Social acceptability appears as a new public norm that major projects must meet in order to be authorized and realized. This article proposes to analyze the case of a wind farm project in the municipality of St-Valentin, Quebec, Canada near the border with Vermont, which was cancelled by the government due to lack of social acceptance, in order to illustrate the importance of this norm today. The project involved the construction of 25 turbines to generate 52 MW of power. Launched in 2006, the project was already significantly under way by 2008; however, in 2011, the government permanently shelved it. Through a combination of document analysis and 11 interviews, we identified the main reasons for the lack of social acceptability: lack of upstream consultation from the developer and wrong scale planned for the consultation process, controversies surrounding the public decision-making process, profound contradictions between the community’s values and interests and the nature of the project, and perceptions of the impacts on the landscape and conflicting uses. For better project social acceptability, lessons learned from this case suggest from a procedural perspective opting for broad, open, and early consultation, prioritizing a regional scale for the approach and acting with transparency, clear rules and a concern for building an ongoing relationship with stakeholders. From a more substantive perspective, our analysis points to the importance of factoring in the level of compatibility between the nature of the project and the values and interests shared by stakeholders in the community, and planning potential modifications to adapt the project to the context in light of their demands.
Large infrastructure projects, especially in the energy sector, even renewable ones, have for many years faced increasing resistance and challenge. Opposition is the rule rather than the exception—it takes different forms and comes from different groups. Social acceptance (SA) lies increasingly at the heart of such conflicts for public action [1–4]. For Caron-Malenfant and Conraud , SA is:
“The result of a democratic process by which the stakeholders build together the conditions to put in place, to assure that a project, a program or a policy, fits in a harmonious manner, at a specific moment, into its economic, natural and human and cultural environment.” (free translation)
This case study analyzes one example of a rejected wind farm project, identifies the reasons for its social unacceptability, based on document review and interviews, and finally formulates lessons learned from it. The originality, relevance, and principal contribution of this study is the fact that the lack of social acceptability was the primary and official reason why the government rejected the project, thus contributing to reinforce SA as a decisional norm.
In the past decade, the wind farm energy sector in Canada has grown very rapidly. From 137 MW of production in 2000 to 10,000 MW by 2015, a 15% increase per year over the past 5 years, and almost 300 projects brought online, the industry sits ninth in size worldwide, and the province of Quebec is the second largest market in the country . Two ends of the development spectrum are identified. Nova Scotia’s model, involving small-scale projects with more shared ownership , has been better received than the Ontario model, which involves larger, private development and has faced more opposition (social and health concerns, distribution of financial benefits and compensation issues, lack of meaningful engagement and decision-making difficulties and failure to treat landscape concerns seriously) [8, 9]. More closely approaching the Ontario model, Quebec has planned development through two energy policies (1996–2005 and 2006–2015) for a general target of 4,000 MW . Although some wind farm projects in Quebec can be decided by mutual agreement, the normal process since 2003 has been a call for tenders. Hydro-Québec, a public enterprise that is in charge of distribution, transmission, and most of the electricity production in the province, organizes the call based on government demand (MW and price). Private developers find an area, sign options with landowners and municipalities, and submit their projects.
After, Hydro-Québec has selected a project, the developer is required to undertake an environmental impact assessment (EIA), following the directive issued by the provincial Environment Department . When the EIA is deemed admissible by the department, it becomes public and can be consulted by anyone (via Internet or in situ). During preparation of the EIA, the developer usually consults the various stakeholders concerned at different levels.
At this stage, requests for a public hearing can be filed. If the minister finds that the requests are not frivolous (superficial, not serious), he/she mandates the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE),1 a consultative, independent public body, to conduct a public hearing. Public hearings take place in two parts: the first for questions (usually a couple of days and evenings) and the second for presentation of memoranda by groups and citizens. The two parts are open to any participant. At the end of the mandate, the BAPE produces a detailed report covering all aspects of the project (100–200 pages or more) and formulates recommendations and advice. The Environment Department makes a proposal to the provincial government based on the BAPE’s report and its own analysis. The government may accept the proposal (often with conditions) or reject it (Figure 1).
