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Social acceptance of wind energy: An introduction to the concept

Wind energy, being a clean and renewable energy source in a global context of increasing social concerns about climate change and energy supply, is traditionally linked to very strong and stable levels of public support. The most recent empirical evidence on public opinion towards wind energy at both the EU and the country level fully ratifies such favourable perception of this energy source among European citizens. Nevertheless, experience in the implementation of wind projects shows that social acceptance is crucial for the successful development of specific wind energy projects. Thus, what are the main singularities of the social acceptance of wind energy - if compared to the social acceptance of other energy technologies?

  • The (very) high and stable levels of general public support: on the abstract level about 80% of EU citizens support wind energy;
  • The higher number of siting decisions to be made due to the relatively current small scale nature of the energy source;
  • The visibility of wind energy devices and the proximity to the everyday life of citizens (if compared with the "subterranean" and distant character of conventional power generation and fossil fuels extraction);
  • The tensions between support and opposition concerning specific wind power developments at the local level: large majorities of people living near windfarm sites are in favour of their local wind farm, but wind planning and siting processes are facing significant challenges in some countries across Europe.

Consequently, the social acceptance of wind power entails both the general positive attitude towards the wind energy technology together with the increasing number of "visible" siting decisions to be made at the local level. Importantly, it is at the local level where the "technical" characteristics of wind energy interact with the everyday life of the individual, and the social and institutional environments of the communities hosting such developments. As we will see, the general positive attitudes towards wind power are not necessarily linked to the local acceptance of wind energy projects.

This is the context in which we find the most recent formulation of the concept "social acceptance" linked to renewable energies, the so- called "triangle model", that distinguish three key dimensions of social acceptance: the socio-political acceptance; the community acceptance; and the market acceptance.

Figure 6.1 The triangle model of social acceptance, Source: Wüstenhagen et al, 2007

Figure 6.1 The triangle model of social acceptance, Source: Wüstenhagen et al, 2007

Socio-political Acceptance: refers to the acceptance of both technologies and policies, at the most general level. Importantly, this general level of socio-political acceptance is not limited to the "high and stable" levels of acceptance by the general public, but includes the acceptance by key stakeholders and policy makers. Stakeholders and policy makers involved in discussing "renewable policies" become crucial when addressing planning issues or promoting local involvement initiatives. Thus, the assessment of their levels of acceptance is an area of increasing interest for social researchers.
Community Acceptance: refers to the acceptance of specific projects at the local level, including potentially effected populations, key local stakeholders and the local authorities. This is the area where social debate around renewables arises and develops, and the one that has attracted most of the social research traditionally carried out in the wind energy field.
Market Acceptance: refers to the process by which market parties adopt and support (or otherwise) the energy innovation. Here we find processes such as green power marketing and willingness to pay for green power. Market acceptance is proposed in a wider sense, i.e. including not only consumers but also investors and, very significant, intra-firm acceptance.

Interestingly, this "triangle model" works well with the "three discourses" scheme suggested by another recent conceptual approach to the social perception of energy technologies: the "siting discourse" (when the technology is experienced in terms of a proposed construction of some facility in a given locality); the "energy-innovation discourse" (when the technology is experienced as an innovation that may or may not fit in with preferred ways of life); and the "investment discourse" (when the technology is experienced as an investment opportunity that is acceptable, or otherwise, in the light of the possible gains it will produce). Moreover, this "triangle model" has been proposed as the conceptual framework in a recent task of the International Energy Agency - Wind (Implementing Agreement for Co-operation in the Research, Development and Deployment of Wind Energy Systems) dealing with the social acceptance of wind energy projects: "Winning Hearts and Minds" (IEA Wind, 2007).

The next pages will introduce the main findings of the social research with regards to Socio-political acceptance (i.e. the acceptance of technologies and policies by both the general public and the key stakeholders and policy makers) and Community acceptance (i.e. the acceptance of specific projects at the local level).

The social research on wind energy onshore

Social research on wind energy has primarily focused on three main areas:

  • The assessment (and corroboration) of the (high and stable) levels of public support (by means of opinion polls and attitude surveys), (Public acceptance);
  • The identification and understanding of the dimensions underlying the social controversy at the local level (by means of single or multiple case studies, including surveys) (Community acceptance);
  • Social acceptance by key stakeholders and policy makers (by means of interviews and multiple case studies). Recent approaches are paying increasing attention to this field (Stakeholders acceptance).

Let's see what social research on wind energy tell us about the social acceptance of wind developments by such a wide range of social actors and levels.

