Last week brought fascinating insight around energy transitions in rural Alberta, which feel worth discussing the day after President Trump pulled the USA out of the Paris Accord. The last day of my field trip there with colleague John Parkins and a few students we spent investigating the context of a wind energy proposal. We visited a local councillor/reeve for the municipal district, the host landowners and some opponents in our mini case study. It produced much food for thought. This post is name and hyperlink-free to avoid identifying the specific proposal, or the generous folks who gave their time to talk to us.
Some interesting issues arose in those discussions that are not commonly part of the discourse elsewhere, such as the lack of regulation around wind infrastructure, including end-of-life remediation and responsibility. This was raised by the eloquent reeve, as well as one of the opponents. It was a good reminder that just because regulation generally comes as a result of mistakes or accidents, we should not wait until that happens to develop strong expectations and governance. It would be unlikely, but awful, if turbines were orphaned in the way that so many oil and gas wells are in Alberta.
Even more compelling, however, was the way that industrial history, social dynamics and politics drove discourse among opponents. Most of the farmers in this area host oil and gas wells or compressor stations on their properties, and earn good money doing so. Some of these make noise, and some smell, and sometimes there are spills. But such risk and/or disbenefit has been normalized: this is the way that it has been for a long time. Similarly very large farming infrastructure like grain bins and elevators are accepted in the landscape as “the way we make our living”. This is the same way the landowners hoping to host the wind farm see it: just another way to make money off their land. They are ready to bear any disbenefits from hosting, but they largely dismiss such concerns. They see the opposition as a response in part to their cultural difference, which sets them apart from the local community, and the annoyance of others at the success of their livelihood model.
Despite this highly utilitarian landscape, and sparse population, a few of their neighbours asserted that wind presented more risks, e.g. to nearby grandchildren, than the oil and gas exploration or climate change itself. Every possible reason for wind opposition was touched upon, but without clear evidence, apparently in part fed by the online echo chamber. We heard strong denial of human-caused climate change. Renewables were seen as useful only for when oil and gas ran out. Otherwise we heard that renewables were unnecessary because of new ‘clean’ (and conveniently distant) coal and gas thermal plants. These voices did not differentiate between visible particulate pollution and invisible greenhouse gas emissions. The key opponent was a longstanding member of the community with many relationships to leverage; it will be interesting to see if the social implications prevail.