Wind Farms in the U.K. are being opposed by a privileged elite—a more politically active group with higher social capital and lower neighborhood crime exposure—according to a recent report in The Ecologist. Industrial projects being built in low-income areas is nothing new, but the research coming out of the University of Birmingham does raise the question of how social capital will shape the future of alternative energy.
The premise of social capital is simple—those with more collective organizing power benefit more from the tribe and can assert what they want within society. They're also more likely to be educated, with higher disposable income. So why would the upper classes oppose wind farms, aside from not wanting the inherent noise pollution and countryside skyline shake-up?
"There's no question that wind farms are and will continue to be placed in areas with less social capital. That's been the game in the power industry for more than a hundred years, since Thomas Edison hid the first coal plant that electrified the well-heeled Wall Street along the East River. It's faster, cheaper, and easier to do business that way," says Ted Rose of Rose Carbon, a Boulder, Co.-based renewable energy consultancy.
"That said, renewables also benefit from a completely different trend: people with social capital often want to be associated with them. Schools want solar panels and wind turbines. Municipalities want a renewables project they can point to."
So the latest opposition in the U.K. reveals a mixed picture—privileged folks, by virtue of their social capital, have both the power to stop wind turbine construction in certain neighborhoods, but they also possess the power to propel the speed at which wind energy is adopted, depending on where their interests lie.
"I wouldn't call this an expression of luxury or hankering for consumerism. Often, it is a political statement about the environment and government policies. Other times, it is a social statement about the future and what it will look like," says Rose.
So while alternative energy production generally benefits the greater good, we must be careful that it does not benefit some disproportionately more than others, therefore solidifying already-existing social disparities.