What Polls Can Miss About Americans’ Love of Wind and Solar Power
Renewables are really popular. That’s not the problem.
Renewables are popular, and most Americans don’t mind living near them. That’s the message of an interesting new poll from The Washington Post and the University of Maryland, which found that about 70% of Americans would be comfortable living near a wind or solar farm “in their community.” Now, Americans slightly prefer solar over wind, and there’s a partisan gap among the respondents — 79% of Democrats are comfortable living near a wind farm, while only 59% of Republicans are — but overall the message is clear: Americans as a whole don’t mind living near a new renewables project.
It’s great to see this poll, and it adds to a growing and now, I think, unimpeachable body of research that shows renewables remain broadly popular in the United States. In March, a Heatmap poll found that 72% and 76% of Americans, respectively, would welcome utility-scale wind and solar in their communities. We found that the only more popular form of electricity generation was rooftop solar (which can’t solve climate change by itself), backed by nearly 9 in 10 Americans:
In June, the Pew Research Center found similar majorities in its polling, although it also noted that the partisan gap over renewables was continuing to widen. Only 60% of Republicans favor building more wind power today, according to Pew, as compared to 80% in 2016. (Over the same period, Democrats have become modestly more supportive of expanding wind.)
These polls are important. They demonstrate that renewable advocates can draw on a broad base of public support — or, at least, indifference — when fighting for policy. But I worry that they send the wrong message to environmentalists who are wondering about how best to move forward in the fight against climate change. Both the Post and Heatmap polls ask almost identical questions: Would you welcome a wind or solar farm in your community? But neither poll clarifies exactly what “your community” means.
Luckily, a recent study examines the question more deeply. In 2021, a team of researchers asked 4,500 people in America, Germany, and Ireland whether they would accept a new solar, wind, or fossil-fuel plant near them. Unlike other studies, it got specific: Would you accept a solar farm less than a mile from where you live? How about one to five miles away? How about more than five miles?
The study found very big majorities in support of wind and solar: 89% and 92% of Americans would welcome a new wind or solar facility near them at all. But the closer that the project got to their house, the less they favored it. Only 17% of Americans would welcome wind turbines within a mile of their home. About half would approve of wind turbines within five miles. By comparison, about a third of Germans would welcome wind turbines within 0.6 miles of their home (that is, a kilometer), and two-thirds of Germans would within three miles.
In the study, solar was more popular than wind — 57% of Americans would welcome solar panels within five miles of their home — but, still, it didn’t see the kind of commanding majorities you’d expect from Heatmap and the Post’s polling. In fact, I think this study tells an entirely different story from those polls: that Americans are pretty skeptical of new renewable projects in their backyards. (The bright spot for climate advocates is that a much smaller ratio of Americans support the construction of a new natural gas plant within five miles of their homes.)
That 2021 study suggests that a small minority — and in some cases, an outright majority — might oppose a given renewable project depending on how close it is to a residential area. And as I’ve previously written, American laws today give even a small, well-resourced minority plenty of tools to block a project. They can hold up a project in lawsuits or bog it down in paperwork. And what’s more, once that small group starts campaigning against a project, the public’s broad but shallow support for, say, a general technology can crater. That’s what happened recently in New Jersey, where a once broadly pro-wind public has turned against four proposed offshore wind farms.
Is this the biggest problem for renewable advocates? I’m not sure: America will build plenty of new solar projects this year anyway. But it is a problem. And it should be clear by now that broad public opinion does not mean much for our land-use politics. The problem is not that the public opposes wind and solar; the problem is that a few dozen people can block or waylay a project no matter how the broader public feels. If that feels anti-democratic, then climate advocates need to do something about it.