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The Social Research on Wind Energy Onshore


Social research on wind energy has primarily focused on three main areas: 

1. Public acceptance: the assessment (and corroboration) of the (high and stable) levels of public support (by means of opinion polls and attitude surveys); 

2. Community acceptance: the identification and understanding of the dimensions underlying social controversy at the local level (by means of single or multiple case studies, including surveys); and

3. Stakeholder acceptance: social acceptance by key stakeholders and policymakers (by means of interviews and multiple case studies); recent approaches are paying increasing attention to this field.

The following section looks at what social research on wind energy tells us about the social acceptance of
wind developments by such a wide range of social actors and levels.


One of the traditional focuses of social research on wind energy has been the assessment of the levels of public support for wind energy by means of opinion polls and attitude surveys (Walker, 1995). Among opinion polls, the  strongest indicator allowing comparisons of the level of support in different countries is the Eurobarometer
Standard Survey (EB), carried out twice yearly and covering the population of the EU aged 15 and over. Over the 30 years that these surveys have been conducted, they have proved to be a helpful source of information for EU policymakers on a broad range of economic, social, environmental and other issues of importance to EU citizens. Recent EB data on public opinion (EC, 2006c and 2007c) confirm the strongly positive overall picture for renewable energies in general, and for wind energy in particular, at the EU level, and not only for the present but also for the future (see Figure 6.2).

Figure 6.2: General Attitudes Towards Energy Sources in the EU

Source: European Commission (2007c)

When EU citizens are asked about their preferences in terms of the use of different energy sources, renewable energies in general, and wind energy in particular, are rated highly positively (especially when compared with nuclear or fossil fuels). The highest support is for solar energy (80 per cent), closely followed by wind energy, with 71 per cent of EU citizens firmly in favour of the use of wind power in their countries, 21 per cent  expressing a balanced view and only 5 per cent are opposed to it. After solar and wind, we fi nd hydroelectric energy (65 per cent support), ocean energy (60 per cent) and biomass (55 per cent). According to this EB survey, only a marginal number of respondents opposed the use of renewable energy sources in their countries. As regards fossil fuels, 42 per cent of the EU citizens favoured the use of natural gas and about one-quarter accepted the use of oil (27 per cent) and coal (26 per cent). Nuclear power seems to divide opinions, with the highest rates of opposition (37 per cent) and balanced opinions (36 per cent) and the lowest rate of support. 

Focusing on the use of wind energy, on a scale from 1 (strongly opposed) to 7 (strongly in favour), the EU
average is 6.3. Even higher rates of support arose in some countries, for example Denmark (6.7), Greece
(6.5), and Poland, Hungary and Malta (6.4). The UK shows the lowest support figure of the EU (5.7), closely followed by Finland and Germany (5.8).

EU citizens also demonstrated a very positive view of renewable energy in general and of wind energy in particular when asked about their expectations regarding the three most used energy sources 30 years from now. Results showed that wind energy is expected to be a key energy source in the future – just after solar. Respondents in all countries except the Czech Republic, Italy, Slovenia, Slovakia and Finland mentioned wind energy among the three energy sources most likely to be used in their countries 30 years from now. The expected increase in the use of wind energy from 2007 to 2037 is very important in all countries (that mentioned wind), with an average expected increase of 36.35 per cent.


Figure 6.3: General Attitudes Towards Energy Sources in the EU 30 years from Now


Source: European Commission (2007c)

The latest EB on ‘Attitudes towards energy’ (EC, 2006c) further corroborates this positive picture of wind at the EU level. For EU citizens, the development of the use of wind energy was the third preferred option to reduce our energy dependence on foreign, expensive and highly polluting sources (31 per cent), after the increase in the use of solar energy (48 per cent) and the promotion of advance research on new energy technologies (41 per cent). Importantly, further evidence at the country level gathered by several national wind energy associations, such as the British Wind Energy Association, Associazione Nazionale Energia Del Vento (Italy) and or the Austrian Wind Energy Association, supports this positive overall scenario with regards to the use of wind energy, both at present and in the future.

