Testing the Waters: Gaining Public Support for Offshore Wind0

Ysabel Yates | Mon Oct 15 2012

The coastlines of the U.S. are brimming with potential for offshore wind development, yet every turbine is on land. Why isn’t this coastal goldmine of clean energy and jobs being tapped? According to a new study, the impediment isn’t technological, it’s social.

Offshore wind would be a major boost to an already robust industry. U.S. coastlines are highly populated and windier than their land counterparts. There are also no technological barriers to offshore wind; it has been a reality in Europe for years.

While public acceptance isn’t the only hurdle facing U.S. offshore wind power (policy and permits also contribute), public opposition can delay, or even derail, a planned project.

In a recent study (pdf) at the University of Delaware, researchers mapped public perceptions of offshore wind projects in order to uncover the factors that make – or break – public support.

The research, which is ongoing, involves polling residents in two areas with proposed offshore wind projects, Cape Wind off Massachusetts and Bluewater Wind off Delaware.

“The public works both ways. In Delaware, they helped the project move forward. In Cape Cod, they’ve slowed the flow of the project down,” says Jeremy Firestone, principal investigator of the project.

Influencing factors

The biggest factor to influence people’s decisions about offshore wind power negatively, the researchers found, was perceived harm to recreational boating.

However, offshore wind turbine projects won’t prevent people from boating, says Firestone. “It’s obviously going to affect your view and, in that regard, the experience. But people can still boat.”

On the other hand, people can get behind the pricing of offshore wind, since electricity prices can be locked in for a long period.

“A lot of people value price stability, and that’s one of the things they like about wind turbines,” says Firestone. “Businesses and people can do a lot better budgeting with stable prices.”

A lot of people value price stability, and that’s one of the things they like about wind turbines

The environmental component is also critical, since wind power also decreases costs to society.

“One of the things that gets lost in a lot of the price discussion,” says Firestone, “is that a lot of the cost to society is not included in the price that we pay for electricity.”

He cites coal as an example. “There is a lot of environmental harm created through the mining and burning of coal, and large health impacts. These are not priced in the market.”

Part of the greater good

The researchers were particularly surprised by participants responses when asked if they would be more or less likely to support a project if it was the first of 300 such projects. The majority of opposed or undecided residents were more likely to support a project if it was part of a greater whole and likely to create an industry for offshore wind.

According to the study, this “overwhelming sentiment among survey respondents provides further reason to reject the knee-­jerk labeling of opponents as NIMBY [not in my backyard]—adding 300 more offshore wind facilities later would not reduce the local impacts at all.”

Says Firestone: “It’s a testament to the fact that the public is hungry for something bigger than themselves, and really would be behind an energy policy that was transformative.”

The study has been accepted by the Journal of Environmental Panning and Management, according to the authors.

Top image: Middelgrunden, an offshore wind farm in Denmark. Photo by Kim Hansen. Accessed from Wikimedia’s Creative Commons.