Wind energy polling dilemma — emotive opponents fly in face of public support

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By Jay Vincent,
Senior Vice President, Energy, The Saint Consulting Group

transmission lineWhere is the passion in polling? There is none. Polling indicates the public’s feelings about a number of various topics on any given day. But it can also be misleading if viewed out of context — especially when it comes to land use issues.

How is it, for example, that most Americans support wind energy in general, but emotive opponents can block transmission lines delivery wind energy or wind farms in some local communities? It can be a dilemma for the wind industry.

Saint Consulting just conducted a survey about whether people support or oppose new, high-voltage transmission lines in their community. A majority of the 1,200 respondents objected. See findings in this recent Saint Report.

We then asked about building those same transmission lines in their community to deliver “clean, renewable electricity from wind,” fewer than 20 percent objected. And our annual Saint Index national survey revealed an overwhelming 82 percent support for a local wind energy project.

So, the jury’s in, right? Everyone loves renewable energy projects. But wait. Communities fight wind farms (onshore and offshore) every day. New York Regional Interconnect recently had its application for transmission lines rejected based on local opposition in many municipalities along the proposed route.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer even suggested legislation Capitol Hill to prohibit “bureaucrats” from siting transmission lines in areas over the objections of state and local governments and concerned residents,
Granted, wind farms are also supported in many local communities for such reasons as green jobs, economic development and, of course, energy policy. But the emotional opposition appears to fly in the face of surveys and polls showing national support for clean energy generation and transmission.

What’s going on? Do these polls and surveys lack credibility? No.
In fact, they are spot-on in terms of reflecting how Americans feel about renewable generation and distribution projects and how they may positively impact our communities given the perceived global threats of climate change, greenhouse gases and negative impact to wildlife over time.

Today, based on a solid campaign by climate change advocates, the renewable energy industry, the current Obama administration and constant media pounding, the threat to our economy and the environment posed by carbon-emitting generation sources is very real and frankly easy to grasp. The arguments have been made and, let’s face it, many Americans are buying in.

But it’s easy to support a wind energy project without a real wind turbine or transmission line literally staring you in the face. That’s where rational thinking ends and passionate “defense of the community” (or defense of the children for that matter) campaigns begin. See a recent example of such community opposition in this Leesburg, Va. Today report.

If you want to truly test feelings about how people feel about a very local development, put on a pair of jeans, place a “Wind Developer X” lapel sticker on your shirt, ring a couple doorbells and say, “Hi, I’ve just purchased the property over there and am going to construct a 75 turbine wind-farm. I wanted to introduce myself to my new neighbors.”

It’s a 50-50 bet a flak jacket should have been added to your wardrobe.
Or, even better, shop for a home in a community of interest and share the rumor of a new 765 kV transmission line going across the property down the road, in front of the view of the mountain range. What’s the survey say then? Chances are you may not find majority support, even from residents who responded in the poll you fielded yesterday.

Perhaps at best, polling identifies the size of the silent majority you have on your side when they are under no local threat of changing their daily lives. Winning hearts and minds in a poll won’t necessarily win you a permit at town hall. No matter our political leanings, we’re all not unlike Senator Ted Kennedy‘s comments against proposed Danish wind turbines off Hyannisport: Renewable energy is great in our public opinion, just not when it gets in the way of our personal point of view.

Jay Vincent is senior vice president for energy, The Saint Consulting Group, email, phone 312.970.5770 Ext: 7502

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