Experiential knowledge paired with trustworthy information necessary for local legitimacy of wind power
by Kira Smiley
The local implications of wind energy are a hotly debated topic worldwide. It seems to be easy to promote wind energy on a grand scale, envisioning the potential it has to generate emission-free energy and mitigate climate change. Unfortunately, all too often arguments sour when talk of wind turbine construction hits close to home. Doubts about how appropriate the construction sites are, along with fears of both personal impacts mixed with those concerning the environment and local wildlife, particularly birds.
These concerns motivated my study of local permanent and seasonal inhabitants in the Finnish archipelago. Funded by the Volpert Scholars grant, I worked as a visiting researcher at the Finnish Environment Institute based in Helsinki, Finland, acting much more responsible and put-together than I felt. After doing a broad ecological survey of the white-tailed eagle nearby wind turbines, I conducted a series of semi-structured interviews on one island with wind turbines and on two without them. The interviews focused on the participants’ perceptions about the impacts of wind turbines on the white-tailed eagle in the Turku archipelago. Not only is the white-tailed eagle a locally important species recognized to interact with wind turbines, but these large and charismatic birds are a point of interest for wind power development throughout Europe.
My findings indicated that experience, or lack of it, strongly affected how participants formed perceptions of wind turbines and their impacts. Additionally, when searching for new information, local residents found it challenging to distinguish trustworthy sources. For instance, if a company or entity publishing or funding an informational article stood to gain from the results, readers were less likely to trust it, regardless of whether they agreed with the message. However, they did tend to show confirmation bias and evaluate sources they did agree with as more trustworthy.
Although often the impact of turbines on birds have been politicized as a key argument against wind turbines, my interviews indicated that perceived bird impacts had no real effect on participants’ views. Instead, concerns centered almost exclusively on personally experienced impacts. Many residents on the island without wind turbines voiced concerns that property values would drop due to view and sound disturbance. However, residents on the island with wind turbines directly contradicted this and said that property values had risen and the sound was noticeable only on very windy days. It was also interesting that despite engagement with the wind-power companies and local authorities taking place, several participants felt their views were not ultimately accounted for in the wind turbine decision-making process.
The results illustrated that misconceptions can often occur due to lack of experience or information, strengthening the need for increased knowledge exchange. We clearly have much to gain from sharing experiences and distributing research-based reliable information. For example, a concise packet of studies on wind turbines including personal experiences might be an effective way to communicate wind turbine impacts to communities that are considering or facing wind turbine construction. Moreover, platforms where locals could share views and communicate with scientists and authorities would reduce biases and support informed development of perceptions from reliable sources. This way, citizens can inform their views with reliable and diverse knowledge bases.
In terms of the experience itself, it was an engaging and amazing opportunity to be able to design, shape, and execute my own research and consult top wind power and eagle experts in both Finland and Denmark. I was able to improve my Finnish environmental and research jargon, and even pick up some Swedish (“I. understand. Little. But. No. speak. Swedish…and I like ping pong and dogs”). Overall, this work was very relevant to the changing wind power situation in Northern Europe, and addressed many of the current concerns people had about fake news. I am excited to continue to foster the relationships that formed this summer and continue to develop my research!
Welcome to our blog!
This is a forum for students to share their writing on intersectional environmental topics, curated by Students for a Sustainable Stanford. Writers of all backgrounds, abilities, and perspectives are welcome.