One interesting question is the association between these high levels of general public support for wind energy and the actual implementation of wind power in each country. This could be analysed through the correlation of two variables: percentage of people strongly in favour of wind power, from the EB, and wind capacity in kW/1000 inhabitants (Figure 6.4). The bivariate analysis shows a low and not signifi cant linear correlation: the highest levels of public enthusiasm about wind power in our sample of countries were not associated with the highest levels of wind capacity per habitant. In line with the most recent formulation of the ‘social acceptability’ of wind farms, this result may indicate that the generally favourable public support for the technology of wind power does not seem to be directly related to the installed wind capacity (that is linked to positive social and institutional decision-making as will be seen later on). Thus it is very important to properly differentiate between the ‘public acceptance’ of wind energy and the ‘community acceptance’ (and stakeholders’ acceptance) of specific wind developments.

Finally, from the methodological perspective, it should be noted that, despite a profusion of quantitative
surveys, and with a few notable exceptions there is still a lack of valid and reliable quantitative methodological tools for understanding general public perceptions of wind farms.

To conclude, the key messages regarding ‘public acceptance’ are the very high levels of public support for wind energy and the fact that this favourable general condition does not seem to be directly related to the installed wind capacity. Thus there is a need to also look at the perceptions of the other key actors involved in wind development: the local communities hosting the wind farms and the key stakeholders involved in such developments.


Figure 6.4: Wind Acceptability and Wind Capacity in the EU

Source: European Commission (2007c)


A wide variety of studies based on different approaches and methodologies have been carried out to identify the key elements involved in the interaction between wind energy developments and the communities hosting them. Importantly, these case studies have allowed a better understanding of the factors explaining success and failure of wind developments, and this may indeed provide useful insights to more evidence-based decision making in the future.

Recent research into how wind projects interact with the local community questions the traditional explanation of local rejection to technological projects based on the NIMBY acronym (Not In My Back Yard), as this term may give an incorrect or only partial explanation of all the variables involved in the planning process (Krohn and Damborg, 1999; Wolsink, 2000, 2007). According to the NIMBY idea, resistance is explained in terms of motives of local citizens, but the latest findings suggest that such an interpretation would be too simplistic considering the number of views and circumstances involved in the local planning of wind projects (Warren et al., 2005). The NIMBY label ‘leaves the cause of opposition unexplained’ (Kempton et al., 2005) and consequently it lacks explanatory value. One of the key messages from social research points out that how wind farms are developed and how people make sense of the impact of wind farms upon the places in which they live may be more important in shaping pubic reactions to new projects than the purely physical or technical factors. As Wolsink (2000) suggests, local opposition is often based on distrust, negative reactions to the actors (developers, authorities and energy companies) trying to build the turbines, and the way projects are planned and managed, and not to wind turbines themselves.

Thus, according to the social sciences literature, when trying to understand the community acceptance of wind farms, there are some potential errors that could lead to misunderstandings. One type of error, as stated in the previous section, is not considering community acceptance as a social phenomenon with a different dynamic than public acceptance of wind power as a reliable source of energy. Another potential error is interpreting public attitudes towards wind farms as merely influenced by the characteristics of the technology, without properly considering how the implementation of the technology is part of a socio-technical system that interacts with the local community, the local environment, the key stakeholders and the project developers.

Three categories have been established that help explain the social response to wind energy (see Prades and González Reyes, 1995). First, we consider those physical, technical and environmental characteristics of the technology that affect how the public perceives wind farms. Second, we analyse the different individual and psycho-social factors of those living in the hosting communities, such as knowledge, general attitudes or familiarity, which might shape views of wind farms. And third, we consider the social and institutional elements governing the interaction between the technology and the hosting community, such as planning characteristics or level of engagement, and how they might influence public attitudes towards, and acceptance of, wind farm projects.

Table 6.1 Factors Affecting Public Perceptions of Wind Farms and Other Energy Innovations

Perceptions of physical and environmental factors Psycho-social Social and Institutional
Visual impact
Landscape characteristics
Turbine colour
Turbine & farm size
Unity of the environment
Wind farm design
Turbine noise
Distance to turbines
Ecological site characteristics (Birds & wildlife)
General attitudes
Perceived benefits & costs
Social network influences
Participatory planning
Public engagement
Justice and fairness issues
Local ownership
Policy frameworks
Centralization/ Decentralization
Campaign by action groups