Wind Farm Development in Quebec
As identified in Quebec’s energy policy (1996–2006) to encourage diversification of Quebec’s energy production, the primary reason for developing the wind farm sector was the economic development of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, which has faced significant economic-development problems for many decades. This required a major legal amendment to the mandate of Quebec’s energy board, which required competitive bidding for all energy sectors. The decision to use the wind farm sector as a job creator for this region was strongly political.2 The wind farm sector was initially developed through an “over-the-counter” approach, but starting in 2003, the government decided to call for tenders instead. The first call was for a total of 1,000 MW capacity, exclusively for the Gaspé and Matane regions. The second call (2005–2007) was for a total of 2,000 MW spread across the province. In 2008, Hydro-Québec announced a list of 15 projects, including St-Valentin.
A US$115 million wind farm to be built over 15 months, with 51.8 MW of energy production from 25 turbines, 21 within the municipal boundaries and 4 in St-Paul-de-l’île-aux-Noix, the neighboring municipality. The project was to produce power for both local use and export. An estimated 65–100 jobs were to be created during construction, and 6 jobs upon completion. Seventeen landowners and two municipalities would receive a share of the US$575,000/year in royalties. This represented a 13% increase in revenues for St-Valentin. For St-Paul de l’Île-aux-Noix, the revenue would represent a 1% increase in its revenues of US$2.3 million/year. Potential royalties for the landowners were estimated to be at least US$3,800/year.
Many organizations were involved in the regulatory process: 1. the Government of Quebec initiated the policy and the calls for tenders (power targets and price) and provided the final authorization for the projects; 2. Hydro-Québec was responsible for project selection; 3. Quebec’s Environment Department was responsible for the environmental assessment process; and 4. the BAPE was in charge of the public hearings. Private developers, the municipality of St-Valentin, and landowners were heavily involved, while surrounding municipalities (in a coalition against the project) and the Regional County Municipality (RCM)3 were also concerned (land use plan). The general public and an association of citizens (the Don Quixote association) actively lobbied against the project.
Local and Regional Context
St-Valentin is a municipality with approximately 500 inhabitants; it covers 39.5 km2 and is situated 58 km southeast of Montréal, in the RCM of Haut-Richelieu (the main municipality is St-Jean, with 95,000 inhabitants). It is the smallest municipality of the 14 that comprise the RCM. The main economic activity is agriculture. Its vast swaths of flat land are among the best in Quebec for agricultural production and further development is allowed on only 2%of the area. St-Valentin is situated along the Richelieu River. The nearby municipality of St-Paul-de- l’île-aux-Noix is called “the nautical capital of Quebec” because it has a marina on Lake Champlain, which provides water access to the United States. The St-Valentin area has a significant presence of European families (Dutch, Swiss, German) who have immigrated since the 1970s to cultivate the land. They are owners of large and prosperous plots of land. In addition to the farm population, some residents commute to work in Montréal and others are retired professionals who are drawn to the beauty of the countryside and the Richelieu River/Lake Champlain. Some locations also offer views of the Adirondack Mountains in the United States.
The Richelieu’s southern region (except for St-Jean) is at 90% agricultural production capacity. Few new jobs have been created, and the area has been marked by different projects/events in recent years. In the 1990s, the population rejected a pig farm mega-project in the face of strong opposition. One wind farm was built by Kruger Inc. in St-Rémi (35 km from St-Valentin); another was proposed by TCI Energy in St-Jacques-le-Mineur (23 km from St-Valentin), but not built. Attitudes are mixed: some citizens see these projects as creators of economic activity and revenue sources for municipalities and farmers. Others see them as incompatible with agricultural development and tourism/recreation activities. As this study will show, it is of some significance that the RCM prefect and mayor of St-Jean, considered the “strong man” of the region for many years, was against the project. He was very close to the political party in power at the time (Figures 2–4).
