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Kira Smiley: Experiential knowledge paired with trustworthy information necessary for local legitimacy of wind power

18.9.2017 Kira Smiley
Kira Smiley

The local implications of wind energy are a hotly debated topic worldwide. It appears 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. Yet, all too often arguments sour when talk of windmill construction hits close to home. Doubts about the appropriateness of the construction site emerge, along with fears of both personal impacts mixed with those concerning the environment and local wildlife, particularly birds.

These concerns motivated our study of local permanent and seasonal inhabitants in the Finnish archipelago. We conducted a series of semi-structured interviews on one island with windmills and on two without. The interviews focused on the participants’ perceptions about the impacts of windmills on the white-tailed eagle in the Turku archipelago. Not only is the white-tailed eagle a locally important species recognized to interact with windmills, but these large, charismatic birds are a point of interest for windmill development throughout Europe.

Our findings indicated that experience, or lack of it, strongly affected how participants formed perceptions of windmills and their impacts. In addition, when searching for new information, local inhabitants 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 tended to exhibit 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 windmills, our 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 windmills voiced concerns that property values would drop due to view and sound disturbance.  However, residents on the island with windmills directly contradicted this and said that property values had risen and the sound was noticeable only on very windy days. It is also interesting that despite engagement with the wind-power companies and local authorities taking place, several participants felt their views were not ultimately utilized in the windmill decision-making process.

The findings illustrate that misconceptions may often occur due to lack of experience or information, strengthening the need for increased knowledge exchange. It is clear that we have much to gain from sharing experiences and distributing research-based reliable information. For example, a concise packet of studies on windmills including personal experiences might serve to communicate windmill impacts to communities that are considering or facing windmill construction. Additionally, 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.

So here is my question: How often do you think about the reliability of your information source, and have you ever caught yourself or others in the act of confirmation bias?

If so – when, and how? Comment below!


Kira Smiley is a visiting researcher from Stanford University working in the Environmental Governance Unit at the Environmental Policy Centre in Finnish Environmet Institute SYKE.
Because she will be returning to California in the fall, she can be reached at email ksmiley "at" stanford.edu.

Opinions of blog contributors do not necessarily reflect the official views and opinions of the Finnish Environment Institute.


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