Source: CIEMAT

Physical, Environmental and Technical Attributes of Wind Farms

As with any other technological development, the specific physical and technical attributes of the implementation of the technology itself are significant predictors of public attitudes. Consequently, social research on wind farm projects has attempted to identify how such wind power attributes are perceived by the public. One of the most relevant early research findings (Thayer and Freeman, 1987; Wolsink, 1988 and 1989) in this regard was the identification of visual impacts and noise as important issues in the social response to wind energy (Devine-Wright, 2005). Visual impact has been considered the main influence on public attitudes towards wind farms, as ‘aesthetic perceptions, both positive and negative, are the strongest single influence on public attitudes’ (Wolsink, 2000). The perceived impact on landscape seems to be the crucial factor in this regard, and opposition to the visual despoliation of valued landscapes has been analysed as the key motivation to opposition to wind farms (Warren et al., 2005). A study on how perceptual factors influence public intention to oppose local wind turbines (Johansson and Laike, 2007) found that ‘perceived unity’ of (or harmony with), the environment is the most important perceptual dimension. Those who perceived the turbines to have a high degree of unity with the landscape
express a low degree of opposition. With regard to colour, a higher level of public support seems to exist for turbines that are painted neutral colours. In relation to size, studies in the UK, Denmark, The Netherlands and Ireland found a systematic preference for smaller groups of turbines over large-scale installations (Devine-Wright, 2005).

Visual intrusion and noise were the key anticipated problems by respondents in a survey carried out in Ireland (Warren et al., 2005). However, the same study found that noise pollution and visual impacts were less important to the public than anticipated before the project construction, concluding that respondents’ fears had not been realised. The limited effect of noise disturbance on acceptance levels has also been found in other contexts (Krohn and Damborg, 1999). On a more detailed level, Pedersen and Waye (2007) found, in different areas in Sweden, that the visual factor of the fit of the turbines to the landscape has a stronger impact than the sound levels. Danger to birds and other wildlife is considered to be one of the more important environmental impacts of wind energy developments. As stated in Chapter 2 (Environmental Impacts), bird mortality caused by wind farms seems to be a sporadic event and dependent on different elements such as the season, the specific site, the species and the type of bird activity.

Studies on community acceptance (Wolsink, 2000; Simon, 1996) have shown that the concern about hazards to birds, when present, has
only a small impact on individuals’ perceptions of wind farms. However, in ecological areas with threatened or vulnerable species, impacts from wind farms on birds and habitats might generate opposition from environmental and other public interest groups, media attention and increase local concern.

Another element investigated by the empirical research has been the effect of distance to the wind farms on perceptions. In Denmark, different studies, to some surprise, have found that people living closer to wind farms tend to be more positive about wind turbines than people living farther away (Scottish Executive Central Research Unit, 2000). As we will see, familiarity with wind farms could be one possible explanation of this phenomenon.

To conclude, research has shown that the physical, environmental and technical attributes of wind farms and the selected site are significant predictors of public attitudes and, consequently, issues such as harmony with the landscape and turbine/wind farm size and colour should be carefully considered when planning wind energy developments. Nevertheless, social acceptance of wind farms is not merely influenced by the characteristics of the technology: more important are the implementation of the technology and how it interacts with the local community, the key stakeholders and the project developers.

Psycho-Social Factors

Psycho-social factors have become crucial dimensions to explain how local communities interact with, and react to, new wind farm developments. Familiarity with the technology is a significant element widely explored by social research. The familiarity hypothesis refers to the fact that those who experience wind farms generally become more positive towards them (Wolsink, 1994; Krohn and Damborg, 1999). This phenomenon has been represented as the ‘U-shape curve’ (Wolsink, 1994). Based on empirical data, this model states that public attitudes change from very positive, before the announcement of the project, to negative when the project is announced, to positive again after the construction. This important result shows the dynamic nature of public attitudes. Opinions on technological developments may change as citizens are confronted with specific developments. However, as has been documented (Wolsink, 2007), the improvement of attitudes after a facility has been constructed is not guaranteed.

Separate to the familiarity dimension is the degree of knowledge about wind energy and its effects on individuals’ perceptions of wind farms. Although some studies have found a positive relation between knowledge and attitude (Krohn and Damborg, 1999), there is little evidence of a significant correlation between level of knowledge of wind power and its acceptance (Wolsink, 2007; Ellis et al., 2007). This does not mean, however, that providing clear and honest information about the technology and the project does not play an important role in increasing public understanding: it is essential in the process of creating trust between developers, authorities and local communities.

