Dakotas. Texas has a quarter, about, of the US wind capacity in terms of built capacity. Iowa and Kansas are close, or they each make up about 10 percent.
It's not just the wind belt where we have wind farms. There's some wind development in New England. New York has a decent amount. Certainly throughout the Great Lakes (which is where I've focused)—California, Oregon, all of those kind of places. Largely, we're putting wind turbines in rural communities. The second part was about benefits and drawbacks.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, just in broad strokes or general terms.
Sarah Mills: Largely, my research has been looking at wind energy as economic development. Wind turbines bring with them payments to landowners who have those turbines on their property and, in some places, even payments to neighbors (who might have to look at the turbines). In most states, wind developers also pay property taxes that stay at the local level. So this is really an economic development opportunity for these communities. In terms of some of the challenges, it's really an aesthetic challenge—it's a change to the scenery.
Modern turbines are 500 [...] now we're seeing onshore turbines that are 600 feet tall, from the ground to the tip of the blade—and so you can see these turbines from miles around. Something that is often not talked about—but you can see them from even farther at night because the blinking red lights that the FAA requires? That's not supposed to blend into the landscape. So 20 miles away, you might be able to see these wind farms.
Daniel Raimi: For people living in rural communities I imagine that that's a change.
Sarah Mills: It is a change. A lot of the attitudes that we see toward turbines depend (well, at least this is what I've been working on)—say that why you live in that community and how you feel about that landscape can determine whether this is an okay change that you're willing to deal with or this is not at all okay. This isn't necessarily in the paper, so I'll talk about it now.
Farmers tend to see their land as productive landscapes, and wind is just another way to make money off of their land, just like other [...] There are lots of things in agriculture that are noisy or smelly, and you just learn to deal with it because that's how you make money off your land. People that are living in these landscapes because they want the views, because they want to enjoy the peace and quiet, tend to view that change to the landscape much more negatively.
Daniel Raimi: With some of that background in place, let's get into a paper you published recently in the journal Land Use Policy. The name of the paper is “Exploring Landowners' Post-Construction Changes in Perceptions of Wind Energy in Michigan.” You published the paper with Douglas Bessette and Hannah Smith, your colleagues at Michigan State and Michigan, respectively. The paper starts off exploring something that you refer to as a U-shaped curve with regard to people's acceptance of wind energy projects. Can you describe what that U-shaped curve is and what empirical evidence might underlie it—or whether there is empirical evidence that underlies it?
Sarah Mills: Sure. The theory is that attitudes about wind energy [...] acceptance of wind energy is really high in the American public, the European public—at large. But once a wind project is proposed for one's own community, attitudes dip. Much of the research says this is not “NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard]-ism”— this is people coming to terms with what trade-offs they're going to be making in that community, what the specific impacts are going to be.
The U-shaped curve says that once a wind farm is built, that attitudes return to those high pre-construction levels.
Daniel Raimi: Is the idea that the negative expectations that people have don't materialize?
Sarah Mills: Exactly—that you're anticipating lots of negative changes and then, at the end of the day, those may not come to fruition. Attitudes might return. Or, also, that you just learn to live with it—that it just becomes part of your landscape and blends in at some point, so it's not as worrisome as it may have been during the planning phase.
Daniel Raimi: This U-shape idea, how do you think about it and go about testing it in the paper?
Sarah Mills: We're really looking at the right arm of the U, after projects have already been built. Big picture—we sent the same survey questions to the same individuals two and a half years apart from each other. Both of these surveys were sent once the wind farm had already been built. Some of the projects were built in 2008, some in 2012. The surveys went out in 2014 and halfway through 2016. What we're trying to test is—after you've been living with turbines for two years or six years, do your attitudes stabilize or do we continue to see either increases in attitudes or, again, just stabilization?
Daniel Raimi: You're measuring people's attitudes about these wind projects after they've been living with them for some period of time. Where in Michigan did these surveys go out?
Sarah Mills: They went out in The Thumb—again, pull out your hand. They went out in Huron County (three wind parks in Huron County), and one wind farm that's in the northwest section of the lower peninsula.
Daniel Raimi: Huron County's in The Thumb, right?
Sarah Mills: Tip of The Thumb—exactly. It has the most wind development of any county in the state of Michigan.
Daniel Raimi: Great. Got it. You sent out these surveys, and about how many people did you survey and get responses from?
