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Wind Power and NIMBYism; Why Some People Aren’t Fans

We’ve seen them in the distance - wispy giants waving steadily on mountains, hillsides, and coastal plains. Sustainable, cost-effective, and the largest source of renewable power in the United States (Bowers, 2020), it’s surprising to learn that there’s fierce opposition to wind-based energy. It’s not difficult to find anti-wind turbine groups on Facebook (PEOPLE AGAINST WIND TURBINES, n.d.) or to find the term “wind turbine syndrome” (Jaekl, 2017) casually mentioned. The effects of living within proximity to wind turbines and their noise are alleged to cause nausea, sleep disturbances, cancer (Burke, 2019), and even death. However, research published in Finland (Maijala et al., 2020) has provided data showing that noise from wind turbines is not associated with the aforementioned symptoms. Studies show (Chapman et al., 2013) that wind turbine syndrome is nothing more than a pseudo-scientific diagnosis prompted by the anxieties of the unknown (Crichton, 2022).     

While wind-turbine syndrome may have a shaky standing in the medical community, NIMBYism runs robust and rampant throughout the country. NIMBY, standing for “Not In My Backyard,” is the condition that we’ve all probably encountered at one point or another. While a civic project may sound good on paper, many locals are opposed to having said project “in their backyard.” For example, do you want to help those suffering from the ongoing opioid crisis (Roy, 2020)? Sure, but perhaps not if it means having a rehabilitation center built next door to you.

Coined in the 1980s (Lewis, 2009), NIMBYism stems from classism, social exclusion, and the unrealistic desire to have one’s cake and eat it too. Similar to the social desirability bias (Social Desirability, 2020) we over-report our more desirable attitudes (we need to help the houseless!), yet drastically under-report our less desirable thoughts (but, I don’t want to live nearby a shelter). 

Wind turbines have been part of the NIMBY naughty list since as far back as 1984 when urban planner Sylvia White (Shere, 2022) stated that they “deface the landscape.” Aside from the subjectivity of their appearance (they don’t look that bad, do they?), what are some of the other issues that an anti-fan may have?

They’re harmful to birds

Being an intrinsic part of the environment, birds provide insect and rodent control, plant pollination, and seed distribution. Their part in the delicate Jenga we call our ecosystem is essential as an insect or rodent outbreak can destroy multitudes of agricultural products and forest resources. There are estimates of up to a million (“Wind turbines birds and bats,” 2021) birds per year being killed in the U.S. by wind turbines. However, wind turbines are soundly beat by power lines (25 million), cats (1.4 - 4 billion), and your basic, average window by 1 billion (“Wind turbines birds and bats,” 2021). And, of course, there’s always climate change (Whittle, 2021).

This isn’t to say that wind turbine related deaths should be overlooked, as stated by American Bird Conservancy (“3 Billion Birds Gone,” 2020), “It’s vital to pursue renewable energy now to limit the effects of climate change, but also important that we set turbines and associated infrastructure away from areas that are essential for birds.” ABC has come up with principles and steps for “Bird Smart Wind Energy” (Merriman, n.d.) which includes solutions such as bladeless (NAW Staff, 2012) wind turbines.

You can’t recycle the blades

This is another legitimate concern, as our planet is a closed system; nothing disappears and uncontained matter spreads out. Wouldn’t it be counterintuitive to provide a green energy resource that also contributes to our already heaping garbage dumps?

Images of wind turbine blades (Martin, 2020), some of which are around 52 meters long, are shown being buried in a landfill in Casper Wyoming. Conservative memes state sardonically, “That’s how green energy works!” It’s true that in the aforementioned image, blades from over 10 years old are difficult to recycle due to their fiberglass material (components inside the blades are reused, though). While the older blade technology may not have hit the mark on sustainability, newer technologies are addressing the issue, such as the start-up Global Fiberglass Solutions (“Fiberglass Recycling”, 2020). GFS tackles the problems associated with cutting, reusing, and transportation of fiberglass-based blades, often pressing them into pellets and fiberboards to be used as construction materials. Renewable energy company Siemens Gamesa (Menéndez, 2021) has also created the world’s first recycle turbine blade available for offshore commercial use. With sustainability becoming a competitive market, other start-ups (“Wind turbines,” 2021) are also problem-solving the innovation of landfill-bypassing products. In short, recycling blades is a valid concern, particularly with the older models, but the obstacle is not insurmountable. And, one holds out hope that bladeless technology (“Vortex Bladeless,” 2021) will continue to avoid the problem in the first place. 

What to do?

As with many issues pertaining to environmentalism and civic engagement, it’s messy and rooted in deep complications; water is wet. So, what is one to do when confronting issues of NIMBYism, particularly in the sustainability realm?

Firstly, work to understand the perspective of the public base. Empathy is key to negotiation, as it helps you understand the public’s needs and motivations. Someone with NIMBY-based views and fears is not necessarily setting out to be obstructive or destructive - they’re generally relatable people afraid of losing property and livelihoods. Systemic change can be scary as it ventures into the unknown. With that information in mind, it can help you appeal to a common goal, e.g. “we all want to live in a healthier, environmentally-friendly place.”

Next, distinguish legitimate issues from false ones, such as the erroneous claims that wind turbines cause cancer versus the valid concerns of animal preservation and recyclability. Correct misinformation where needed but understand that this will not always be received. However, having hard evidence and research on hand is never a bad thing. 

Finally, when possible, find opportunities for compromise. Often there are ways to incentivize and provide benefits when it comes to systemic changes, such as the offering of new job opportunities or a tax reduction for a green-based industry. As always, truthful communication is key when it comes to negotiation, and understanding that no case is exactly alike. 

Special thanks for the guest contribution from Nico Danks, our ASCP Student Intern studying at MSU Denver who is studying Clinical Psychology and Human Development. We value the connection to social and environmental health discussed in this blog.


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