General attitudes towards wind energy are another key element influencing public perceptions of wind farms. As seen in the previous section, general attitudes towards wind power are very positive. A recent study by Johansson and Laike (2007) found that the general attitude towards wind power was one of the most significant predictors in the response to a local project, with those more positive about wind power more in favour of the specific project. Pedersen and Waye (2008) have also revealed that people with anti-wind energy views perceive wind turbines to be much noisier and more visually intrusive than those who are optimistic about wind power.

The effects of socio-demographic variables on individuals’ views of wind farms have also been studied. Age, gender, experience with wind farms, and use of the land and/or beach were found to be slightly correlated with the attitudes towards wind power in a Danish study dealing with public perceptions of onland or offshore wind turbines (Ladenburg, 2008).

Devine-Wright (2005) has pointed out other psycho-social factors less explored by social research on public reactions to wind farms, such as the role of social networks in ‘how people come to hear about proposed wind farm developments and whom they trust, as well as the eventual perceptions that they choose to adopt’ (Devine-Wright, 2005, p136). In this framework, social trust, considered as the level of trust individuals have with organizations and authorities managing technological projects, is increasingly regarded as a significant element in social reactions to technological developments (Poortinga and Pidgeon, 2006). In the wind power context, Eltham et al. (2008) have documented, through the study of public opinions of a local population living near a wind farm, how suspicion of the developers’ motives by the public, distrust of the developers and disbelief in the planning system may impede the success of wind farm projects. Trust can be created in careful, sophisticated decision-making processes that take time, but it can be destroyed in an instant by processes that are perceived as unfair (Slovic, 1993, Poortinga and Pidgeon, 2004). Trust is an interpersonal and social variable, linking attitudinal processes with institutional practices.

To conclude, psycho-social factors such as familiarity (or otherwise) with wind technology, general attitudes towards the ‘energy problem’ and/or socio-demographic variables do play a role in the shaping of wind energy acceptance and should properly be considered when planning wind energy developments.

Social and Institutional Factors

The notion of ‘citizen engagement’ has become a central motif in public policy discourse within many democratic countries, as engagement – ‘being responsive to lay views and actively seeking the involvement of the lay public in policymaking and decision-making’ (Horlick-Jones et al., 2007) – is acknowledged as an important component of good governance (National Research Council, 1996). Consequently, the analysis of the social acceptance of technologies is increasingly recognising the importance of the ‘institutional arrangements’, in other words the relationships between the technology, its promoters and the community (Rogers, 1998; Kunreuther et al., 1996). This is precisely the focus of the most recent investigations on the sources of success or failure of wind farms projects: the relationship between local resistance and levels of community engagement, fairness and  compensation (Loring, 2007; Wolsink, 2007).

One of the most substantive questions in this regard is whether local involvement and participatory planning in wind farms increases local support. Recent studies agree that successful wind farm developments are linked to the nature of the planning and development process, and that public support tends to increase when the process is open and participatory (Warren et al., 2005; Loring, 2007; Wolsink, 2007). It is also suggested that collaborative approaches to decision-making in wind power implementation will be more effective than top-down imposed decisionmaking (Wolsink, 2007), and that public engagement may serve to reduce opposition and to increase levels of ‘conditional supporters’ to wind power developments (Eltham et al., 2008). As Wolsink (2007, p1204) states, ‘the best way to facilitate the development of wind projects is to build institutional capital (knowledge resources, relational resources and the capacity for mobilisation) through collaborative approaches to planning’.

There is little doubt that fairness issues may shape a local community’s reactions to wind developments in siting contexts. Findings from research indicate that perceptions of fairness influence how people perceive the legitimacy of the outcome (Gross, 2007). It is assumed that a fairer process helps the creation of mutual trust, and hence it will increase acceptance of the outcome. As has been stated by other authors, the underlying reason for NIMBY attitudes is not selfishness, but a decision-making process perceived to be unfair (Wolsink, 2007).

In the review of factors shaping public attitudes towards wind farms, it has been emphasised (Devine-Wright, 2005; Krohn and Damborg, 1999) that there exists a significant relationship between share ownership and perceptions. Individuals who own shares in a turbine have a more positive attitude towards wind energy than those with no economic interest. Although limited to the Danish context, it has been found that in some communities, members of wind cooperatives are more willing to accept more turbines in their locality in comparison with non-members.

