New Podcast Episode: Political polarization of perspectives on wind power with John Parkins

EPISODE 9- Political Polarization of Perspectives on Wind Power with John Parkins

With a 2050 net-zero goal on the horizon, Alberta is going to have to turn to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. But how do landowners feel about the development of wind power? Are these perspectives connected to political affiliation?


Thank you, John Parkins, for making this episode possible.



Host: Welcome back to the Land Use Podcast. My name is Aysha Wu with the Alberta Land Institute and today we’ll be discussing landowners' perspectives on wind energy development in Alberta.

Before we start, I would like to acknowledge that what we call Alberta today is located on Treaty 4, 6, 7, 8 and 10 territory, the traditional lands of diverse Indigenous peoples whose presence continues to enrich our vibrant community.

In December of last year, the Government of Alberta announced a moratorium on the development of renewable energy which lasted until February of this year. Following the end of the moratorium, the government announced new land use restrictions that limit where in the province renewable energy projects can be developed. The moratorium and the new restrictions have been widely criticized and have resulted in the loss of renewable development projects worth billions of dollars. The restrictions may also impede the province’s progress towards a net-zero grid.

The new restrictions are meant to protect Alberta’s landscapes and the rights of agricultural landowners, however agricultural landowner perspectives on the development of renewable energy vary greatly within Alberta. A 2023 study published by Monique Holowach and John R. Parkins investigated the link between political ideologies and perspectives on the development of wind energy projects. John Parkins is with me today to discuss his research and the state of renewable energy development in the province.

Thanks for joining me John. Can you introduce yourself and tell us about what you do?

John: My name is John Parkins, and I'm a professor in the Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology at the University of Alberta. And I do research and also teaching on the topic of environmental studies. And part of my research program is focused on the development of renewable energy technologies in Canada. And one of my more recent projects was focused on opportunities and constraints around wind energy development in Alberta. So that's some of the research that I've been involved in recently. 

Host: Great, thank you. So we'll mostly be talking about your paper “Unraveling the link between political polarization and wind energy perspectives: Insights from a survey of agricultural landowners in Alberta, Canada.” Can you tell me about why you chose that topic? 

John: Yeah. Well, just backing up and looking at the broader topic of renewable energy development, I became interested in the topic of renewable energy development because I could see a future where we would need to have more renewable energy technology on the landscape. And so when I talk about renewable energy technology, that would include wind power, of course, but also solar projects, biomass, geothermal, and other kinds of technologies that would be a part of our future energy systems. And so I became interested in this topic because I could see a future with more of this infrastructure, this renewable energy infrastructure of the landscape, but at the same time, I sensed that there was a lot of opposition to this kind of technology. And I wanted to understand better why there was this level of opposition and where it was coming from to really appreciate where people were coming from with their concerns around renewable energy development. 

So we know many of the reasons why renewable energy should be a part of our future, climate change being one of them, energy independence, other kinds of reasons that we're quite familiar with, but I'm not sure we’re as familiar with some of the really important reasons why people are opposed to renewable energy technologies. So I really wanted to take that opposition seriously, particularly amongst the people who need to live and work within and around these renewable energy technologies. So for the people who own land who may be in a position to host this technology on their land, for example large scale farmers in Alberta, I was particularly interested in learning more about their level of support and interest in renewable energy technology, but also their opposition or resistance to the technology and where that's coming from. So that was a motivation for the work and why I decided to develop a series of research projects on this topic. 

And so the paper that we're talking about today is focused on looking at political polarization and the role of political polarization in support or opposition to wind power technologies. And this paper really tries to dig deeply into whether the way people think about wind power, whether it's politically polarized or not. And by that I mean is your support or opposition to wind power something of a litmus test for your political views? So for example, if you generally vote for the NDP, does that mean you normally are more supportive of wind and in contrast, if you normally vote for the UCP – the conservative government, are you just automatically opposed to wind? You know, so is our renewable energy technologies and is wind power, you know, polarizing in this way where you could just ask someone's political orientation or understand or identify their political orientation and then automatically assume what they might believe or think about wind energy technology? So that was the question: is support or opposition to wind energy politically polarized? So that's what we set out to investigate. 

