November 11, 2010 {authors} {/authors}

The unwelcome winds of change

Business case study: A Utah wind project

{authors} By The unwelcome winds of change {/authors}

Utah’s first wind farm began producing electricity in 2008, but only after a struggle. Neighbors in Spanish Forks hated it, and the city council rejected it. Then, after a compromise was struck, the original financier backed out. 

But most wind projects are just like that, which is mostly the point of a documentary film called “Wind Uprising” produced by two Utah State University professors. 

Cathy Hartman and Edwin Stafford are marketing professors at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, where they have studied the market diffusion of renewable energy and clean technology since the 1990s. Their work in recent years has straddled the line between academic and activism. They wanted to lend their marketing expertise to help sell the value of clean energy. Framing of messages is crucial. 

Pairing things that have no rational connection—that’s spinning, says Hartman. Connecting the message to the audience’s core values is framing. Utah, with its dominance by the Church of Latter-Day Saints, has a core value of family. The message that the professors assembled is that wind energy can deliver property taxes that boost school budgets – a message now echoing across the country. 

But at Spanish Forks, a city of 32,000 people located along the Wasatch Front, there was nothing resembling a welcome mat when a company called Wasatch Wind began laying out plans for a small wind farm. Neighbors were upset, and perhaps rightly so. Original plans called for turbines within 600 feet. A city official’s claim that the turbines would endanger the municipal water supply went unchallenged. 

The passion of TracyLivingston, chef executive and founder of Wasatch Wind, stands out in the stormy community discussion. The compromise yielded 9 turbines that can deliver up to 18.9 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power 6,1000 average-use homes. Property taxes from the turbines are projected to deliver $1.26 million to schools during the next 20 years. 

“Wind Uprising” is certainly not your typical academic business case study. But, in a sense, it’s not all that different. The professors spent hundreds of hours conducting interviews, filming meetings, and then paring it down to 29 minutes. “It’s a human story people will relate to,” says Hartman. “They can understand the agonies and challenges of trying to achieve something.” 

The film has been shown in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., at the Mountain Film Festival, at the Western Governors Association meeting in Whitefish, Mont., and at the Community Wind Across America conference in Denver, among other venues. 

“It really does show the challenges of getting a wind project on the ground,” says Lisa Daniels, executive director of Windustry, a Minneapolis-based advocacy and educational group.

Larry Flowers, principal project director for the National Wind Technology Center, who is quoted in the film, said the documentary “celebrates the successful struggle to develop the first wind project in a coal-dominated state …. It's an extraordinary story, that has broken ground for other wind projects in Utah.”

Stafford says that one lesson from the Spanish Forks case study is that wind developers should actively reach out to community members early in the process. Waiting for formal hearings, such as at county courthouses or town halls, too often results in misinformation and steeled positions. In Spanish Forks, once residents felt they had been heard, they began taking ownership of the idea of wind turbines – if turbines a mile and a half from their houses.

Happy with their success in the new form of storytelling, Hartman and Stafford next hope to put a human face on the enormously wonkish story of utility regulation. Their broader mission is to help the public understand the greater complexities behind electricity. “It’s not just a simple matter of turning on the light switch,” Hartman notes.

 

 

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