Wind Turbine Farm
Image Credit: Don Graham (CC BY-SA 2.0)

More and more companies are popping into existence on the booming clean energy market. To assist in their projects, they employ an increasing number of experts. Lawyers to work out land leasing contracts. Press relations experts to cast their energy project in the best light possible. And, of course, surveyors to aid in construction. But seldom do these companies give thought to the social landscapes that surround them. In an arena where too many of these critical projects fail due to local resistance, employing social surveyors can pay dividends.

I have written before about how the residents of Woodward County, Oklahoma and Kent County, Maryland reacted differently to clean energy production. While both regions are rural, agricultural places that pride themselves on history and heritage, only Woodward County welcomed the addition of clean energy producing wind turbines to the landscape. Despite the similarities in place and people, the residents of Kent County rejected attempts to build both a utility-scale wind farm and then a solar array within their county’s borders.

My conclusion was that one factor above all others explains this difference in reaction to clean energy development in places that are otherwise similar: familiarity with energy extraction. Woodward County has a very long history of extracting oil, natural gas, and now wind energy. Kent County never has. While the specifics of wind energy may have been foreign to Woodward residents, the general concepts of land leases, transient workers, industrial traffic, and large structures on the horizon were already very familiar in the context of oil production. For those in Kent County, they have never seen anything like this in their lives.

But with the future of energy transitioning toward small-scale, carbon free production, this type of rejection presents a problem. Historically our energy has been produced at a small number of sites in very large quantities. Going forward, we are seeing a grid where electricity is produced at a huge number of sites in very small quantities. This decentralization of the grid will present logistical problems for communities who reject the development of local clean energy projects.

But it’s also unfair to expect communities to shut up and just accept any changes to the place they have a connection to. This is land that they call home. It should be understandable that when a gigantic, multinational company blows through and proposes what residents see as a radical shift to their landscape and community, those residents balk.

So a balance has to exist. A two-way street has to be built if this critical energy transition is going to occur. People around the world must become willing to live near (or even inside of) their local power plant. But energy corporations and utilities must become mindful of the impact their activities have on local populations.

Energy companies need to demonstrate a much more adept understanding of the social factors and forces that surround their work. This is a responsibility they have to the communities in which they operate. These companies must be responsive to the concerns and criticisms of community members. They must be clear and concise in their communications. They must be receptive to input from communities. They must demonstrate a sincere desire to be a long-term community member when they move in. And they must show that there will be a clear benefit to those around them.

Most important, energy companies have to understand the collective, social identity that exists uniquely in each place they build. Let’s not beat around the bush: people are sensitive about having stuff built near them. If you never take steps to address these feelings of intrusion, you can’t be surprised when crowds of disgruntled neighbors blow up your solar energy project in a courtroom.

To date, companies have done a lousy job of this. The concept known as the “social gap” is proof positive; why is it that, in the United States, wind and solar energy enjoy an overwhelming level of general support, yet so many individual projects fail due to local resistance?

Failure is exactly what happened to a solar project in Kent County. After hearing extensive public resistance to the project, a public utilities judge denied the energy developer’s application for a 60 MW, half mile square solar farm.

In this particular case, it would have been valuable for the company to have understood that the objections of those in Kent County went deeper than the company’s first assumptions. To counter what the company thought was the key issue, they offered to plant a vegetative screen of trees and shrubs to hide the solar farm from the viewscape. But when the root of people’s objection is more about the very presence of a foreign object that many see as trampling on the agricultural identity of the county, a vegetative screen doesn’t make you forget the solar farm is there. In fact, it almost makes it worse. Using vegetation to hide the solar array means that every time people see the screen, they not only think of the solar farm they object to, but they also see a near demeaning attempt by a corporate entity to make them forget the solar panels even exist.

To be clear, I don’t think that was the company’s intention at all. I think the screen is a very well-intentioned attempt to address an issue they saw. Though a better understanding of Kent County residents’ sense of place have may have revealed more effective solutions.

In fact, I would go so far as to recommend to energy companies that they have sociologists or anthropologists on staff to assess the cultural landscape of projects. Just as the work of surveyors in assessing the physical landscape is invaluable to their operations, understanding the cultural landscape will ensure as little friction in the process as possible and go a long way toward upholding these companies’ corporate responsibility.

This new energy future we find ourselves in is clearly one of give and take. For residents, out-of-sight, out-of-mind simply does not work anymore. Just as we are used to the town’s post office, its hospital, and its water tower, we must get used to its solar farm in the same way. But for the corporations who are building those farms, they have a responsibility to understand the culture of where they build. Not only is this part of being a good neighbor, but it will help decrease the resistance that they face now and into the future. Taking the time to meticulously understand a region’s sense of place will aid in their immediate efforts as well as help acclimate us all to our new future with a little friction as possible. Decentralization is the direction we are headed in. We owe it to each other to achieve that future as amiably as possible.

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