The project and the community were analyzed initially through a variety of secondary sources (reports, press releases, academic articles/books). Central to the case study was a series of face-to-face interviews conducted between March and May 2016. We made multiple visits to the community and did a total of 11 semi-structured interviews with individuals from a cross-section of five stakeholder categories: elected representatives, civil society leaders, local energy developers and industry, regulators or other public authorities, and engaged citizens. Interviews lasted from 45 min to more than 2 hours and were recorded by audio-recording or written notes depending on the preference of each interviewee. Interview questions followed a guide arranged in four themes developed by the Positive Energy research team: project specifics, community context and key values, availability of information, and level of understanding and procedural and engagement issues.4
Principal Facts and Sequence
The project unfolded in three main phases: A. Discreet actions and “flip”: Before the announcement; B. EIA and mobilization of the opposition: After the announcement; and C. The tide turns: Momentum of the hearings
Discreet actions to start: Before the announcement
The developer met with the municipalities, provincial and federal MPs, major stakeholders, and landowners and held open houses from June 2006 to May 2007. The developer signed option contracts with the landowners. The project’s initial developer, TCI, later in partnership with Canadian Hydro Developers to create Venterre, discreetly gathered the number of signatures needed to qualify the project for the call for tenders. The developer negotiated royalties with St-Valentin but there was no agreement with St-Paul-de-l’île-aux-Noix. In March, 2007, the St-Valentin council voted to support the project. St-Valentin was in favor of the project because the potential royalties for the town and area landowners were considerable. It could decrease taxes to be levied from citizens or lay the foundation for a worthwhile community project. It was also a positive project for some landowners, a way to consolidate their revenues on an annual basis.
Only 10 citizens came to a public meeting that St-Valentin held in July, which happened to be haymaking season. After another meeting in September, the municipality signed an agreement legally endorsing the project and committed to the developer to deliver all the authorizations needed. The developer then proposed the project to Hydro-Québec. St-Paul-de-l’île-aux-Noix, however, was totally against the project and even the principle of accepting royalties. It was a question of integrity and independence for them. The mayor did not trust the developer and led the mayors’ coalition of the municipalities around St-Valentin against the project.
“Flip”, EIA, and mobilization of the opposition: After the announcement
In June 2008, after the May 2008 HQ announcement that St-Valentin was on the list of projects retained for the second call for tenders, another open house resulted in a consensus that citizens needed more information.5 From January to September 2009, meetings took place at the regional level with the RCM to set the rules for distance from and activities around the wind turbines.
In 2009 the project changed hands, when Canadian Hydro Developers was bought out by TransAlta, which was viewed as an “Anglo-Canadian firm from the West.” To a certain extent, the change was also perceived as a “flip”—with the announcement made and an important step complete, the time was ripe for sale to a larger corporation.
In September 2009, the Urbanism Consultative Committee (UCC) of St-Valentin came out against three turbines. However, when a new version of the project was presented in August 2010, none of the changes sought by the UCC was included. Members of the UCC formed the Don Quixote association to fight the project. The developer met the leaders of the association but could not convince them to abandon their opposition. By then, the developer decided not to organize any further public meetings before the public hearing because it feared doing so would simply create more visibility for the opponents.
The association was very active. BAPE’s public hearings procedure also provided the opposition with momentum. The association received help from numerous opponents: farmers, landowners, gentlemen/women farmers, ecologists, municipal representatives, an association from the same region (Le vent tourne), which was well versed in opposing these types of projects; a U.S. specialist  who also participated in the public hearings, a communications consultant (paid by the coalition of municipalities against the project), the mayor of St-Jacques-le-Mineur (a retired communications expert with similar past experience); and a retired HQ employee. The forming of the Don Quixote association triggered several strategic actions against the project: 1. a door-to-door petition identified 59% opposition to the project; 2. a weekly newsletter with a satirical cartoon publicized the reasons for the opposition; 3. mayors in surrounding areas were approached to form a coalition against the project; 4. large opposition posters were created and distributed; 5. demonstrations were held by people on farm equipment; 6. radio, newspapers, and Internet media were targeted with messages about the heritage aspect (the view, houses, the country style, developed area near Montréal) and the agriculture dimension (industrial infrastructures do not fit, only 2% of the land is to be developed, the land is to be preserved for future generations). This strategy, well organized and implemented via a clear allocation of tasks, was based on the knowledge of people who had been through similar experiences in the past. At the regional level, the issue of setback distancing is notable. The mayors “locked” large sections of land, leaving very few places for the placement of turbines.
