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Renewable Energy's Popularity: Support for Wind Farms?

Robert Wilson's picture
University of Strathclyde

Robert Wilson is a PhD Student in Mathematical Ecology at the University of Strathclyde.

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  • May 15, 2013 11:30 pm GMT

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How many people support renewables or nuclear power, or for that matter fracking? To find the answer, most commentators will just pluck a value from the nearest opinion poll to hand, however a closer to look at these polls shows that they should be treated with caution.

Consider fracking. Last year The Guardian told us that “more than two-thirds of people would rather have a wind turbine than a shale gas well near their home.” This sounds like pretty bad news for those hoping to get fracking off the ground. Yet, consider another poll carried out by the UK government. This one asked a remarkably simple question: “Before today, how much, if anything did you know about hydraulic fracturing for shale gas, otherwise known as ‘fracking’?” Based on the results half of the people living in the UK have never heard of shale gas or fracking, and a total of roughly two thirds have either not heard of it or don’t really know what it is. A simple consequence is that opinion polls about fracking are little more than white noise, yet we will continue to see them being used by advocates and commentators of all stripes.

What about wind farms? Well, take your pick. A month ago the UK government released a poll apparently showing that only 11% of people oppose onshore wind farms, something many renewables advocates and lobbyists talked up. However, shortly after this the UK’s chief renewable lobby group RenewableUK released a separate poll indicating opposition is likely to be a lot higher. Instead of finding that 11% of people oppose onshore wind farms they found that in a general election there would be “27% who would be more likely to vote for a candidate who backed ending policies supporting more wind farm development.” Not exactly overwhelming support.

Which is it? Is opposition to onshore wind barely 10% of people in the UK, or over a quarter? Consideration of another poll by Yougov seems to indicate it is much more likely to be the latter. What question is more likely to give you an accurate feel for the level of opposition to onshore windfarms: “Do you support or oppose onshore wind?” or “Do you support or oppose wind farms on the land?” It’s almost certain that everyone knows what the latter means, yet the phrase “onshore wind” may be something a lot of people aren’t aware of. With this in mind I am a lot more inclined to view Yougov’s poll as more reliable, which found that opposition to “wind farms on the land” has been above 11% every year since 2008, with it reaching an all time high in 2012 at 21%. This poll also indicates that opposition to wind power is increasing consistently year on year.

So, the renewable lobby appears to have a choice. It can either recognise that opposition to wind farms is a real and growing problem, or it can commission more opinion polls that attempt, but fail to show that opposition to wind farms is not something to worry about.

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