Wind Energy – Popular Yet Contentious

May 21, 2013 by  
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Researchers find broad popular support for wind-energy development in central Indiana counties. But wind-turbine opponents say the study misrepresents public opinion and local government responsibilities.

Photo by Lafayette Online. Benton County is the home of Indiana’s first operational wind farm. Each of the farm’s 87 turbines  produces enough electricity to power 600 average American homes per year.

Residents of central Indiana counties overwhelmingly support the development of wind-power farms, a Purdue University College of Agriculture research report says. But opponents of wind-energy development say the study misrepresents community opinion.

The study and its detractors underscore the challenging nature of energy development in the United States, especially for the rural communities where energy is most likely to be produced. 

Purdue researchers looked at public response to the development of wind-energy facilities in three central Indiana counties northwest of Indianapolis. They say 88 percent of people who responded to a mail and online survey supported wind-energy development in their counties.

Indiana residents who oppose the construction of wind turbines say the survey technique the researchers used to gauge public opinion isn’t reliable.

The research report, funded by the Purdue University College of Agriculture, looked at Benton, Tippecanoe and Boone counties in central Indiana. Support for building turbines was strong throughout the three counties, the researchers say. But in Boone County, the local government voted not to allow the construction of wind turbines. The other two counties allowed wind turbines (Tippecanoe approved its wind-turbine ordinance after the Purdue researchers completed their study.)

So if public support was as strong as the researchers say, why did Boone County leaders reject wind turbines while the other two counties approved them? 

One big difference in Boone County, the Purdue researchers concluded, was the presence of a sizeable commuter population that had moved to Boone County to enjoy country living while working in nearby Indianapolis.

“Residents have specifically chosen Boone County so they can live in a rural area and commute to work,” write Purdue University researchers in an article published in the journal Energy Policy. “These small landowners who had intentionally chosen the bucolic landscape then oppose the siting of wind turbines for aesthetic reasons.”

The researchers also say the “silent majority” that supported wind farms didn’t get involved in local politics. Wind-energy opponents, on the other hand, were vocal and organized. The squeaky turbine gets the grease, you might say.

Researchers looked at public opinion and county-government responses to wind-energy farms in three central Indiana counties, Benton, Tippecanoe and Boone.

As one Boone County official put it, “One thing you learn in government, 90 percent of your noise comes from 10 percent of the people. And this group [that opposed wind turbines] was making 90% of the noise. So we were listening to this group.”

Opponents of wind turbines, however, said the failure of wind-energy promoters to get involved in local politics doesn’t reflect a problem with democracy but is actually a better reflection of the public sentiment about erecting wind turbines.

Whitley County Concerned Citizens, an anti-turbine group located about 100 miles northeast of the counties in the Purdue study, said the Purdue study is flawed because it doesn’t use a randomized survey method. Survey respondents self-selected, so there’s no way to know whether they represent a good cross-section of community opinion or not, they said.

The study’s detractors also said researchers assumed local governments should help the wind-power companies erect turbines and start generating electricity.

“Wind developers … have no right to trample on residents’ property rights and values for some perceived ‘greater good’ and ‘public use’ via eminent domain,” Whitley County Concerned Citizens says on its website. “These are private companies making secret deals with farmers to control tens of thousands of acres then pressuring the local government to change the rules in the developer’s favor.”

This map from the Tall Towers Study of 2003 shows average wind speeds 100 meters above the ground. The dark-green areas have higher wind speeds.

Each of the three counties included in the Purdue study is in a metropolitan area, but they have vastly different development patterns. 

Boone County, which rejected the ordinance, is in the Indianapolis metropolitan statistical area. It has a two small cities of about 15,000 residents each; a third of the county’s population lives in rural areas.

Tippecanoe County, which eventually approved a wind-turbine ordinance, is much larger – with a population of about 172,000, centered on the city of Lafayette, home of Purdue University.

Benton County was by far the smallest county in the study. It’s in the Lafayette metro area, but it has a population of only 8,800.  It also is the windiest county in Indiana, according to 2003 report.


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