URI Masters student presents wind farm thesis

Results reveal “lack of trust” in the process
Fri, 05/13/2016 - 2:30pm

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series about URI Master’s Student Joe Dwyer’s thesis project pertaining to public perceptions about the Block Island Wind Farm.

In pursuing his thesis, Joe Dwyer, a 24 year-old University of Rhode Island master’s candidate majoring in Marine Affairs said that he “sought to examine how a potentially successful project such as the (Deepwater Wind) Block Island Wind Farm was able to reach approval and begin construction. What I found, from those who felt they were not properly involved, was a lack of trust in both the process leaders and the overall process.”

Dwyer spent the past year researching his thesis on the public engagement process and the societal impact associated with construction of the Block Island Wind Farm. The results of his thesis work were presented in early April in the University of Rhode Island’s White Hall room on the school’s main campus.

Dwyer told The Block Island Times that his thesis committee consisted of his advisor, Professor David Bidwell, who teaches a graduate level Research Methods class, and three professors, one of whom served as his defense chair. 

The title for Dwyer’s thesis is “Public Perceptions of the Block Island Wind Farm Engagement Process: Perspectives from Those Involved.” Dwyer said that he “chose this title because my overall goal was to discover public stakeholder perceptions of the public engagement processes associated with the wind farm. I did this through talking with those involved during the engagement process — both of whom were process leaders and members of the public.” 

 There are two “important findings” that Dwyer said he would like to highlight from his study:

One: “Trust was an instrumental factor necessary for support to exist amongst the public. Trust in the process leaders needed to be present for there to be trust in the overall process and outcome,” he said. “If trust was lost at any point along the way, there was a greater possibility that that stakeholder would be opposed to the project.”

Two: “When talking with process leaders, I found that there is somewhat of a mismatch for what is advocated for in academia and what can actually be accomplished in the real world,” explained Dwyer. “For a process to be successful it must have an outcome. And with every outcome there will be winners and losers. Everyone cannot get everything. The job of the process leader is to look to minimize these losses to certain stakeholders, but in the end they must be pragmatic in what can be considered as the process moves forward.”

Dwyer noted that his analysis and research included “analyzing the public engagement processes, while looking to highlight potentially positive and negative aspects. I hope that my results can benefit future RETs (renewable energy technologies) process leaders as they look to garner support for projects.”

“However, a caveat must be mentioned when discussing support for RETs — there exist people on polar opposites of the spectrum,” added Dwyer. “Those who will support no matter what, and those who will be opposed no matter the project.”

Dwyer said that the overall reaction to his thesis presentation and work has been “positive so far. I am excited to hear feedback as I look to publish the results” of my work. “During the questioning period following my presentation, I received a lot of great feedback from fellow students as well as professors.”

Dwyer believes his information could be useful to “process leaders. If future developers look to this study to learn how to craft better engagement process, there are many caveats that make this case special,” he said. “This study hoped to highlight the demonstrable ways that trust can be built. For example, the use of trusted community members to act as middlemen between the developer and the general public was very impactful. Also, dedicated outreach techniques such as informally meeting with public constituents also helped to establish trust.”

Dwyer said that there were various challenges during the research and writing of his thesis, which included the difficulty in garnering participation from stakeholders in his work.

“During the writing process I struggled with including the appropriate and satisfactory amount of background on the topic,” said Dwyer. “In the end, I had to accept not everything could be included and that I would miss things. I was also surprised how hard it can be to get people to participate in this work. I feel as though I missed some key stakeholders to interview because I was simply unable to find effective ways to contact them.”

Dwyer expressed the difficulties associated with reducing a year’s worth of work into a brief presentation. “When creating my thesis presentation, I found it an interesting exercise to reduce over a year of work into a 25-minute presentation and still have it make sense,” he said.

“David (Bidwell) and my committee are pleased with my work,” said Dwyer. “Their advice and support have been extremely helpful to getting me this far.”

Professor Bidwell told The Times that Dwyer “did some great work. He summarized the viewpoints of key participants in the processes that led up to the Block Island Wind Farm, and highlighted how they fit with the broader literature on public engagement in renewable energy planning.” 

“Joe had to juggle data about two related, but separate, processes — the Ocean SAMP (Special Area Management Plan) and permitting of the wind farm — and find common themes,” said Bidwell. “We know that trust is an important part of a successful engagement process; Joe was able to identify specific examples of how trust was created, such as the use of community liaisons.” 

Bidwell noted that renewable energy business leaders might find Dwyer’s research useful. “Because the Block Island Wind Farm is the first offshore wind energy project to be constructed in the U.S., there are a lot of eyes on Rhode Island right now,” said Bidwell. “The industry has expressed a lot of interest in whether the ocean planning and public engagement processes are a model for getting more projects moving forward. Joe’s thesis provides some important information about ways in which these processes succeeded and failed. From an academic standpoint, he is contributing important insights to discussions about the goals of public engagement and how different interests think about these goals in a renewable energy project.” 

Dwyer is pursuing a few potential fellowship opportunities that he will be finding out about in the coming weeks. “In the coming years, I would like to gain some practical experience working with a state or federal agency that deals with coastal and marine management,” he said. “I can also see it being beneficial to work within the private sector to be well-balanced in my approach to management.”

“I am graduating in May,” said Dwyer. “My mother is proud of me and my work — although I think she is equally excited for me to get a job.”