And we investigated this by undertaking a study of large scale landowners and so this is not a general population survey. We did not include residents of Edmonton and Calgary, for example. This was a survey of large scale landowners. There were 400 respondents in this survey, so it's a fairly large sample. A lot of these landowners are in central and southern Alberta where it's windy. They own large tracts of land where wind projects could be located on their property. And so these are people who are really in some ways on ground zero, where wind energy development is taking place or could be taking place. And so we surveyed these landowners and what we found is that views are diverse and multifaceted. There's a lot of opposition to wind power in different ways, but there's also a lot of support for wind power in different ways. And so what we found was fragmented views, diverse, divergent views on wind power, but we did not find evidence of political polarization. So that – in some ways that's a good news story about the future of wind power development in the province. So it was kind of a hopeful and optimistic outcome from the study that we found and hopefully that bodes well for future wind power development in the province. 

Host: It is really interesting just reading the title of the study, I couldn't tell you why but I definitely have that assumption that being for or against wind energy development has some kind of political association. Could you talk about why that might be? 

John: Yeah, I guess it's partly because for example, just in the most recent moratorium on renewable energy, that came from a Conservative government. We generally have a sense from the political discourse in the province that Conservative governments are not as enthusiastic about renewable energy development in the province and more Liberal or left-leaning governments are more supportive. 

So, for example, when the NDP was in power in 2015, they established some renewable energy programs at that time that were quite formative and influential in the development of renewable energy projects. And so we have a feeling or a sense in our political discourse that conservative governments can be less supportive of these renewable energy technologies and more left-leaning governments can be more supportive, partly as a result of concerns around climate change that are often more deeply felt amongst more left-leaning individuals and political parties, but for other reasons as well.

And so it was a kind of a surprising outcome that we found in the study. But that's also not to say that wind power cannot be polarized, right? So this study that we did took place prior to the moratorium that took place last year. And so I would be quite interested to see if we did this study again, if we would find the same results or if, you know, the discourses around renewable energy within the political kind of field – in the political world within Alberta, what we've been talking about and what we've heard politicians talking about over the last 8 to 12 months, if all of that information has actually started to polarize people's views on wind power, and if the results might be different now than they were when we did the study.

Host: Yeah, definitely and since the study was published we've seen several actions from the government that have kind of deterred the development of renewable energy. Was there any indication in the study that government actions like this might affect the opinions of landowners? 

John: Well I’m not too sure if we saw how governments influence people's views but what we did find, I think, is that when we look at what people are really concerned about in the study that we did, where people you know agree, you know – the drivers of support for wind, for example, come from people who feel that more wind power would be good for their local economy, for example. And support for wind also comes from those who are not as concerned about the aesthetic impacts, right? The visual impacts of wind power. 

I'm also just sort of looking at some of the other variables. So for example, if you think that renewable energy or wind energy is just inherently unreliable and that's a strong view you have, then it's likely that you'll be less supportive of wind power and our data shows that so. The support and opposition to wind development has less to do with a person's political orientation and more to do with how they feel about the technology itself and the impact of that technology on the landscape. 

So then when it comes to this recent moratorium, you know, some of the concerns that were expressed and reasons why this moratorium were put in place include concerns around the aesthetic impacts, you know, these iconic viewscapes along the Rocky Mountain eastern slopes and so on, and limiting the amount of wind energy development that would take place in those areas. That's certainly reflected in our study already, right? Our study shows that, you know, people are concerned about the visual Impacts of these wind projects, right? So we can see that in the data and, certainly, a legitimate concern for people who live in these landscapes and not wanting them to be completely enclosed by large scale wind projects, right? 

Another concern that was expressed in some work that we've done with more in depth interviews with landowners is that landowners are quite concerned about reclamation, right? And so what happens if a wind farm, a wind project goes bankrupt? You know, the company is no longer able to operate the project, what happens to those turbines? And these are also legitimate concerns, right? And they're not dissimilar to the concerns that we've heard about oil and gas infrastructure and well site reclamation, right? These are similar kinds of concerns. And you know, we have a history of not reclaiming well sites very well. And, you know, we often don't want to repeat the same problem with renewable energy infrastructure. So there's obviously concerns there. These are huge towers on a landscape. It's impossible for a landowner imagine trying to reclaim that tower – to dismantle that tower on their own, right? And so having some policies around reclamation, you know, make sense. 