Sarah Mills: The survey went out to everybody who owned farmland in those communities, so it went out to about 1,000 people. In order to be included in the data, you had to respond to both surveys. That population is 520.
Daniel Raimi: I remember from the paper, you had really high response rates from that survey, right?
Sarah Mills: In the first survey, in particular, we had over a 70 percent response rate. The second survey had a 53 percent response rate. The secret, I thought the first time around, the secret was a $2 bill. I've subsequently written a little methodology paper showing that there's not a $2 bill effect. What it was is sending a survey to farmers in February—there's not much else going on in those communities, at least not in Michigan.
Daniel Raimi: That's so interesting. Is that because it doesn't coincide with planting or harvesting?
Sarah Mills: Exactly—exactly.
Daniel Raimi: For someone who's never lived in a rural community or worked on a farm, that would not be intuitive at all but it makes sense. Sarah, what are some of the main findings from the paper?
Sarah Mills: If you look at the data in aggregate, you put all 520 people together, we don't see much of a change in attitudes about wind energy from 2014 to 2016. We see about half of the people have attitudes that are [...] they answer the survey exactly the same. About a quarter, they believe that wind has more negative impacts; a quarter say wind has less negative impacts. What we were doing (and I think where our innovation is), is taking those data and breaking it down by two different considerations that the “social acceptance of energy systems” literature is talking about.
One is the idea of direct payment. We broke the data based on whether the respondent was paid by the wind developer or not. The other thing is how they felt about the planning process and process fairness (“procedural justice” is what the literature calls it). This is where you start to see differences, particularly when you talk about procedural justice. People who say that the process of siting the wind farms was fair—their attitudes in 2014 started out a little bit more positive toward wind energy. And over time those attitudes either stay the same or they continue to improve.
The people who think that the planning process was unfair start, again, with attitudes that are a little more negative, though still overall generally positive. But over time their attitudes sour, effectively. They become more bothered by the noise, the visual impacts. They're more likely to talk about the negative impacts of wind.
Daniel Raimi: Is this a causal relationship? Does the model tell you whether people perceive the process to be unfair because they don't particularly like the wind project or, vice versa, is this more of a correlational relationship?
Sarah Mills: It's not necessarily a causal model that we run. The fact that we're finding a difference in their attitudes in 2014 and then an even widening difference in 2016 suggests, I think, that it's something about their attitudes about the planning process—but that's not something that we specifically tested.
Daniel Raimi: Got it. You also found a relationship between support for the project and whether or not people are receiving financial compensation for the project in one way or another, right?
Sarah Mills: Exactly. When we put the two together in a regression model, in some situations, the payment, whether or not you're receiving the payment is important—but what's really driving that model is attitudes about process fairness.
Daniel Raimi: Can you tell us a little bit about the specific questions that you ask people? How do you judge their attitudes about the benefits of living near wind development? And how do you judge their attitudes about the downsides? Give us some specifics about the questions that you ask people.
Sarah Mills: We asked about four “positive benefits” (we term them, in the paper). That was about whether wind turbines create jobs, whether they provide revenues for landowners, whether they help preserve rural lands (coming back to that farmland preservation idea), and whether or not they help limit climate change. What's really interesting is that there's agreement in both groups for those first three statements—but in the communities where wind farms are sited in Michigan, there's overall net disagreement that wind turbines help limit climate change. That's something we could put a pin into if we want to come back to that.
Daniel Raimi: Definitely. It's fascinating.
Sarah Mills: In terms of the negative impacts, we asked six questions about this. So, whether wind turbines are ugly (effectively, whether they produce visual or aesthetic problems), whether they create noise pollution, whether they disrupt bird migration, disrupt local weather patterns, reduce nearby property values, or cause human health problems. Notably, there is net disagreement with all of those statements when you look at it in aggregate. Most people in these communities don't think that these negative things are happening.
Again, when you separate out the groups, it's those people who perceive the process as fair who are more likely to disagree with those negative statements, if that makes sense.
Daniel Raimi: That does make sense. That's really helpful to get a sense of what you're finding are some of the key takeaways from the paper. Let's shift over and talk a little bit about policy implications of this work. It's clear from the results that the planning process for project siting for wind is really important. Are there examples that you can point to or that come to mind where public policies at the state or local level have been particularly successful in encouraging these types of inclusive planning processes?
Along the same lines, do you think it's appropriate for public policy to intervene here? Or is it the sort of thing that private contracts and the private sector will be able to essentially take care of on its own?
