31 July 2018 | Merethe Dotterud Leiren and Stine Aakre

10 factors for social acceptability of wind energy in wind energy scarce regions

Wind Energy Scarce Regions (WESR) are regions with wind energy penetration levels that are considerably lower than EU average. In WinWind we study a number of these regions in six countries: Saxony and Thuringia in Germany, Lazio and Abruzzo in Italy, Latvia, Norway, the Warmian-Masurian Province in Poland and the Balearic Islands in Spain. Each of them has different conditions that may affect social acceptability of wind energy.

In this blog we highlight 10 technical, regulatory and social conditions that are relevant for understanding social acceptability of wind energy in these regions: population density, scope of wind projects, share of renewable energy, grid capacity, accessibility to the regions, closeness, renewable energy support schemes, public participation, people’s perceptions and patterns of conflict. It becomes clear that a compromise between promoters and opponents of onshore wind power is not always possible.


1. Population density

Population density may affect social acceptability of wind development, as population density gives an indication of how many people might be affected. In the WES target regions, population density varies from 14 inhabitants per km2 in Norway to 342 in Lazio.

While low population density tends to be considered a good condition for social acceptability of wind development, this relationship is not clear. Studies from Norway, where the population density is particularly low, show that opposition still may be strong due to nature conservation concerns.


2. Scope of wind projects

Similarly, number and scope of wind projects also affect social acceptance. Typically, it is expected that social acceptance decreases with higher numbers of wind projects, because it increases contestation of land. Electrical capacity varies highly across the regions in the project from 3.68 MW at the Balearic Islands to 1,295 MW in Thuringia.


3. Share of renewable energy

One aim of increasing the share of renewables is to phase-out fossil fuels. In Norway, opponents of wind energy argue that Norwegian nature should not be destroyed, as the electricity generation is already fully renewable. In contrast, Poland is highly dependent on coal. Concerns regarding social welfare effects of phasing out coal are prevailing. Safeguarding coal interests is therefore considered more important than climate policy. Germany, which also has high dependency on coal, has in contrast to Poland introduced a “Coal Commission” to find the appropriate measures to phase out coal. In other words, the share of renewables in existing electricity generation affects social acceptability of wind energy, but the relationship is not clear. Both high shares of renewables as well as high shares of fossil fuels may contribute to form opposition against wind energy.


4. Grid capacity

Wind energy creates pressures on grid capacity. In Italy the large majority of new requests for connection to the national grid is related to new wind power. Germany faces the major challenge to improve transport of electricity from the northern/eastern regions where there is a lot of wind energy to the south of Germany where wind energy is not as developed and there is a high demand for power. In Italy, Germany and Norway grids are being upgraded to improve the security of supply and increase the capacity. In other regions, like the Warmian-Masurian Province in Poland, a poor network and therefore a constant threat of power loss hampers the development of wind power. However, improvements in grid capacity may also affect social acceptance, if wind power increases the need for grids that are perceived as large nature interventions.


5. Accessibility to the regions

This factor is related to existing infrastructure. While potential sites in Germany normally can be reached using the existing road network, new roads typically have to be built for new wind energy projects in Norway. This results in large infrastructure interventions in areas that are sparsely populated, noise levels are lower and expectations of quietness higher than in urban areas. 


6. Closeness of turbines

The literature highlights that siting of turbines close to the most sensitive and protected landscapes provokes the most negative responses to wind energy. All the WESRs have restrictions on land use such as nature conservation areas that cannot be used for wind energy production. Most of the WESRs also have rules on minimum setback distances between settlements and the wind turbines. In Norway where there are no such rules, wind development projects may be placed closer to where people live than in other regions and countries. There is no clear consensus in the literature on the relationship between social acceptance and distance to wind turbines, but setback rules may be important for social acceptability. However, they also exclude large areas from potential use for wind turbines. For example, the setback rule in Thuringia excludes 60% of Thuringia’s area from being used for wind power.


7. Renewable energy support schemes

All the WESRs have support instruments for renewable energy, which are particularly important for the deployment of renewables. However, Latvia has phased out its feed-in tariff support scheme (i.e. it exists only for projects that have already been granted support) and Norway is phasing out its green certificate scheme in 2021. In the other countries there is a tendency to move towards auction-based support schemes.


8. Public participation

Procedural stakeholder participation is highlighted in the literature as important for social acceptability. Almost all the countries involve the public in consultations during the licensing process and/or spatial planning processes. In Italy the public is not involved in the general concession procedure, unless the regions establish public consultation procedures.

All project countries, including Norway (which is a member of the European Economic Area), are obliged to adhere to the EU Environmental Impact Assessment Directive. It ensures public participation in the environmental assessment procedures.


9. People’s perceptions

People’s perceptions of wind energy or renewables vary across the countries, but in general there seems to be a slightly positive attitude. In Germany a large majority supports further expansion of renewable energy and considers such a development important, but the population in the former GDR tends to support wind energy to a lesser extent than the rest of the population.

While attitudes towards renewables in Latvia tend to be positive, a majority is not willing to pay more for energy. Additionally, due to issues with the phased-out support instrument renewable energy has received some negative attention in the news.

In the Norwegian election survey in 2009 and 2013, a large majority agreed that wind power should be further developed in Norway. However, the attitudes may be more negative now, given increasing development that puts pressure on nature conservation, which has always spurred a lot of conflict in Norway.

In the Warmian-Mazurian Province the general view of the population is that investments in wind energy can bring positive benefits for the region, including environmental improvements and boosting tax income. In the Balearic Islands evidence suggests that the local population is largely in favour of wind energy. Similarly, in Italy a majority responds that they “trust” wind energy.


10. Patterns of conflict

Some patterns of conflict are similar across all the cases. There are in particular concerns with nature conservation and worries about health risks in all the countries. Other conflicts are less common, like conflicts in Norway related to minority rights of the Sami people and reindeer farming.

While different instruments are necessary to grapple with different conflicts, it is difficult to separate associations to for example minority rights from other reasons of opposition or protest like ecology, aesthetics and heritage. In other words, there is a need to disentangle the different reasons for opposition in each country and region and then seek to understand what kind of instruments may affect social acceptability related to each reason. For example, aesthetics often contributes to create local opposition against wind power but may represent larger institutional failures.


In Conclusion: Compromise is not always possible

A compromise between actors opposing and those promoting wind power is not always possible. Conflicts related to minority rights (like in Norway) is one typical example: Any nature intervention in areas with strong links to minority cultures may not be acceptable under any circumstances, because they touch the “soul” of a culture. In contrast, there might be possible compromise solutions when conflicts are related to tourism (which is particularly important on the Balearic Islands), unemployment (because it may be seen as challenging jobs in the coal sector in Poland) or lack of transparency in political-administrative processes (as in Italy and Latvia). Compensation may to some extent be a solution to tourism and welfare losses. However, several studies show that compensation and community benefits do not automatically increase acceptance. In addition, lack of trust may be dealt with by ending impunity, reforms of public administration and most of all through information, communication and transparency in the planning and siting procedures. 



Conceptual Framework for analysing social acceptance barriers and drivers (D2.2)