So for these reasons, I think that, you know, there were concerns that were expressed by landowners. Those concerns we've known about for a long time. Whether that required a moratorium to deal with these concerns is really another matter, and that's where perhaps there's more of a political kind of motivation behind the recent moratorium. But, certainly, our data, the research we've shown that – the research we've done shows that there are some very legitimate concerns around things like visual impacts and reclamation that resonate with the reasons for the moratorium as well.

Host: I know some of the new restrictions do address some of those concerns, particularly about visual impacts. Do you think that those kinds of restrictions may actually help alleviate the concerns of landowners who may have been against wind development initially?

John: It likely it would, yeah. I think for, you know, for some communities who feel like they're overrun by wind power development in their region and their municipality, this may rest some people's minds, give some people some sense of comfort that there will be some constraints or restrictions on further development. And, you know, it also does force the wind project developers to consider other sites in the province. And there are many sites for wind development in the province, not just in these windy areas around Pincher Creek or southern Alberta. Obviously those are the optimal sites, the best sites for wind power development because they are the windiest parts of the province, but there are many other windy areas of the province that have a very strong wind resource that could allow development, and many of those areas are between Edmonton and Calgary, east of Highway 2, right? So sort of the east side of the province between Edmonton and Calgary. So that's likely where we’ll see, you know, future wind power development. 

And on that point, you know, just on the point of Alberta as a, you know, a region that has a very good resource for wind development, if you compare the wind resource map for Alberta with, for example, Germany and we have a better resource for wind development here than we do in Germany. And by comparison, Germany has more than 30,000 wind turbines and Alberta has less than 2,000. 

Host: Wow, that's a big difference. 

John: Yeah. So, you know, so I'm not saying, you know, we should get to 30,000 turbines, but given the size of our province in the strength of the wind resource, it's quite likely in the decades ahead we would grow from currently less than 2,000 wind turbines up to, you know, 5,000 or 6,000 turbines, right? But even having that many turbines on the landscape is going to take a lot of effort and a lot of work to build support amongst the landowners and the communities that will live in and amongst those turbines. And our data shows quite clearly in the research we've done that, you know, in order to gain that kind of support, landowners and communities really need to feel and to know that the development of those wind projects will benefit them directly, right? And that benefit can come through multiple types of financial mechanisms, obviously, lease payments directly to landowners, taxation to municipalities. 

But we're also exploring possibilities for different kinds of ownership structures and some of  those ownership structures, like cooperatives where local investors can participate in the ownership in the benefit of these projects, can be an important way to garner local support for the development of these kinds of renewable energy projects and we see that in other parts of the world, but we don't see it as much here. Cooperatives, models of cooperative ownership are more common in agriculture and housing and other sectors of the economy. They’re not as common in the energy sector, but that might change if we see more and more of these renewable energy projects on the landscape and more decentralized energy production that can be owned locally by municipalities, by individuals, by communities and cooperatives and so on. So we see that as a real opportunity to develop renewable energy in a way that can benefit directly the people who are most affected by the projects. 

Host: Yeah, that makes sense. Just to loop back to the restrictions for a minute, we kind of talked about how they may alleviate some concerns about wind energy development, which is, you know, kind of a positive. But do you think the restrictions will have a negative impact on renewable development in Alberta? 

John: Yeah, I mean, you know, certainly, the current government has stated that, you know, the future of the provinces is gas, you know, gas power. There's also a focus on nuclear power as an alternative source of energy in the future. And, you know, the hydrogen economy is a big, big part of the conversation in Alberta as well. So I’m not suggesting that a transition away from oil and gas is going to be easy by any stretch, but there is going to be growing international pressure for Alberta to make this kind of a transition to a renewable energy economy, and the technology is there. We have the resources, you know. So I think, you know, some Albertans will reflect on the political discourse, you know, and there may be more opposition, you know, and that will come from different sources, from different political actors, may also come from communities and landowners who just don't want this kind of technology in their communities or in their backyards but there's also, I think, a lot of enthusiasm for, you know, making this transition. And although this moratorium has delayed future investment for a period of time, the people I'm listening to, or the people I pay attention to – some of the economists, you know, who talk about these these topics in the province – are suggesting that you know there’s still a strong economy here for renewable energy development with the market based system we have for electricity production. There's still many opportunities available for further development of renewable energy. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. 

