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Residents Push Back on Wind Turbines in Lake Erie: Lessons from Denmark

The Icebreaker project, a proposed project to install six offshore wind turbines in the U.S. waters of Lake Erie, has faced heavy public pushback. Local residents and environmental groups worry about the impacts of a wind farm on local wildlife and property values. In Denmark, by contrast, communities have broadly welcomed wind energy projects. What can the United States learn from the Danish model to move Americans into a new era of wind power?

The Need for Wind Power in the United States

In the United States, President Barack Obama’s Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future has set a target for 80 percent of energy production to come from renewable energy sources by 2035. Only 33 percent of U.S. energy was produced from non-fossil fuel energy sources in 2015. Twenty percent of that was from nuclear power, leaving a mere 13 percent of energy generation from renewable sources such as hydropower, biomass, geothermal, solar, and wind power.

To achieve its 2035 target, the United States will need to expand its use of renewable energy. Wind power has great potential. Already, the U.S. installed wind capacity is projected to expand to 404 gigawatts (GW) by 2050, up from 61 GW in 2013—an increase of about 665 percent.

The Icebreaker project, planned for construction in summer 2018, would be located just 11 kilometers northwest of Cleveland, Ohio. It would contribute 20 MW of electricity, a small input that could serve as a pilot initiative to expand wind power capacity in Lake Erie.

Public Resistance to Wind Turbines

Public resistance to proposed wind turbines can threaten the development of renewable energy projects. The Icebreaker project is no exception. Local opponents worry that erecting wind turbines in Lake Erie could harm bird and fish populations, lower property values, and damage the aesthetics of the region. Many residents question whether wind turbines are actually “green.”

Despite concerns about threats to birds, several studies (including this one by Aarhus University at the Wind Turbine Test Center in Østerild, Denmark) show that birds are not as heavily affected by wind turbines as was once believed. Another study shows that in 2009, wind turbines and nuclear power each were responsible for between 0.3 and 0.4 bird deaths per produced gigawatt-hour (GWh), whereas fossil-fueled power plants were responsible for approximately 5.2 bird deaths per produced GWh. Figure 1 shows the distribution of causes of bird deaths in the United States in 2009.

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Distribution of causes of bird kill sources in the United States in 2009. (Source: Benjamin K. Sovacool, 2013)

Another common argument for not installing wind turbines in Lake Erie is that resident fish will be affected by the low-frequency sound waves made by the wind turbines. Research in this area has had varying results. In some cases, the construction of offshore wind turbines has improved marine life, as fishing is prohibited in the turbine area. In other cases, no changes have been seen or a change in the density and size distribution of fish (such as sand eels) has been observed. These conclusions are not final, however, since wind farms are still relatively young ecosystems.

With regard to property values, research in Canada found no significant impact on housing prices following the installation of wind turbines. However, experiences from Denmark indicate that, in some cases, neighbors that lived in close proximity to the turbines experienced a decrease in housing values. If no compensation is provided for this possible decline, public support may be hard to gain. A decrease in housing value is connected to aesthetics as well. Some local residents near Lake Erie have expressed concern that the installation of the six offshore turbines would ruin their views of the lake.

Looking to Denmark for Inspiration

Public support is important in order to expand wind power capacity. Looking to Denmark for inspiration may provide insights.

Denmark is a prominent example of a country where wind power has had a great role in the transition toward a fossil fuel-free energy system. In 2015, 42.1 percent of Danish electricity consumption came from wind generation. The country has set a target for wind power to meet half of the nation’s electricity demand by 2020. Wind power also will play a vital role in meeting Denmark’s 2035 goal of 100 percent renewable electricity and heating, as well as its 2050 goal of achieving 100 percent renewable energy and transportation systems.

In Denmark, the wind power industry began in the 1970s, driven by public sentiment and passionate craftsmen. In 1985, policymakers reacted to this public sentiment by including wind turbines in the energy system instead of adding nuclear power.

According to a law (bopælspligten) that was in place through the 1990s, all wind turbines in Denmark had to be owned locally by local residents or companies. This created a tradition of citizens associations forming to buy turbines. Keeping ownership local had the benefit of rewarding impacted residents with additional revenue associated with the turbine, thereby offsetting possible local impacts of having a wind turbine nearby. When the “residence requirement law” was cancelled in 1998, support for wind power declined.

In 2009, local communities once again were given the chance to earn an income from the presence of nearby wind turbines. A new measure was introduced that required turbine owners to sell a 20 percent share of their wind turbine to local residents. Immediate neighbors of the turbines were first in line to buy these ownership shares. Then, other citizens in the municipality were allowed to make offers. The measure also ensured that some money (the amount depends on the capacity of the wind turbine) be put into a pool to support the local environment and cultural activities.

Another measure was introduced to address public concerns regarding the loss in property values. Now, the main owner of the wind turbine is obligated to fully compensate the neighbors of a turbine for any loss in housing value. To be eligible, residents have to apply for compensation before the wind turbines are installed.

By making ownership local and creating accountability for wind turbines, the income from wind power is now distributed locally and the costs are offset. Neighbors of the turbines experience benefits through wind projects, which makes residents more willing to support the installation of wind turbines in their local area. This arrangement is working so well that analyses show that the people who are the most positive about having wind turbines located near their homes are the closest neighbors of wind turbines. Eighty-four percent of wind turbine neighbors see no disadvantages with having a wind turbine nearby.

Local Ownership Ensures Public Support

Installing an invasive technology such as wind turbines in a local community and enabling only distant owners to reap the direct financial benefit leads to an automatic resistance to wind turbines. This is hardly surprising, since the local public experiences only the disadvantages of these projects. By making the ownership local, the public gets a share of the benefits of wind turbines as well. This local-centric approach would likely also benefit the Lake Erie Icebreaker project and other wind turbine projects in the United States.

In order to reach both the U.S. goal of 80 percent renewable energy generation and the internationally agreed target of keeping the global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius this century, more wind turbines will need to be installed in the United States. Because of the difference in cost, onshore turbines will likely outpace offshore turbines in the future. Consequently, more people will be neighbors to a wind turbine. By changing the energy ownership model in the United States, greater social acceptance and support for expanded wind power capacity could help the country reach its energy and climate targets.


Rikke Rieks Andersen is a former intern at the Worldwatch Institute and a Sustainable Energy Planning and Management student at Aalborg Universitet.

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