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If there is national support, why are there local protests?

In this article Dr Karen Parkhill outlines that national generic support towards energy developments does not preclude local opposition.
Photo of a person sitting on the edge of a building looking at a wind farm
© University of York

In the previous step, we saw that national surveys about public opinion of different energy developments indicate a strong level of support for renewable energy (e.g. solar, wind, hydroelectric and so forth). Such poll results would suggest that there would rarely be public opposition to such developments then, but is this really the case?

Back in 2005, researchers started to notice a curious phenomenon: national polls would consistently show generic national support for developments such as onshore wind farms, yet this would coincide with vociferous local public contestation about the same sort of developments nearby. Indeed, Bell et al. noted that whilst 80% of public in the UK support onshore wind, at that time (2005), only a quarter of contracted wind power capacity was actually commissioned. Other researchers have credited local opposition to onshore wind energy developments as a key reason for delay and denial of planning permission.

This apparent contradiction between national and local attitudes has been named the social gap. Whilst this social gap was initially observed in the UK related to onshore wind energy, subsequent studies have show that the gap is applicable to a growing number of energy development types (e.g. solar, hydroelectric and biomass) and countries (e.g. United States, New Zealand and Australia).

Four key explanations have been posited by researchers for the social gap:

  • There is a democratic deficit with decision-making processes being dominated by a small number of unrepresentative opponents.

  • Those in support of such developments offer qualified support that is highly conditioned: conditions which may not be met when considering the local development nearby.

  • People are concerned with place protection, which they feel may be threatened by a development. Indeed, human geographers and environmental psychologists have shown that people form deep and emotional feelings, associations and attachments to places, and these in turn can shape what people feel are appropriate and inappropriate uses of spaces. For some, then, the likes of wind farms can be viewed as the industrialisation of the rural landscape – an activity that does not fit their perception of a quaint, quiet, safe rural area, predominantly formed of countryside (this nostalgic and romanticised perception of rural areas is known as the rural idyll). I’ll pick up on this relationship between people and places/spaces again over the next few steps.

  • People are motivated by self-interest and are NIMBY.

In fact, NIMBYism if often credited by many as the key reason underpinning opposition to developments close by. But what does this mean and can it really be the case that people are just being selfish?

© University of York
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