The influence of policy frameworks on the social acceptance of wind energy has also been analysed through case studies (Jobert et al., 2007). Results from German and French cases underline the relevance of factors directly linked with the implementation of the project: local integration of the project developer, creation of a network of support and access to ownership. According to the authors, the French policy framework makes developers more dependent on community acceptance, and therefore the French case studies show much more conflict resolution and networking among key local actors than in the German one. The planning problem and the role of national and local policies are also being analysed as key dimensions in the social acceptance of wind power in Scotland and Wales (Cowell, 2007).

The role of action groups in a wind farm planning decision ( Parkhill, 2007) is also receiving quite a lot of attention from social research, as evidence is showing their substantial influence on wind farm planning decisions at the sub-national level (Bell et al, 2005; Toke, 2005; Boström, 2003). The strength of local opposition groups has been considered as an important social and institutional factor causing distrust during the planning and siting stages (Eltham et al., 2008). 

To conclude, social research is highlighting the complexity and multidimensionality of the factors underlying community acceptance of wind energy projects. Recent evidence is increasingly demonstrating that ‘how’ wind farms are developed may be more important in shaping pubic reactions to new projects than the purely physical or technical factors.




As most social research on wind energy developments has focused either on ‘public acceptance’ or ‘community acceptance’, the first issue to be highlighted is that exploring the acceptance of wind energy by key stakeholders and policymakers (at all levels: EU, national and local) clearly requires further efforts. Nevertheless, the available evidence on stakeholders’ and policymakers’ acceptance does provide essential insights. The very first investigation on stakeholders’ acceptance was carried out in the 1980s, when it was first acknowledged that ‘the siting of wind turbines is also a matter of . . . political and regulatory acceptance’ (Carlman, 1984) and the need to analyse the views of politicians and decision-makers was recognised. The pioneer study on ‘institutional frameworks’ is from the mid-1990s, when energy policy, policy performance and policy choices related to wind energy in the Dutch context were first analysed (Wolsink, 1996).

The most recent research on stakeholders’ acceptance is paying special attention to the so-called ‘institutional landscapes’ and how diverse types of such landscapes are related to different levels of wind implementation (and ways of achieving it) at the EU level.

With this aim, how key stakeholders in the energy field perceive issues such as political commitment (and the perceived ‘urgency’ of energy-related matters), financial incentives (models of local financial participation) and planning systems (patterns of early local involvement in the decision-making process) have been analysed in multiple cases studies from several EU countries (The Netherlands, the UK, and the German state of North Rhine Westphalia) from the 1970s to 2004 (Breukers and Wolsink, 2007). A very similar approach was proposed by Toke et al. (2008) to understand the different outcomes of implementation of wind power deployment in five EU countries: Denmark, Spain, Scotland, The Netherlands and the UK). Different national traditions related to four key institutional variables (planning systems; financial support mechanisms; presence and roles of landscape protection organisations; and patterns of local ownership) were examined to identify and understand their inter-relations and how they might be related to the different levels of wind power implementation between countries. This recent research on stakeholders’ and policymakers’ acceptance has allowed the identification of two crucial factors for the successful implementation of wind energy: the financial incentives and the planning systems. With regard to financial incentives, evidence shows that participation or co-ownership is crucial in successful developments (the feed-in system in combination with support programmes promoting the involvement of a diversity of actors has proved to be the most efficient policy) (Breukers and Wolsink, 2007). As far as the planning system is concerned, evidence shows that planning regimes supporting collaborative practices of  decision-making increase the correspondence between policy intentions and the outcome of the process (bottom-up developments have also proved to be the most successful ones) (Toke et al., 2008). Results of an extensive stakeholder consultation carried out on behalf of the European Commission to identify, among other things, the main ‘institutional’ barriers to exploiting renewable energy sources for electricity production (Coenraads et al., 2006; see also Chapter IV.5 of this volume) fully supports this picture, as the ‘administrative’ and ‘regulatory’ barriers were perceived to be the most severe.

Consequently, and in line with the latest findings of the social research on community acceptance, a key message can be drawn from the most recent analysis on stakeholders’ and policymakers’ acceptance: facilitating local ownership and institutionalising participation in project planning could allow a better recognition and involvement of the compound interests (environmental, economic and landscape) that are relevant for the implantation of wind energy.



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