Workshop Explores Information's Role in Wind Project Siting: A Wind Powering America Success Story
November 19, 2012
With instant information access playing such a prevalent role in today's society, Sustainable Energy Advantage (SEA) hosted a workshop at Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, Massachusetts, on October 26, 2012 to further explore the role of information in wind energy development in New England, including needed information and how to help stakeholders and other interested parties discern between credible and non-credible materials.
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy's Wind Powering America initiative, the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources, and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, the "Injecting Useful and Credible Information into Wind Power Siting" workshop included hands-on plenary sessions, panel presentations, and professionally facilitated small group discussions.
Deborah Donovan, senior consultant with Sustainable Energy Advantage, believes that individuals on both sides of the debate can use information to influence the outcome of wind projects.
Donovan said that decision makers or other stakeholders are often influenced by information that may not necessarily be credible but is influential nonetheless. "Although there are many facets to involving stakeholders in siting decisions, in this case we focused on the role that information plays and how to improve that within the context of the stakeholder decision making process," Donovan said.
Workshop panel topics included "The Use of Information in Wind Siting—Lessons from the Field" and "Developing Information in Wind Siting—Joint Fact-Finding and Stakeholder Engagement Models." Between panels, attendees participated in small breakout sessions, sharing priorities and experiences that led to recommendations that were reported back to the larger group.
The workshop was limited to 68 attendees to ensure that all participants had the opportunity to contribute. To ensure that open-minded individuals attended, the organizers utilized a pre-registration application to assist in the participant selection process and eliminate extremes from both sides of the wind debate spectrum.
"What we really hoped for the attendees to come away with was a sense that even with the varied perspectives and roles that our participants had, there are some common threads about how information impacts the wind siting process and that there are different models where information about wind siting can be created and used during the stakeholder engagement process," Donovan said.
Consensus Building Institute (CBI) Senior Associate Stacie Smith moderated the workshop and presented on one of the panels. Smith was also one of the workshop designers, and she felt that it was important for attendees to experience an event without a planned end result.
"They needed to feel that the structure of the day was designed without a conclusion in mind, so there really is an open effort to draw on the knowledge of all of the participants and the diversity of participants. That, I think, was critical," Smith said.
Smith feels that one of the major takeaways from the event was the need to engage the community at the earliest point of discussions and information gathering.
"People said that stakeholder engagement from the very beginning of the development of information is critical. Real stakeholder engagement. A broad engagement. No matter what level you're on. If you're on the state policy-making level and you're trying to acquire information for a state examination, you need to structure it so that people have input not just afterwards but before so that they can have some say on the methodology and the collection of information. I think that came through as an overriding conclusion," Smith said.
According to Donovan, the two main siting issues in the Northeast involve property values and sound impacts.
"In the Northeast, our windiest areas are on the coast and the ridgelines, and those are both quite precious to everyone who lives here. We also have a dense population, so there's no 'away' for the turbine developments for a lot of people," Donovan said. "It's always going to be within someone's viewshed or where someone can hear them."
Wing Goodale, deputy director and conservation biologist at the BioDiversity Research Institute and a meeting participant, said that the workshop was conducted at a high level that helped advance the conversation of wind energy siting.
"I think they did a remarkable job of putting together a very well facilitated and productive meeting. I've gone to many meetings on this topic, and it feels like there's a lot of circular conversations. This meeting was extremely successful at moving the conversation forward," Goodale said. "It's iterative, of course, and I don't think the conclusions of the meeting will be able to address all the different challenges of wind power siting, but I think it was a very successful conversation."
SEA and CBI are currently compiling the results of the workshop, which will aid in determining the next steps. Possible future work may include establishing a database for wind siting information that can be used by stakeholders when considering wind energy in their communities.