Renewables, Wind

Reframing the Windfarm

Issue 10 and Volume 109.

By: John C. Zink, Ph.D., P.E., Contributing Editor

Wind is the next big thing. No, really. National Geographic, featuring renewables in its August 2005 issue, observes that wind is the world’s fast growing source of energy, the “biggest success story” in renewables. AWEA forecasts that 2000 MW of wind power will be installed domestically in 2005 compared to 389 in 2004. Major players from GE to Goldman Sachs are entering the field, a clear sign of emerging market maturity. And the recently enacted Energy Bill, although not as renewable friendly as the Senate version, nevertheless has plenty of pork for wind.

However, just when things appear to be blowing its direction, wind power too often takes a hit in an unexpected or unpredictable way. The investment community has long been frustrated by Congressional whimsy in deciding whether to renew the Production Tax Credit (now set to expire in 2007), making the long-term economic viability of the subsidized technology perpetually uncertain. And local NIMBY opposition to proposed windfarm sites keeps developing among seemingly the least likely constituencies, environmentalists and those otherwise expected to be friendly to green technology.

The highest profile examples of this unanticipated opposition are Senators Edward Kennedy and Lamar Alexander, the former the quintessential blue-stater, the latter a recent presidential candidate whose red plaid flannel shirts were perhaps a not so subtle attempt to show eco-sensitivity. Both oppose the Nantucket Sound Cape Wind project. Both own property in the area.

But such opposition is not confined to the well known. The New York Times reported on July 24, 2005, that similar local opposition to a proposed windfarm in northern New York State had coalesced around the issue of the visual blight associated with such farms. Across the country this theme of “ugly” wind turbines and resulting depressed property values has made the difficulty of windfarm siting in the face of local opposition arguably the most significant impediment to an otherwise desirable technology.

But wind power does not have to surrender the battlefield to this type of NIMBY opposition. Wind power advocates would be extremely well served to avail themselves of the political buzzword du jour, “reframing” (New York Times Magazine, July 17, 2005). Reframing is reconceptualizing, “using your mind in different ways, taking a policy goal currently understood in terms of one set of ideas and re-establishing it in the context of another” (www.rockridgeinstitute.org).

As articulated by California-Berkeley linguistic professor, Dr. George Lakoff (author of Don’t Think of an Elephant), this tactic of reframing debates in more favorable linguistic terms, fitting individual issues into broader story lines, has been seized upon by the national Democratic party in the wake of their current minority status. Democrats have finally realized that the Republicans have been far more successful in using language to redefine their message in readily understandable terms (consider the success of “tax relief” and “partial birth abortion”). The Republican message can be easily captured in eight words – strong defense, lower taxes, family values, less government. To counter Republican electoral success, the Democrats have now decided that they need to “reframe” their message in similarly consistent, positive terms, to tie together individual issues in a larger frame familiar to us all.

Reframing is a constant presence in the ongoing political debate. The “global war on terror” becomes the “global struggle against violent extremism.” In the energy arena, experimental coal technology becomes clean coal. Nuclear power becomes a renewable technology. Wind power can take a valuable cue from this technique and neutralize its NIMBY opponents by creatively reframing its message in unexpected and new ways.

Wind power already starts with substantial advantages in public perception. Its green credentials have brought Greenpeace to its side and certainly all renewables are admired to the extent they reduce reliance on foreign sources of energy. The impact on bird populations now appears minimal, with one study of Swedish windfarms showing that among migrating birds, only 14 of 1.5 million are likely to be killed by spinning turbines, far less than the impact of long term global warming.

The primary objection to wind these days thus is most often visual, the suggestion by local opponents that the unsightly towers will destroy the landscape and reduce property values. But that is an objection to which a creatively “reframed” response is most effective.

Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. And rather than letting the opponents of wind turbines control the debate by suggesting that these sleek, efficient machines are ugly, proponents need only convince the public that they are instead works of “eco-art,” harmoniously integrating into the landscape to protect the environment in fundamental and special ways.

Windmills in Holland have long been a popular architectural tourist attraction, “industrial art.” Indeed evidence suggests that Europeans generally have succeeded in this reframing approach to wind. The Danes, relying upon wind for 20 percent of their energy needs, consider offshore windfarms as objects of artistic curiosity and go so far as to sponsor eco-tours to the sites. In Scotland, 90 percent of tourists do not object to such farms. In the UK, prospective concerns about wind power dissipate in practice. Ninety-two percent of respondents are not bothered by visual impact, 97 percent are unconcerned about noise, and most importantly for reframing purposes, 80 percent consider the local wind plant to be a tourist attraction.

Reframing in the United States may have already begun, in the least likely of places, Palm Springs, California. After 10 years fighting a windfarm, the local community now embraces it. A visit to the city’s website features the windfarm as a prominent local tourist attraction, the “world famous Palm Springs windmill tours.”

The Democrats are finally on to something that the Republicans have known for the last several years. Reframing the debate on your own terms enhances your chances of public acceptance. Wind already has a number of important advantages and allies. To capture the public imagination, it may need only to take one last step and reframe itself as eco-art, creatively blending technology with landscape to protect the environment.

At that point, NIMBY “opponents” such as Senators Alexander and Kennedy will be exposed as acting primarily out of narrow self interests, trying to protect the views from their elite homes at the expense of not only the environment, but indeed of art itself. To oppose wind will be to oppose the environment and art, a nasty political burden few will want to bear.