Two years ago, a team of researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) set a goal to better understand perceptions of equity and fairness among U.S. communities living near land-based wind energy installations. This marked the beginning of the Wind Energy Equity Engagement Series (WEEES), which aims to inform and support initiatives like the nation's Justice40 Initiative and address historical energy inequities across the United States.
Recently, the team highlighted their findings from the first three of the series’ four phases in a report, which provides a glimpse into the experiences, challenges, and priorities of communities impacted by wind energy.
"From a global perspective, wind energy is lowering carbon emissions and ultimately minimizing the impacts of climate change. But from a community perspective, wind energy can look much different," said NREL researcher Elizabeth Gill, who led the first part of the project, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy's Wind Energy Technologies Office.
According to Gill, understanding energy equity from the bottom up is a crucial part of minimizing the burdens and maximizing the benefits of the nation's clean energy transition.
To engage with a diverse and representative set of wind energy stakeholders, the WEEES team has so far conducted a survey, an interview series, and a virtual workshop with researchers, decision makers, and industry professionals. Three major themes emerged from these efforts, which indicate that the participants value:
- Early, frequent, and inclusive engagement with communities impacted by wind energy development.
- The ability to have a meaningful say in decisions related to the terms of wind energy development and its effects on social and cultural factors, like community identity, history, and sense of place.
- Benefits that are relevant and impactful for community members, which can be ensured through equitable community benefits agreements.
"These findings give us a better understanding of what's really important to wind energy communities and provide insight into resources needed to ensure they are able to engage meaningfully in the wind project development process," said Gill.
The project identified several future research priorities, including the need to engage with tribal communities, and the need for resources about wind turbine decommissioning—or the removal of a wind energy project and the restoration of any land that was used as part of a project.
When talking about decommissioning, research participants expressed concerns about their local communities bearing the cost of decommissioned turbines. To combat these concerns, participants highlighted the need for publicly available resources guiding communities through the decommissioning process. The U.S. Department of Energy Wind Energy Technologies Office's WINDExchange platform recently published the Wind Energy End-of-Service Guide, an informational resource for communities to better understand repowering or decommissioning processes for wind turbines and related infrastructure.
Participants also emphasized that community engagement efforts are necessary to engage with tribal lands and tribal nations. Future outreach could help identify if NREL’s research services would be welcomed and helpful for tribes interested in pursuing wind energy and related projects.
In the next and final phase of the Wind Energy Equity Engagement Series, the team will identify and partner with community-based organizations to elicit feedback from community members with direct experience of wind energy development in their communities. The team members expect that this final phase of engagement will deepen their understanding of what equity in wind energy means on the ground.
"These community-based organizations have deep connections with the people who are living in their communities," said Clara Houghteling, another NREL researcher working on the project. "Partnering with the organizations is a way for us to integrate equity into our research process, not just our research goal."
Learn more about the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy's energy equity and environmental justice goals. Additional information about wind energy in local communities can be found through DOE's Renewable Energy Siting through Technical Engagement and Planning program.