Wind turbine project may revolutionize citizen involvement in renewable energy

The Danish Council for Strategic Research is supporting theWind2050 project to the tune of DKK 20 million. This is a significant sum, which reflects the fact that the the links the project assures between innovative IT tools, financial models and sociological analyses have the potential to generate a radical change in the way major energy projects are planned and anchored in a democracy.

Denmark has the stated aim of becoming non-reliant on fossil fuels by 2050. To achieve this goal, the country will need to make huge investments in renewable energy. And while everyone is delighted with the potential environmental benefits, some citizens are less than thrilled at the thought of having to live close to the facilities that will be generating this renewable energy. What is more, people who live close to the power plants have sometimes found it hard to get their message across when voicing criticism or proposals.

The group behind the Wind2050 project is now out to change all that, and because wind power has a key role to play in Denmark’s 2050 strategy, the group will initially be focusing on wind turbine projects.

To start with, the researchers will be collecting criticism of existing wind turbine projects in all parts of Europe, before attempting to identify universal patterns and regional differences. Once this work has been completed, they will use the huge data volumes to prepare recommendations for the energy policy of the future.

“We will start by mapping criticism, and ultimately—we hope—be making a considerable contribution to Denmark’s efforts to become non-reliant on fossil fuels with the least possible uncertainty en route and the greatest possible satisfaction as regards both the overall Danish energy solution in 2050 and the separate projects,” says Kristian Borch, Project Manager and Senior Researcher at DTU Management Engineering.

"Better decision-making and better anchoring of renewable energy projects in the local community is key to achieving independence from fossil fuels - technology alone is not enough."
Kristian Borch

All about balance
Whatever you do, big projects will always attract some criticism—this is true of all renewable energy solutions including, of course, wind turbine installations. As such, it is unrealistic to hope to please everyone at the same time. According to Kristian Borch, it is a question of finding the right balance:

“Fundamentally, this project has to do with identifying energy solutions that leave as many people as possible as satisfied as possible. There are no solutions that will please everyone completely at either national or local level. However, we owe it to the environment and to each other to come up with the best compromises in the way we prioritize, position and communicate different energy projects—particularly in relation to the huge wind turbines, which often polarize opinion,” explains Kristian Borch.

For the environment and for each other
Wind 2050 aims to analyse both the processes behind and the results from previous wind turbine projects so as to make it possible to recommend models for citizen involvement, and to provide answers to specific questions regarding the physical frameworks of the projects such as how big turbines can actually be, and where they can be located.

“For example, we want to look into the issue of where it is best to position wind turbines, how to run the dialogue between citizens and developers, and how—by listening to the people who live in the immediate area—you can identify a solution that accommodates both national objectives and local wishes,” relates Kristian Borch.

It is precisely the dialogue with people living in the area that Wind2050 aims to improve appreciably. This is because public consultation processes, information material and votes have proved time and again to be insufficient to allow everyone to make their opinions heard, and for everyone affected by the process to feel that their input has been incorporated during the planning phase. However, the people behind Wind2050 are convinced that if you link engineering disciplines with the social sciences, it is possible to show much more consideration for citizens’ scepticism concerning wind turbines in their immediate vicinity, without this affecting the ambitious goals for a fossil fuel independent energy system by 2050.

Engineering democracy?
Because the group unites legal, sociological, financial and technical skills from DTU and universities throughout Europe, Project Manager Kristian Borch is sure that new opportunities will arise to understand and improve the democratic processes linked to the construction of large facilities for generating renewable energy. And even if new IT tools cannot replace traditional dialogue, they can help to clarify public concerns and contribute to qualifying the dialogue and ensuring that more perspectives come to the fore:

“For example, we are linking innovative IT tools with sociological understanding and legal skills in the development of a web crawler that is expected to be ready by the end of the year. The web crawler searches the internet for websites that have to do with wind turbines—debate fora, feature articles, etc.—and charts the points of view expressed. All the way down to regional level, this can help paint a picture of the considerations that need to be shown in the planning and project management of wind turbine facilities and the organization of public consultation meetings,” says Kristian Borch.

The Web crawler has already been tested and presented in a demo version, where it was set to search a small sample of the vast amount of parameters to be incorporated into the final tool. Assessing the response to the demo version Kristian Borch says:

"There has been great interest in the tool, particularly among opponents of wind turbines that would like to ensure that the crawler is able to locate and identify all relevant criticism of wind projects at all the sites where it occurs . And although some groups wrongly assumed that they were looking at a finished version , it does not change the fact that their reactions are important inputs to the final development of the tool. "

Environment , technology and people
Wind 2050 takes an interdisciplinary look at the relationship between technical development , environmental concerns, overall policy goals and local needs and as Kristian Borch concludes this it is not just an improvement on the status quo , but actually a necessity :

 "By considering the expansion of wind power as a socio - technical system, we are going to generate new insights into how we can implement green energy solutions, not only in Denmark but also internationally . And better implementation, better decision-making and better anchoring of renewable energy projects in the local community is key to achieving independence from fossil fuels - technology alone is not enough . "