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NIMBY-ism: a threat to renewables or a justified concern?

March 12, 2012

petrovaThe prospect of irreversible climate change and depleting energy resources has necessitated significant investment in renewable energy projects. However, local opposition to clean energy projects has proved to be a major hindrance to expanding them on a large scale. In fact, some consider NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) attitudes to be the single greatest barrier to wind project investment. Maria Petrova, a postdoctoral research fellow at CIERP, explored the various facets of this opposition in her presentation titled “NIMBY-ism and Wind Power – a New Look at an Old Problem” on March 12.

Wind energy supplies over 10 million US homes and accounts for about 2.3 % of the electricity generated in the US. To increase production, energy facilities are built closer to the consumer, which can cause a "symbolic threat" to people’s emotional and cognitive bonds, defined in the literature as "place identity" and "place attachment," stemming from the associations people make between their own identities and the physical and symbolic attributes of the landscape.

Questions about NIMBY attitudes arise when people are in favor of environmentally friendly energy but are opposed to the siting of such projects in their local areas. Petrova defined NIMBY-ism as an attitude ascribed to persons who object to the siting of something they regard as detrimental or hazardous in their neighborhood while raising no such objections to similar developments elsewhere. She added that motivations for opposition are often related to the detrimental or hazardous nature of the facility and the expected consequences such as noise and/or visual impact.

Petrova grouped her observations into three sections: Human Geography, Environmental Policy, Socio-economic effects. Human geography explores the relationship between people and their environment, and studies how people are affected by changing landscapes. NIMBY-ism is associated with negative human responses to changing landscapes. Petrova said, "People expect landscapes to change gradually. They are used to seeing open spaces and take pride in having open spaces in their communities." To some, the possibility of wind farms disturbing the quality of life in the area and drastically changing the landscape overshadows the many advantages of wind energy.

Interestingly, environmental concerns can also spark protests. While many environmentalists support the building of wind turbines because they are concerned about climate change, others cite instances of bird- or bat-kills as negative environmental impacts. That debate is described as "green-on-green" in the literature.

Discussing the socio-economic impact of NIMBY-ism, Petrova said, "People worry about visual effects, noise, decline in property values, local cost, jobs, and impact on local industries. In economic terms, the type of compensation (to residents), the timing of that compensation, and whether there should be any compensation at all are big issues. Studies say that when people are compensated well, their acceptance of the project increases." The compensation model can take many forms and can also involve partial ownership.

Some experts question the validity of NIMBY-ism as a theory, labeling it too simplistic and an incomplete representation of the reasons for opposition. Nonetheless, Petrova said that early public involvement in the siting process, timely and objective information, effective communication, trust-building, and sincere engagement with those affected can bridge the opinion and motivation gaps between project developers and residents.

View Petrova's presentation slides here.

-Article by Sachin Gaur, MALD candidate F13