Sarah Mills: I'll talk to the first one first (remind me what the second one is in just a minute). In terms of what's a good process versus a bad process—like, what does the public policy look like—what is so interesting is, in this wind farm or in this study, we were looking at 10 different communities. One of them is completely unzoned. There is no planning process that the wind developer has to go through, and yet their attitudes about fairness weren't any necessarily different than the other places.
We talk in the literature about procedural justice—and I think it's mixing both what the actual process is on the books, how the local officials (whether it's the planning commission or county board members), how they approach the process. Like, what their deliberation looks like, how much are they publicly showing people—"Hey, you came and talked at this public hearing. I hear you and I'm going to now quiz the developer on that."
Also, so many intangibles about how the wind developer acts—some of the anecdotes that I have from my research are about confidentiality terms within lease agreements. If you're told that you're not supposed to talk to your neighbor about what's in your lease agreement—that's a strike against the developer being seen as acting openly and transparently. I do think that there's a place for public policy to be able to make clear what that process is and provide as much opportunity for public comment as possible.
I also think it's more how policymakers act. Do they, again, seriously deliberate what the concerns are of their community and take their concerns seriously? The second part of your question was do we need intervention—policy intervention—or is that where the market's taking us.
Daniel Raimi: Right.
Sarah Mills: I think that it's not just our research that is finding that process is important. And, I'm sorry, I'm going to back up and say it's not just the process (again).Iit's procedural justice—how the developer acts. There's lots of literature out there showing that. I think the innovation of this study is showing that it matters. Not just during the planning process itself, when you're trying to figure out if this community is going to accept a wind farm or not, but it has impacts that go well down the road.
If you carry out an unfair process, if you behave poorly, effectively—that can just make those residents more and more upset by that project. That's the innovation here. I think developers are coming to realize that it's really important to gain social acceptance and act openly and transparently. I will be honest, it's hard in the moment. This, sometimes, public process can mean that the community decides they don't want that wind farm there, and so there's a risk associated with that.
I know that there's a lot of discussion about when do you start that process. When do you tell the community that you're interested in siting a project? After you already have about half of the land leased? After you apply for your FAA permits? I would suggest that that's way too late, by the way. There's mixed reactions, I think, among the developer community.
Daniel Raimi: This is so interesting. There are all these analogues that come to mind with what you're saying and some of the oil and gas issues that I've done research on. We had Matt Lepore (the former director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission) on the show a few weeks back. We talked about some of these same issues. The one that really comes to mind is the idea that developers often move in and start to lease land and plan their project well in advance of the community even being aware that the project is on the table.
Is there a way around that for project developers? Do they lose a competitive advantage by starting these inclusive planning processes at the very outset?
Sarah Mills: Definitely. Some developers have been working [...] or helping to inform landowner coalitions. I think that there are landowner coalitions that form over oil and gas.
Daniel Raimi: Yes.
Sarah Mills: Just this week, I was hearing about two different groups in Michigan where there are landowner coalitions forming around wind. In one project (a project that actually just got approved), the developer approached some of the large landowners early and said, "We're thinking about your area for a wind farm." And the landowners said, "Well, we’ve got to talk to our neighbors and think about this." They formed this little coalition, and they effectively decided the lease terms. They said, "This is what we want our lease to look like," because they were setting those terms.
Why that's important in wind (especially in the state of Michigan), is that the traditional business model is—you only pay people with turbines on their property. Wind has learned a little bit from oil and gas and the pooling arrangements. And so some wind developers are paying neighbors as well, taking (effectively) the same amount of money and just sharing it with more individuals. That was something that this landowner coalition was able to discuss amongst themselves—like, how do we want to share out these revenues?
Daniel Raimi: Just to put a pin in that (it's so interesting)—what you're talking about is not only do the landowners on whose land the wind turbines are sited are paid by the company but also people who live on adjacent land, to help mitigate some of the negative impacts that they might experience.
Sarah Mills: Exactly. Thanks for clarifying that. Not all wind developers, though, are willing to do that or are in a situation where there are residents who are gung ho to do such a thing. If I could wave my magic wand, I would have communities plan first—determine before the wind developer comes in whether or not this economic development opportunity fits with their community goals.
If what they want to do is increase tourism in their community (there are definitely some people who will talk about wind tourism) [...] but, at least in Michigan, our idea of pure Michigan tourism doesn't necessarily involve wind turbines on the horizon. And so you might think twice about whether—if your goal is increasing tourism—whether wind fits into that vision. If your goal is going all in on agriculture, this is [...] (not this study, the earlier studies I've done find) [...] that this is a really good thing for farmers.
