Considering the cost: Study examines trade-offs in energy development


LARAMIE – A study conducted by the University of Wyoming found that Wyomingites are open to renewable energy and diversifying the economy.

However, they realize they’ll have to make trade-offs, and they want their leaders to have realistic conversations about these decisions.

In a study titled “Social License for Wyoming’s Energy Future: What Do Residents Want?” Jessica Western, a research scientist at the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, explored the perspectives, values and visions of Wyoming residents when it comes to energy development.

The study was published in November, and it illustrates the values in play as communities consider projects such as the proposed Rail Tie Wind Project in Albany County. Social license is the ongoing permission a community grants a project, driven by its beliefs and priorities.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for looking at new technologies and for diversifying Wyoming’s economy generally, but as the values showed so clearly, the reason why we live in Wyoming is because of aesthetics, because of biological diversity,” Western said.

Working with Selena Grace, a research assistant in the UW School of Energy Research, Western surveyed 500 residents about energy production, development and technology.

Then they dove deeper with a smaller group to better understand what drives those values.

A majority of survey respondents supported many types of energy production, including wind energy at 66 percent. Their top values about Wyoming were aesthetic value, biological diversity, recreation value, economic value and community. Among the fundamental values held by respondents were their attachment to place and the importance of natural amenities.

Western said aesthetics isn’t limited to natural beauty.

“For people in Wyoming, the aesthetic value is not so much about whether it’s pretty, whether it’s nice to look at. It’s far more visceral — the aesthetic value means everything is there that needs to be there,” she said. “In Colorado, it means a beautiful view. In Wyoming, it means an intact ecosystem.” 

When the smaller group was asked to consider and sort value statements gathered during the survey, several perspectives emerged. 

Among them was support for renewable energy motivated by climate change and economic well-being. 

Another theme researchers found emphasized quality of life. This perspective supported a variety of types of energy but questioned trade-offs in terms of jobs, healthcare, communities and wildlife. 

Across the board, the study found that respondents favored a variety of types of energy development, wanted to respond to climate change, wanted to meet interest from out-of-state customers, prioritized job creation and wanted to decrease impacts on wildlife, among other considerations.

“The challenge for decision-makers is to weigh all those components when you’re looking at individual projects, and when you’re looking at the economy for the state as a whole,” Western said. 

Survey respondents agreed that climate change is an important consideration that could benefit the state economically, if it can advance new energy sources and be creative in its approach. 

“If Wyoming can agree to that, then what does that mean for our energy economy? That kind of realistic conversation has to happen,” Western said. 

Participants in the smaller group were more passionate about protecting wildlife habitat than they were about protecting viewsheds, which isn’t to say they don’t mind blinking red lights at night. 

“I think people feel like if our wildlife can migrate, and if our wildlife populations are diverse and healthy, that’s more important,” Western said. 

According to Western, Wyoming residents want their leaders to take a proactive approach to energy development while acknowledging what will be lost and what will be gained. 

“This study shows that people in Wyoming are giving our decision-makers license to have that conversation,” she said. 

When it comes to energy in general and wind energy in particular, the closer it gets to one’s backyard, the more complicated the decisions become. 

“In concept, people in Wyoming are interested in all types of energy, but what it means for their quality of life, that’s the big question,” she said.

To read the study, go to www.uwyo.edu/haub/ruckelshaus-institute

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