Wind power survey shows shift in opinion


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8:56 a.m., Dec. 2, 2009----The University of Delaware today released results of a survey of Cape Cod, Mass., residents' opinions on a controversial offshore wind power project. Researchers found 57 percent now support the project with 41 percent opposing it, showing a reverse in public opinion.

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The statistically representative sample was matched in methods to a survey taken by the same team in 2005. The 2005 survey found 44 percent supported it and 56 percent opposed.

Respondents were statistically sampled residents of Cape Cod and the Islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, weighted to accurately represent the population.

The Cape Wind project in Massachusetts was the first offshore wind project proposed in the United States, with its introduction in 2001. Additional offshore wind power projects are now being developed in Delaware, Rhode Island and New Jersey, as well as proposed in additional states.

Those who stated they shifted from opposition to support cited the project's effect on foreign oil dependency and electric rates, and the effect on marine life or the environment.

The survey also asked residents about the planning and permitting process. A plurality found the developer to be transparent, that the planning process had been fair and local residents had a say in planning. Each of these findings is statistically significant.

“Some Massachusetts residents no doubt found the environmental review process lengthy,” said Jeremy Firestone, UD assistant professor of marine policy. “Yet these findings, along with the shift in public opinion, suggest that the review process has informed the community about the project's benefits, relieved concerns about environmental impacts and has met citizens' needs to be fully informed before supporting a new technology.”

The survey was undertaken by the researchers in the University of Delaware's Center for Carbon-free Power Integration in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment -- including Firestone, Willett Kempton, professor of marine policy, and doctoral student Meredith Blaydes Lilley. Firestone and Kempton are leading offshore wind power researchers.

The release coincided with the Dec. 2 opening of the national American Wind Energy Association workshop on offshore wind power in Boston. Set to attend the conference, among others, are Governors Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, Donald Carcieri of Rhode Island and Jack Markell of Delaware.

“If you add up this shift in opinion -- in an area famous for its prior opposition -- plus all the business investments we see at this conference, plus addresses by three East Coast governors, perhaps we can say that the time for offshore wind power has arrived,” Kempton said.

For the 2009 survey, the researchers split Cape Cod into two segments -- those in census tracts bordering Nantucket Sound from which a homeowner might have a view of the Cape Wind project (from Wood's Hole to Chatham) and the rest of Cape Cod. Those bordering the Sound are opposed 53 percent to 46 percent, although the difference is not statistically significant, while in the rest of Cape Cod, the project is supported by 63 percent.

“This finding suggests that the project has broad support on the Cape, although the developer has yet to win the hearts and minds of residents whose view might be most affected,” Firestone said.

The survey results reveal that those who were previous supporters tend to be more supportive now, while those who were opposed tend to be more opposed now. Nevertheless, as noted above, a sufficient number have shifted to support to now swing majority opinion in favor, even on the Cape. Statewide surveys have shown a substantial majority support among all Massachusetts state residents for some time.

A parallel survey was conducted of Delaware residents at the same time. In total, more than 1,000 surveys were returned, 463 in Cape Cod, with a response rate of 50 percent.

The study researchers intend to conduct further analysis of the data, including a comparison with Delaware residents' opinion, prior to submitting the results for scientific peer review. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Delaware Sea Grant supports this work; it has no funding from either supporters or opponents of the Cape Wind project.