Drivers of People's Preferences for Spatial Proximity to Energy Infrastructure Technologies: A Cross-country Analysis.

AuthorHarold, Jason

    It is generally accepted that greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced globally in order to combat the effects of climate change and that the decarbonisation of the energy system is an important prerequisite in this context. Internationally, many countries plan to achieve decarbonisation by increasing energy efficiency and expanding renewable energy sources (RES), though these actions will involve significant investments in energy infrastructures. For example Slednev et al. (2018) quantify the large investment requirements for a range of different renewable electricity generation scenarios out to 2050 for Ireland to meet its long term decarbonisation targets. While people are generally found to express acceptance of these investments on a broader level, policy makers and planners are frequently met with resistance from local residents to specific energy infrastructure development proposals. Indeed, some politicians and renewable energy technology (RET) developers argue that this local resistance can be explained by "NIMBYism" (Dear, 1992; Wolsink, 1994; and Burningham et al., 2015) which suggests that people support such developments in general but object to them for selfish reasons when the planned developments affect their direct vicinity. This so-called NIMBY ("not in my backyard") explanation is, however, widely acknowledged in the literature as far too simplistic or invalid (see Wtistenhagen et al., 2007; and Rand and Hoen, 2017).

    Nevertheless, many studies identify the distance between the particular energy infrastructures and a person's home as one of the key factors affecting the local acceptance of different energy technologies (for example, Mueller et al., 2017; Warren et al., 2005; and Van der Horst, 2007). This so-called "proximity hypothesis" implies that people are more likely to oppose the energy technology, the closer it is located to their residence. The "proximity hypothesis" differs from the "NIMBY" explanation in so far as it moves beyond the "selfishness" embedded within NIMBYism, where only "the combination of free rider preferences and a positive attitude toward wind energy deserves the label "NIMBY" (Wolsink, 2000). Thus far, studies have revealed some conflicting results in respect of the direction of the proximity effect with some research finding negative, positive or no proximity effects on people's attitudes to different energy technologies (see Mueller et al., 2017). One explanation for the inconsistent results is related to the fact that people's preferences for proximity to energy infrastructures is not only concerned with spatial distance alone, but also with the various other factors correlated with spatial distance, for example, visual/landscape impact, noise/sound and health impact. In fact, spatial proximity to energy infrastructures is frequently used as a proxy for these other related variables in many different analyses. For example, distance is used to capture visual and health impacts in Fimereli et al.'s (2008) choice experiment and it is used as a proxy for local economic impacts in Van der Horst (2007). For this reason, it is important to understand which variables actually drive people's preferences for spatial proximity to different energy infrastructures where the overall aim is to engage in effective communication with the people who will ultimately be most affected by such infrastructure developments.

    In this paper, the factors influencing people's preferences for spatial proximity to different energy infrastructure technologies are examined using a cross-country econometric analysis of the stated preference data from a pooled cross-section of three unprecedented surveys conducted in Ireland, Germany and the U.S. These surveys are based on nationally representative samples of the population in Ireland, the U.S. and Germany and involve more than 4,500 participants in total. The analysis aims at understanding the different drivers that shape people's acceptance of different energy infrastructure technologies at different distances to their residences i.e. this study makes a contribution by not using distance as an aggregate proxy but seeking to understand which variables help explain people's preferences for distance to such technologies. Building on environmental psychological theory, this analysis differentiates between external (socio-demographic) and internal (attitudes, beliefs) factors driving people's attitudes towards the spatial proximity to different energy technologies. More specifically, the effects from abroad collection of new and interesting attitudinal variables are examined. Furthermore, this paper will explore the factors affecting people's proximity preferences across a range of different energy technologies, which is a significant gap in the existing literature that impedes the comparability of studies across technologies (Rand and Hoen, 2017). These technologies are; wind turbines, solar power technology, biomass power plant, coal-fired power plant and natural gas power plant. To summarise, this is the first study of its kind to analyse what drives people's proximity preferences for this broad range of energy technologies across different countries with the main goal being to investigate for any heterogeneity in preferences across nations.

    The remainder of the paper proceeds as follows: Section 2 presents a review of the related literature from environmental psychology and economics, Section 3 provides a description of the survey data used for the analysis, details of the ordered outcome methodology used for estimation are outlined in Section 4, results are presented in Section 5, a discussion follows in Section 6 together with a brief conclusion in Section 7. In addition, the Appendix provides details concerning the key questions from the survey used for the analysis.


    There is a widespread literature which conceptually examines and defines social acceptance in relation to different energy technologies. For example, Wustenhagen et al. (2007) provide an introduction to three dimensions of social acceptance of renewable energy projects, namely socio-political, community and market acceptance. The authors differentiate between these three dimensions. They define socio-political acceptance as acceptance at the broadest, most general level, while they describe community acceptance as the specific acceptance of siting decisions for energy projects which involves the local stakeholders. In addition, market acceptance is referred to by the authors as the process of market adoption of a particular innovation or energy technology. As part of their review, Wustenhagen et al. (2007) point out that it is within the arena of "community acceptance" that the debate around NIMBYism unfolds whereby some authors argue that the difference between the general acceptance of energy technologies and then local opposition to specific energy projects is explained by the fact that people support such energy projects as long as it is not in their own backyard.

    In a review of the previous literature on public perceptions of wind energy, where local opposition is typically characterised as NIMBY, Devine-Wright (2005) identifies six distinct strands of research in the area particularly with wind power systems, most notably two of these strands are; the physical proximity to turbines, and NIMBYism as an explanation for negative perceptions. Indeed, there are many studies on how the discourse of NIMBYism is enrolled within disputes about siting energy technologies. For instance, Burningham et al. (2015) conduct a series of semi-structured interviews with the key actors involved in the process of siting different energy technologies in the UK in 2007-2008 to explore the influence of the public on renewable energy development. They conclude that developers are "heavily informed" by the NIMBY model and that local opposition equates to NIMBYism in the attitudes of developers towards resistance of such energy technologies.

    In contrast, most of the literature argues against the notion that local opposition is the same as NIMBYism, with Wustenhagen et al. (2007) asserting that NIMBYism is an oversimplification of people's actual motives for their resistance to the development of energy technologies in their vicinities. Ek (2005) and Wolsink (2007) also support the idea that the NIMBY explanation is too simplistic. In examining the general attitudes towards wind power among Swedish electricity consumers by employing a postal survey in 2002, Ek (2005) finds that respondents with wind power installations in sight of their residences have similar attitudes to respondents without any sight of these installations. Wolsink (2007) states that public attitudes to wind power are fundamentally different from attitudes towards wind farms and it is this gap that contributes to misunderstandings with regards to NIMBY. Furthermore, Firestone et al (2012) propose that NIMBY resistance may be a result of opposition, rather than an explanation of it. It is of particular note that in a recent review of the social acceptance literature for energy technology, Gaede and Rowlands (2018) suggest that the rapid growth in the study of social acceptance might explain the concerns raised over the "coherence of core concepts like NIMBYism". Additionally, Devine-Wright's 2005 review shows that many studies do not support the NIMBY hypothesis since the majority of these studies find that those opposed to wind energy locally are also shown to be not in favour of wind farms anywhere.

    Given that it is generally accepted by researchers that the NIMBY explanation for resistance to renewable energy development is invalid, any attempt to measure a so-called NIMBY effect is challenging with its definition varying to a large extent with respect to many other factors such as spatial proximity. Van der Horst (2007) suggests that such variations influence...

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