Everyone loves renewable energy until they don’t. In a March Gallup survey, more than two thirds of respondents said the United States should put more emphasis on developing wind (66 percent) and solar energy (73 percent). 

Amber N. Ott.

But when a new wind or solar farm is proposed in a community’s back yard, people put up a fight. For instance, an offshore windfarm off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard appears to moving forward following 20 years of opposition from local property owners. And environmentalists are fighting the construction of a new solar plant in the Mojave Desert.

If Americans are going to make a dent in reducing carbon emissions — and polling suggests they want to — they are going to have to grapple with the tradeoffs required. An effort in West Texas offers a roadmap for helping people work through the issues.

More than 10 years ago, the late social scientist Daniel Yankelovich introduced the concept of an Energy Learning Curve. He pointed out that public opinion moves through several stages when grappling with a complex problem. 

In the case of energy, the public had moved through the first, consciousness-raising phase of the Learning Curve. Simply put, we are aware of the problem.

The second stage is the longest and most arduous. It involves the need for people to confront their own wishful thinking and denial as they wrestle with the painful tradeoffs and sacrifices that might affect their habits and lifestyles. It’s not linear—the public may take a step forward then two steps back as it moves toward a resolution. 

This is where the public was in 2009, and it is where we still are today. The more complex an issue, the longer it takes the public to work through it. Most people grasp just one or two elements of the energy challenge, such as costs or environmental impacts, and deemphasize the rest. They don’t realize that these elements are interconnected—one necessarily impacts the other. A sound approach to energy necessarily requires addressing them all.

The third and final phase is resolution and support for action. On many issues, the public never gets here.

Aside from increased concern about climate, current polling shows that not much has changed since Yankelovich introduced the Learning Curve. People today want cheap, reliable energy; they don’t want to rely on fossil fuels; and they don’t want energy development to impact natural resources or the culture of their communities.

The reality is that we can’t have all of these things at the same time. To meet our growing demands for energy, we are going to have to make some hard choices.

Trends toward renewable energy sources—driven both by economics (the cost of onshore wind and utility-scale solar energy is now lower than even the most efficient gas-fired turbines) and public policy (the Biden administration’s ambitious new carbon emissions targets) – may force people to address their wishful thinking. Wind and solar development require a lot of land per unit of energy produced, and the infrastructure has to go somewhere. To avoid the ugly, costly conflicts that inevitably arise when new energy facilities are built, we have to move the public up the Energy Learning Curve.

A recent project in West Texas offers a promising case study for how to do this. 

The Respect Big Bend Coalition—a team of scientists and outreach professionals—brought together private landowners, elected officials, energy companies, community members and others to develop a blueprint for producing energy while preserving the character of rural communities. 

The initiative asked stakeholders to consider what about their region was most important, and then scientists mapped the values they identified on the landscape. In the Big Bend Region, people prioritized things like ranching heritage, dark skies and water resources. This allows energy developers to avoid land areas that are of greatest value to the people that live there—minimizing conflict and encouraging conservation.

The project has shown that when people have access to objective information and are engaged in a thoughtful way, they can minimize the downsides of energy development and preserve the things that matter most to them.

When it comes to energy, making policy or development decisions without public engagement can be costly—in the form of time and money but also damage to natural resources and quality of life. The Respect Big Bend project has shown that when people grapple with the issues, the outcomes can be better for everyone.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Amber N. Ott, a founding partner of Hudson Pacific, a data-driven public affairs consulting firm. The column appears in the Rio Grande Guardian with the permission of the author. Ott can be reached by email via: [email protected].

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