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It’s Too Easy to Block a Wind Farm in America

The average anti-wind farm protest is made up of just 23 people.

A wind farm.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

All across North America, more and more wind farm projects are meeting local opposition.

That’s the conclusion of a new study, published earlier this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that looked at more than 1,400 wind farms proposed in the United States and Canada. The authors found that from 2000 to 2016, local opposition to proposed wind farms got successively worse in both countries.

“In the early 2000s, only around 1 in 10 wind projects was opposed. In 2016, it was closer to one in four,” Leah Stokes, an author of the study and a political-science professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, wrote on the social network X.

The opposition has probably only gotten worse since then, she added.

A chart of rising opposition to wind projects in the United States and Canada from 2000 to 2016. In both countries, opposition rose from below 10 percent to more than 20 percent over the sample period.The study found that opposition to wind farms has increased over time in the United States and Canada.Stokes, et al. PNAS.

Although the study stopped in 2016, a few things stand out about its findings that remain useful to climate debates today.

First, the mechanism of the protests differed between the countries. While Canadians tended to oppose projects by holding physical protests, Americans sought recourse in the courts, using local and federal permitting and environmental rules to block the wind proposals. “In the United States, courts were the dominant mode of opposition, followed by legislation, then physical protest, then letters to the editor,” the authors write.

Second, few of the protests were very large. In the United States, the median anti-wind-farm protest was made up of just 23 people — barely enough to fill a kindergarten classroom. Only about 30 people made up the average Canadian protests. Many of these protests happened in richer, whiter areas, including in the Northeastern United States.

Stokes and her colleagues conclude that reveals what they call “energy privilege,” the ability of rich, largely white communities to stymie the energy transition. By slowing down or blocking wind farms, these protests keep fossil-fuel infrastructure operating for longer, they write. And since that old, dirty infrastructure is often located in poorer or marginalized communities, these protests essentially subject low-income and nonwhite people to more pollution for longer. (That’s the “privilege” part of “energy privilege.”)

I think that’s an important idea, but I would take it one step further. In her X thread, Stokes compared the tiny number of people who make up the anti-wind protests to the more than 50,000 climate activists who filled the streets of New York earlier this month. The anti-renewable movement is small, in other words, while the pro-climate movement is big.

But that mismatch reveals a more profound question about our environmental laws than progressives are always eager to address: How can fewer than two dozen people block a wind farm in the first place? Recent economic research and reporting has shown that the community input process — that is, the meeting-based process at the center of national and local permitting decisions — inherently benefits whiter and wealthier people. And that injustice only gets worse when the threat of a lawsuit is involved.

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  • That’s because the community-input process exists to serve only those who have the time, money, and expertise to stage a rebellion. You can see that in Washington, D.C., where whiter and wealthier neighborhoods have been able to slow down the construction of affordable housing at a much higher pace than majority Black neighborhoods. Or you can see it in California, where residents have been able to use a state environmental law to block solar farms, public transit, and denser housing. Nevermind “energy privilege” — this is just “permitting privilege.”

    Even worse, the longer that a given permitting fight lasts, the more the public seems to grow skeptical of the project in question. In New Jersey, for instance, most people supported the creation of an offshore wind industry for years. But as local fights over the industry grew in salience, and as outside money poured in, the public has soured on the proposal. Today, four in 10 New Jersey residents oppose building new offshore wind farms, according to a recent Monmouth University poll.

    There may even be something about the community input that favors opponents of new infrastructure. In 2017, three Boston University economists found that the community-input process may attract people who want to block projects; on average, only 14.6% of people who show up to community meetings tend to favor a given project. That systematic privilege of the status quo is an existential problem for the climate movement. Remember: If the world is to stave off 1.5 degrees Celsius of climate change, it must build new infrastructure at an unprecedented scale.

    This amounts to a profound crisis. Right now, America’s legal system gives wealthier, whiter communities — and a very persuasive fossil-fuel industry — a veto to block the clean-energy transition. It’s well past time for climate advocates to ask: Is that democratic? And if it isn’t, what should we do about it?

    Robinson Meyer

    Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology. Read More

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