The tide turns: Momentum of the hearings
At this point, there was reduced consultation with stakeholders, allowing momentum to build for strong opposition. The EIA was completed between 2008 and 2010. After the information and consultation period on the EIA, 43 requests for public hearings were filed. The minister mandated the BAPE (February-June 2011), public hearings were held in March and April 2011 and the report was released in June. The BAPE’s public hearings were intense; on the first evening 300 people showed up, forcing the hearing to move to a larger location. A total of 237 memoranda were produced, and more than 80 presentations were made during the second part of the public hearings. The BAPE’s 180-page report, released in August 2011, criticized the developer’s approach (process) and the project itself (substance)  on many grounds, converging with the opponents’’ arguments and leveling new criticism. The commission’s report concluded that upstream consultation by the developer and the municipality was inadequate, unidirectional, not consultative enough, and not transparent. It stated the project would diminish the agricultural heritage that should be protected in the region. On the health risk, it found the setbacks of 750 and 1,000 m adequate. However, it stated many potential turbine locations would need to be reviewed because the area was rich in birds and especially held a high diversity of species at risk. In short, compared with other similar reports, the project was not acceptable in the version presented.6
The day the BAPE’s report was released, the government officially rejected the project. “Considering the lack of social acceptability of the St-Valentin wind farm project, the Government cannot endorse the development, since it does not fully respect the sustainable development approach.” 
Social Acceptance (SA) vs. Procedural and Substantive Issues
Although numerous studies have been conducted on SA, especially in the wind farm sector , very few focus specifically on projects rejected explicitly and officially due to lack of SA. To situate this contribution in the literature, as Wüstenhagen et al. (2007) and others thereafter have shown [3, 16, 17], SA can be divided into three dimensions: socio-political acceptance, community acceptance, and market acceptance. In our case, two dimensions are involved, but primarily the second one. Although SA has been a formal condition for projects in provincial policy since 2007  and the model adopted for economic development, large private projects,7 has to a certain degree been challenged by different groups at the socio-political level, as Friedl and Reichl (2016, p. 190) have mentioned, the two main decisive factors in planning and realizing energy infrastructure projects are: “the institutional and political conditions (economic incentives and regulations, approval process, stakeholders), and the local-based conditions (on-site conditions like planning process, local actors, local politics/economy, spatial and geographical conditions etc.).” 
Based on our case study analysis, we observe four main reasons for the lack of SA on procedural and substantive grounds, in other words, first on the way things are done and second on the more material aspects of the project.8 Both dimensions offer an explanation as to why the government cancelled the project, and thus contribute to reinforce the importance of SA as a decisional norm.
A perceived lack of consultation, a too-local approach for a project that has regional impact
The majority of citizens signed the petition against the project because they felt they were not sufficiently consulted upstream of the project. The developer was also reproached for not being active enough in addressing citizens’ concerns about visual impacts, noise, and the effects on wildlife. The developer recognized the consultation process could have been more open and engaging.
The developer was also criticized for neglecting the municipalities around St-Valentin. The developer was accused of concentrating its efforts on the smallest municipality in the region, on the basis of an agreement with the municipality and the landowners. This was seen as a localized approach for a project that would have regional impact.
The two-step process and negative “flip” effect;
To qualify for consideration in the call for tenders, a firm must show that 60–80% of landowners who would have turbines installed on their land have signed an agreement supporting the project. To avoid having its project “stolen” by another firm, a firm acts almost secretly to obtain the agreement of the municipalities and landowners. It often does not become public until it is officially selected by Hydro-Québec. The public, however, often objects to such secrecy as a sign that “the fix is in.” This has a very negative effect .
A second characteristic of wind farm projects is the “flip” phenomenon. Some small firms start projects, win necessary approvals and agreements and then “flip,” or sell these projects at a high profit and leave.
The flip phenomenon discourages the development of strong and stable relations between stakeholders. It is also an obstacle to the development of trust between the population and the developer.
Visual impact and the incompatibility of industrial infrastructure in an agricultural context
The second type of issue includes concerns over activities on the land. Farmers and other landowners highly value the views of the Adirondack Mountains in the United States. Because St-Valentin is just 40 min’ drive from Montréal, there are some “gentlemen/women farmers” and retirees who have chosen the countryside for its natural landscape. For them, wind turbines are incompatible with their life choice.
There are also a significant number of people from Europe (Swiss, German, and Dutch) who came to Canada 20–30 years ago, when the land was cheaper, and now own large and very productive plots of land. They do not need the “year bonus” revenue from a turbine. Such farmers view such industrial infrastructure as incompatible with their farming activities.
