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The Social Acceptance of Wind Energy: An Introduction to the Concept

Wind energy, being a clean and renewable energy source in a global context of increasing social concerns about climate change and energy supply, is traditionally linked to very strong and stable levels of public support. The most recent empirical evidence on public opinion towards wind energy at both the EU and the country level fully supports such favourable perception of this energy source among European citizens. Nevertheless, experience in the implementation of wind projects shows that social acceptance is crucial for the successful development of specific wind energy projects. Thus we should look at the main singularities of the social acceptance of wind energy compared to the social acceptance of other energy technologies:

  • The (very) high and stable levels of general public support: at an abstract level about 80  per cent of EU citizens support wind energy;
  • The higher number of siting decisions to be made due to the current relatively small-scale nature of the energy source;
  • The visibility of wind energy devices and the proximity to the everyday life of citizens (if compared with the 'subterranean' and distant character of conventional power generation and fossil fuels extraction); and
  • The tensions between support and opposition concerning specific wind power developments at the local level: large majorities of people living near wind farm sites are in favour of their local wind farm (Warren et al., 2005), but wind planning and siting processes are facing significant challenges in some countries across Europe (Wolsink, 2007.

Consequently, the social acceptance of wind power entails both the general positive attitude towards the wind energy technology together with the increasing number of 'visible' siting decisions to be made at the local level. Importantly, it is at the local level where the 'technical' characteristics of wind energy interact with the everyday life of the individual, and the social and institutional environments of the communities hosting such developments. As we will see, the general positive attitudes towards wind power are not necessarily linked to the local acceptance of wind energy projects (Johansson and Laike, 2007), and there is an increased interest in understanding the different factors underlying public views and reactions to wind energy and wind farm projects (Bel et al., 2005), as well as the role played by all the relevant social and institutional actors involved in the practical development of wind energy.

This is the context in which we find the most recent formulation of the concept  of 'social acceptance' linked to renewable energies (Wüstenhagen et al., 2007), the so- called 'triangle model', which distinguishes three key dimensions of social acceptance:

  1. Socio-political acceptance;
  2. Community acceptance; and
  3. Market acceptance.

Figure 6.1: The Triangle Model of Social Acceptance


Source: Wüstenhagen et al. (2007)

  • Socio-political acceptance refers to the acceptance of both technologies and policies at the most general level. Importantly, this general level of socio-political acceptance is not limited to the ‘high and stable’ levels of acceptance by the general public, but includes acceptance by key stakeholders and policymakers. Stakeholders and policymakers involved in discussing ‘renewable policies’ become crucial when addressing planning issues or promoting local involvement initiatives. Thus the assessment of their levels of acceptance is an area of increasing interest for social researchers.
  • Community acceptance refers to the acceptance of specific projects at the local level, including potentially affected populations, key local stakeholders and the local authorities. This is the area where social debate around renewables arises and develops,and the one that has attracted most of the social research traditionally carried out in the wind energy field.
  • Market acceptance refers to the process by which market parties adopt and support (or otherwise)the energy innovation. Here we find processes such as green power marketing and willingness to pay for green power. Market acceptance is proposed ina wider sense, including not only consumers, but also investors and, very significant, intra-firm acceptance.

Interestingly, this ‘triangle model’ works well with the ‘three discourses’ scheme suggested by another recent conceptual approach to the social perception of energy technologies (Prades et al., 2008): the ‘siting discourse’ (where the technology is experienced in terms of a proposed construction of some facility in a given locality); the
‘energy-innovation discourse’ (where the technology is experienced as an innovation that may or may not fit in with preferred ways of life); and the ‘investment discourse’ (where the technology is experienced as an investment opportunity that is acceptable, or otherwise, in the light of the possible gains it will produce). Moreover, this ‘triangle model’ has been proposed as the conceptual framework in a recent task of the International Energy Agency – Wind (Implementing Agreement for Cooperation in the Research, Development and Deployment of Wind Energy Systems) dealing with the social acceptance of wind energy
projects: ‘Winning hearts and minds’ (IEA Wind, 2007).

The next sections will introduce the main findings of the social research with regards to socio-political acceptance (the acceptance of technologies and policies by both the general public and key stakeholders and policymakers) and community acceptance (the acceptance of specific projects at the local level). Other volumes of this publication, in particular Volume 3 (Economies of Wind Power) and Volume 4 (Industry and Markets address issues related to Market Acceptance, such as prices and support mechanisms (typed of support mechanism and evolution of the different instruments in the EU-27; effectiveness of the different support schemes etc.); or wind industry actors and investment trends (key player positioning, and administrative and grid-access barriers).


>> The social research on community acceptance onshore

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