Host: Yeah, it absolutely will. And, kind of, based on that, what do you think some areas in future research might be? 

John: Well, that's a good question. There's a lot of, obviously, lots of really interesting things to look at. One of the areas, that I won't be studying specifically but I think is really important, some of my colleagues who are more on the technology side, and economists as well, have really focused a lot on the demand side of electricity. And so what we’ve been talking about in this podcast up to this point is really on the production side. You know, where is energy produced? How is it produced? Who benefits from that production? So, you know, some of the future research that‘s going to be really important is more on the consumption side, right? the demand side where people are using more electricity, using electric vehicles, using heat pumps and other kinds of technologies that demand electricity consumption, right? So there's really a big challenge there in terms of demand management and trying to figure out pricing, time of day use kinds of structures that even out the demand for electricity consumption. So for example, you know, how do you incentivise people to recharge their vehicles at night rather than immediately after they get home at 5 p.m. when, you know, there’s high demand for electricity? 

So we saw some of these challenges with some of the potential blackouts of the electricity grids in recent months and we were able to manage that with some demand messaging. And so there will be more of that kind of research that needs to be done in order for us to balance out the supply and demand on the system. That's going to be important. 

Some of the work that I'm doing is really more focused on this question of how do we create different ownership structures for renewable energy development that can benefit communities and landowners more directly. So some of the work that I've been doing in recent months has been focused on the role of renewable energy cooperatives in Canada and how these renewable energy cooperatives can enhance and foster decentralized electricity production within the country. So currently there are about 50 renewable energy cooperatives in Canada, so that's not very many. A number of them started in Ontario and Quebec under feed-in tariffs. And since those feed-in tariffs were discontinued, many of those cooperatives have struggled to continue. But some of them have survived and are thriving. So cooperatives like Ottawa Renewable Energy Cooperative is one that's thriving. There's a brand new cooperative in Canmore called Bow Valley Green Energy Cooperative and they're doing a lot to put solar panels on the rooftops of large buildings and corporate structures. And so these are opportunities that come through cooperative ownership and we're really interested in exploring that further. 

Host: Yeah, It sounds like there is a huge opportunity for that kind of thing in Alberta. Well, that's kind of all of my questions for you. Do you have any concluding thoughts that you'd like to share or anything you want to say before we wrap up? 

John: Well, I guess on the on the point if we return back to the topic of political polarization, the paper outlines in some detail the different ways in which we measured political polarization, and some of those measurements are related to whether you voted for one political party versus another, or on a continuum from left to right, you know, where you put yourself on a scale of political orientation, left to right. So different ways of measuring it, plus some other other ways that I won't get into now but, you know, the good news story out of all that research is that support and opposition to wind power is not currently politically polarized in terms of how we measured it. And that's a good news story because although there is support and opposition, there is wide-ranging views, we consider those views to be quite malleable. So for example, you know, if people are able to imagine renewable energy technologies that are designed in ways that can address visual impacts in a better way, if projects can be designed in ways that could address issues of unreliability, so if people maybe learned that reliability is less of a problem, you know, in our electricity system using advanced technologies, battery storage systems and other ways of managing the grid, then maybe there'll be more support, right?

So there's a way in which people's political orientations are often quite hard wired – you know, you're not likely going to be, you know, a conservative one day and liberal the next – but people's attitudes towards the technology and their understanding of that technology can be more changeable. So there's more potential for people to sort of move towards support if projects are designed in ways that are more acceptable to local landowners and communities, and if the technology is understood to be important and reliable and does not have, you know, huge negative impacts on the landscape, right? So these are some of the reasons why I think we are excited about this research and are hopeful, you know, that the future will be quite strong for renewable energy development in the province. 

Host: Great. Well, thank you so much, John.

John: Yeah.

Host: I appreciate you joining me today 

John: Yeah. Thank you very much. 

Host: That’s it for this month’s episode. If you’d like to learn more John’s study is linked in the description along with some other resources. If you enjoyed the episode leave a like, a comment and subscribe to stay up to date with all of our latest episodes. You can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, X and Linkedin and sign up for our newsletter on Thank you for listening to the Land Use Podcast.