It's so much easier though (in my mind)—and rational—to have those conversations before there's a developer knocking at your door. Not all communities are proactive, though, in planning. They tend to be much more reactive, in part because they may not have the resources to do that planning or don't want to open a can of worms. These discussions can be contentious. This is a consideration that I know developers need to take into account. What do we do if there's no law on the books? Do we start planning and then hope that there are ordinances put in place that are conducive to us building our project? Or do we wait for them to sort out on their own?
Daniel Raimi: One final analogy that this brings to mind, when it comes to wind and oil and gas, is the idea of state versus local control. There's been a lot of debate in a variety of states in the oil and gas world about how much control should states have, how much control should locals have—all sorts of lawsuits to that effect. Can you talk a little bit about, in the context of wind development, what types of policies state governments might be thinking about and implementing to set a level playing field and what the dynamics are between states and locals in the context of wind development?
Sarah Mills: In terms of how the states handle siting (whereas, in oil and gas there's much more state control, I think, than there is for wind energy)—there are about a dozen states that do have the ultimate say on siting for wind. But most places leave it up to local governments. In the places where it's left up to local governments, sometimes the state will give parameters (or, like, a model ordinance) so that they have something to start with that local governments can pick up or not.
From a planner's perspective—planners love the idea of regional planning or state-level planning, right—that's the rational way to do things. And especially when you have a resource like wind, which is place-specific. What do you do if the windiest places in your state don't want to site wind projects and you have a renewable portfolio standard that you have to meet?
But at the same point, we see that state-level siting isn't always good, even for the wind industry. Ohio has state-level siting—and they have such a large setback distance now that you cannot site projects in the state of Ohio. State-level siting does not necessarily mean you're going to overcome local opposition. You can also see situations where taking over the siting process at the state level leads to huge pushback from local governments. This has happened in Ontario.
I think that the state can help give some parameters, but I'm still of the mind that there are going to be enough communities that see wind as an opportunity—that, as long as they are given the option to proactively plan, before it becomes super controversial because there's an active proposal on the table, I think that there's still opportunity there.
Daniel Raimi: That makes sense. I wish I could ask you so many more questions but I don't want to go over time too much. I want to close out with the question that we ask everyone who joins us here on Resources Radio, which is: what is on the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack? What are you reading these days, or watching or listening to that you think's interesting and that you think our listeners would enjoy?
Sarah Mills: I'm going to break a rule—it's not related to energy and the environment at all—I think that everyone who cares about renewable energy (particularly in the Midwest) needs to read it. It is Kathy Cramer: The Politics of Resentment: [Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker]. She is a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin and effectively set out—she went to coffee shops and gas stations across rural Wisconsin—to understand how they feel about government and priorities, effectively.
What I think is so interesting (and what she finds, as the title suggests) is that there's this resentment—that the state government is setting policy, and urban people are driving policy that is really having effects in rural communities. The reason that I think it's really important now is that—after the elections in November, there was so much talk about this “blue wave” of governors sweeping the Midwest and how this was going to be great for climate policy.And there's lots of talk about reviving Midwest cap and trade, or 100 percent renewable energy portfolio standards.
These “blue wave” governors are going to need to site those projects in the rural communities. It's really important to understand how those rural communities feel about the policies. I can tell you (at least in the rural communities in Michigan that I've spent most of the time), a renewable portfolio standard [RPS] is seen as a strike against a project. Even if they would otherwise be supportive of it, they see the RPS as proof (I'm putting this in air quotes)— as proof that wind energy needs a state mandate, that it doesn't pay for itself, that it needs the government to prop it up.
If you haven't read The Politics of Resentment, there's not one word in it about energy and the environment. But it is so helpful to understand the kind of communities where we're putting energy infrastructure.
Daniel Raimi: That is such a great recommendation. Sarah Mills, thank you so much for that recommendation. Thanks for sharing the results of your recent paper, and thanks for helping us understand some of the issues related to wind energy development in communities across America.
Sarah Mills: Thanks, Daniel.
Daniel Raimi: Thank you so much for joining us on Resources Radio. We'd love to hear what you think, so please rate us on iTunes or leave us a review—it helps us spread the word. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org.
The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants. They do not necessarily represent the views of Resources for the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Kate Petersen with music by Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.