UMass Amherst Study Finds More Support for Offshore Wind in New England than Public Perceives

Ezra Markowitz
Ezra Markowitz
Rebecca Sokoloski
Rebecca Sokoloski

AMHERST, Mass. – A new investigation of public estimates of support for offshore wind energy by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst suggests, among other things, that participants who say they support wind power off the coast of New England significantly overestimate the level of opposition to this new technology among their fellow New Englanders.   

First author and graduate student Rebecca Sokoloski and her advisor, assistant professor in environmental conservation Ezra Markowitz, with co-author David Bidwell of the University of Rhode Island, report details in the journal Energy Policy.

They write, “We find evidence of significant incorrect estimation regarding public support for offshore wind projects both generally and with respect to a specific case, that is, Block Island, with both opponents and supporters alike overestimating public opposition to offshore wind energy.”

They add, “Such perceptions may play an important role in shaping public discourse and broader debates over the development and implementation of these technologies in the future, yet they are infrequently considered by developers, policymakers, as well as advocates and opponents alike.”

As Markowitz, an environmental decision-making and science communication researcher, points out, “This severe underestimate of public support for this technology may be one factor that holds back wider adoption and implementation of projects in the United States. Our results highlight the importance of considering not only peoples’ own beliefs about new renewable energy technologies, but also their beliefs about others’ opinions.”

Another “very interesting” finding, he says, is the moderating effects of political identification on people’s perceptions of public support. “Democrats, along with Republicans who are opposed to offshore wind, tend to overestimate Republican opposition to offshore wind power, whereas Republicans who themselves are supportive of offshore wind are generally more accurate in their estimates of public support.”

Sokoloski adds, “These politically-oriented findings highlight an underappreciated angle to offshore wind support, which we hope will spark debate and additional research.”

For this work, supported by both the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the National Science Foundation’s Wind Energy Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship at UMass, Sokoloski and colleagues conducted two studies, the first an online survey of 89 New England residents conducted in March and April 2016.

Respondents were given information on possible coastal wind farm development and asked to respond to questions on the general idea of offshore wind energy. They were also asked to estimate what percent of other New Englanders they thought would support offshore wind, to estimate the level of support among coastal residents, and support in their own communities.

In Study 2, the researchers wanted to collect a larger sample and to assess beliefs about a specific project. They conducted a survey on Block Island during summer 2016 among people walking around the island where an offshore wind farm was being built but before the turbines were operating. They collected responses from 429 people, 76 percent of them visitors.

These respondents were asked how supportive they were of the Block Island wind project and what percent of various groups they believed were supportive of it – visitors, Rhode Island residents and Block Island residents, for example. They were also asked to estimate percent support for the project among Democrats and Republicans, along with their own party affiliation, age, income level and other demographics.

Results of Study 2 showed that support was high for the Block Island wind project: 72 percent of island visitors, 71.4 percent of residents, 82.9 percent of seasonal residents and 75.7 percent of Rhode Island residents supported it. Yet respondents estimated that just 52 percent of Block Islanders and 61.8 percent of visitors would support it, a major gap between perceptions and actual levels of support.

Sokoloski and colleagues ran several statistical analyses to sharpen their understanding of differences in perception between various groups including between Republicans and Democrats, for example, and island visitors and residents. Overall, the authors point out, “Both studies provide evidence that members of the public inaccurately underestimate levels of support for offshore wind projects.”

Further, “among those (few) who are opposed to offshore wind projects, evidence of a false consensus effect was present. Opponents in both studies not only overestimated levels of opposition, they perceived that they held the majority opinion, a classic demonstration of a false consensus effect.”

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