Nearly one in five wind energy projects in North America faced community opposition, especially in white and wealthy communities, according to a new study. This represents energy privilege, the researchers said, as lower-income communities and communities of color bear the brunt of the pollution from burning fossil fuels.
In the US and Canada, wind energy expanded rapidly from being less than 1% of electricity generation in 2000 in both countries, to 8% and 6% in 2020, in the US and Canada, respectively. While this brings health and climate benefits, wind energy projects have faced local opposition. This has only been studied in small geographic areas so far.
Researchers from UC Santa Barbara (UCSB), the University of Michigan and Gallup looked at wind projects throughout North America to determine how common opposition is and which factors predict it. They found that 17% of the projects in the US and 18% in Canada faced opposition, largely coming out of white, wealthy communities.
“Most research on opposition to wind energy projects focuses on specific case studies or small geographic areas,” Leah Stokes, lead author and UCSB researcher, said in a news release. “We wanted to take a comprehensive look at political opposition across North America to understand how common opposition is and what predicts it.”
Barriers to wind energy
The study collected over 35,000 news articles to analyze 1,415 wind energy projects between 2000 and 2016. Opposition was defined as physical protest, legal actions, legislation and letters to the editor. Large wind energy projects, with more turbines, located in the Northeastern US and in Ontario, Canada were more likely to face opposition.
The researchers found race and ethnicity played a significant role in predicting whether opposition occurs. Wind energy projects in areas with a high percentage of white people and a lower percentage of Hispanic people were more likely to face resistance. Also, the names in the news articles of those involved in opposition were overwhelmingly white.
The study showed small numbers of people turned out to physically protest against the wind energy projects in the US and Canada, typically only around 20 to 30 people. Previous research suggested that in the US many of the small groups responsible for opposition to wind projects are indirectly funded by fossil fuel companies through far-right think tanks.
“Fossil fuel plants are predominantly located in poorer communities and communities of color,” Stokes said.
“We need to replace fossil fuel power plants with clean energy, like wind and solar. When wealthier, whiter communities oppose wind energy projects in their backyards, they extend the lifetime of fossil fuel projects. This is an injustice.”
Opposition to clean energy is a privilege, the researchers said. It imposes a pollution burden on low-income communities and communities of color, as it slows down the transition from fossil fuel sources close to their homes. Fossil fuels are the main culprit of the climate crisis. The mean global temperature has already increased by 1 degree Celsius.
The study was published in the journal PNAS.