Public Acceptance of Wind Energy (Socio-political Acceptance)

One of the traditional focuses of social research on wind energy has been the assessment of the levels of public support for wind energy by means of opinion polls and attitude surveys. Among opinion polls, the strongest indicator allowing comparisons of the level of support in different countries is the Eurobarometer Standard Survey (EB), carried out twice yearly and covering the population of the European Union (EU) aged 15 and over (16,000 interviews with approximately 1,000 interviews in each Member State). Over the 30 years that these surveys have been conducted they have proved to be a helpful source of information for EU policy makers on a broad range of economic, social, environmental and other issues of importance to EU citizens. Recent EB data on public opinion (EC, 2006, 2007) confirms the strongly positive overall picture for renewable energies in general, and for wind energy in particular, at the EU level, and not only for the present but also for the future.

Figure 6.2 General attitudes towards energy sources in the EU, Source: Special EB 262 (EC, 2007)

Figure 6.2 General attitudes towards energy sources in the EU, Source: Special EB 262 (EC, 2007)

When EU citizens are asked about their preferences in terms of the use of different energy sources, renewable energies in general, and wind energy in particular, are rated highly positive (especially when compared with nuclear or fossil fuels). The highest support is for solar energy (80%), closely followed by wind energy. Thus, 71% of the EU citizens are firmly in favour of the use of wind power in their countries; 21% express a balanced view, and only 5% are opposed to it. After solar and wind, we find hydroelectric energy (65% of support), ocean energy (60% of support), and biomass (55% of support). According to this EB survey, only a marginal number of respondents opposed the use of renewable energy sources in their countries. As regards fossil fuels, 42% of the EU citizens favoured the use of natural gas, and about one-quarter accepted the use of oil (27%) and coal (26%). Nuclear power seems to divide opinions, with the higher rate of opposition (37%), balanced opinions (36%) and the lowest rate of support.

Focussing on the use of wind energy - in a scale from 1 (strongly opposed) to 7 (strongly in favour) - the EU average is 6.3. Even higher rates of support arose in some countries, such as: Denmark (6.7); Greece (6.5); Poland, Hungary and Malta (6.4). The UK shows the lowest support figure of the EU (5.7), closely followed by Finland and Germany (5.8).

EU citizens also demonstrated a very positive view of renewable energy in general and of wind energy in particular when asked about their expectations regarding the three most used energy sources 30 years from now. Results showed that wind energy is expected to be a key energy source in the future - just after solar. Respondents in all countries, except the Czech Republic, Italy, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Finland, mentioned wind energy among the three energy sources most likely to be used in their countries 30 years from now. The expected increase in the use of wind energy from 2007 until 2037 is really important in all countries (that mentioned wind), with an average expected increase of 36.35%.

Figure 6.3 General attitudes towards energy sources in the EU in 30 years from now, Source: Special EB 262 (EC, 2007)

Figure 6.3 General attitudes towards energy sources in the EU in 30 years from now, Source: Special EB 262 (EC, 2007)

The latest EB on "Attitudes towards energy" (EC, 2006) further corroborates this positive picture of wind at the EU level. For the EU citizens, the development in the use of wind energy was the third preferred option to reduce our energy dependence on foreign, expensive and highly polluting sources (31%), after the increase in the use of solar energy (48%) and the promotion of advance research on new energy technologies (41%). Importantly, further evidence at the country level gathered by several national wind energy associations, such as the British Wind Energy Association, Assoziazione Nazionale Energia Del Vento, or the Austrian Wind Energy Association, ratifies this positive overall scenario with regards to the use of wind energy, both at present and in the future.

One interesting question is the association between these important levels of general public support to wind energy and the actual implementation of wind power in each country. This could be analysed through the correlation of two variables: percentage of people strongly in favour of wind power, from the Eurobarometer, and wind capacity in kW/1,000 inhab. The bivariate analysis shows a low and not significant linear correlation: the highest levels of public enthusiasm about wind power in our sample of countries were not associated with the highest levels of wind capacity per habitant. In line with the most recent formulation of the "social acceptability" of wind farms, this result may indicate that the generally favourable public support for the technology of wind power does not seem to be directly related to the installed wind capacity (that is the result of specific positive decisions about projects). Thus, it is highly important to properly differentiate between the "public acceptance" of wind energy, and the "community acceptance" (and stakeholders acceptance) of specific wind developments.

Figure 6.4 Wind acceptability and wind capacity in the EU.

Figure 6.4 Wind acceptability and wind capacity in the EU.

Finally, from the methodological perspective, it should be noted that in despite of a profusion of quantitative surveys - and with a few notable exceptions - there is still a lack of valid and reliable quantitative methodological tools for understanding general public perceptions of wind farms.

To conclude, the key message regarding "public acceptance" is the evidence of the very high levels of public support to and for wind energy and the fact that this favourable general condition does not seem to be directly related to the installed wind capacity. Thus, there is a need to also look at the perceptions of the other key actors involved in wind development: the local communities hosting the wind farms, and the key stakeholders involved in such developments.

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