The heritage value, Richelieu River, marina, and birds
A variety of other factors specific to the proposed project area were involved. First, the municipality boasts some houses with heritage value, which were clearly identified by a member of the association against the project. Second, it is very close to the Richelieu River and St-Paul-de-l’île-aux-Noix, “the nautical capital of Québec” which has a large marina. The area is also home to an important migration corridor for protected birds. For all these reasons, it was difficult to site the turbines, based on the setback distancing required by the regional authority (RCM). Stakeholders interviewed stated that it was critical for the developer to demonstrate that it had taken into consideration the population’s demands by modifying and adapting the project and clearly explaining it.
This case study primarily dealt with one dimension of SA (community acceptance) and illustrates the importance of SA in the decision-making process today. To reach a better level of social acceptability for energy projects, it is important to improve principles and practices from procedural and substantive perspectives. First, it is important to plan a broad and open consultation early on in the process. Second, a wider scale for the approach in general should be prioritized, because the impacts are often more extensive than anticipated. Third, transparency, clear rules (distances, royalties), and an ongoing relationship with stakeholders are essential. Secrecy will not pay off in a long-term relationship. Fourth, from a substantive perspective, the level of compatibility between the nature of the project and the values and interests shared by stakeholders that form the community must be factored in. A minimum common ground is necessary. Finally, some potential modifications to adapt the project to the context in light of what stakeholders ask must be planned. Otherwise, there will be a strong impression that the project is carved in stone and that the community is not being considered.
CASE STUDY QUESTIONS
What is SA? Is this a comprehensive definition? What modifications can be proposed?
In your opinion, what is the role of public authorities in this kind of project?
Which kind of concrete modifications can be planned in the decision-making process to improve the chances of achieving social acceptability?
What could the developer have done differently, within the established process, to secure acceptance by residents?
The author would like to thank Monica Gattinger, Mike Cleland, Stewart Fast, Stephen Bird, Laura Nourallah, Marisa Beck, Shafak Sajid, Jamie Gradon, and Trevor Mcleod. The author, however, bears full responsibility for the article.
This work was funded and conducted by the University of Ottawa’s Positive Energy project and the Canada West Foundation’s Natural Resources Policy Centre. Financial supporters of the Positive Energy project are Alberta Energy, the Alberta Energy Regulator, the BC Oil and Gas Commission, the British Columbia Utilities Commission, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Electricity Association, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, the Canadian Gas Association, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Cenovus, Encana, and Natural Resources Canada.
The author has declared that no competing interests exist.
The BAPE is an independent provincial public agency that examines and evaluates major infrastructure projects like highways, industrial sites, waste-management sites, power plants, etc. It has a public consultation phase conducted by commissioners (inquiry power), following which it produces advice through a detailed public report. http://www.bape.gouv.qc.ca/sections/english/. Accessed 1 June 2018.
It was promoted by the former MNA for the electoral district of Bonaventure (Gaspésie), who held numerous ministerial posts during the 2000s. Prémont MC. L’étonnante construction juridique de l’énergie éolienne au Québec. McGill Int J Sust Dev Law Pol. 2014;10(1): 45–70; Jegen M, Audet G. Advocacy coalitions and wind power development: Insights from Quebec. Energy Policy. 2011;39: 7439–7447.
RCM: group of municipalities with defined responsibilities including land planning and urbanism. It forms Quebec’s regional level of government. The chief of the RCM is the prefect, a mayor elected by the RCM’s mayors.
A synthesis of other cases and general results can be found in Cleland M, Bird S, Fast S, Sajid S, Simard L. A Matter of Trust: The Role of Communities in Energy Decision Making. University of Ottawa and Canada West Foundation; 2016. Available: http://www.uottawa.ca/positive-energy/sites/www.uottawa.ca.positive-energy/files/secondversion_mattertrust_report_24nov2016-1_web.pdf. Accessed 1 June 2018.
The developer acknowledged that the open houses were often organized at very busy times of the year for farmers.
Two other models were in competition with the one adopted: 1. the community model, driven by local stakeholders, with a transfer of expertise from private to communities with their approval and 2. the completely public model, conducted fully by Hydro-Québec. See Jegen M, Audet G. Advocacy coalitions and wind power development: Insights from Quebec. Energy Policy. 2011;39: 7439–7447.
In the literature, those two perspectives may correspond respectively to procedural and distributive justice. See Walker C, Baxter J. “It’s easy to throw rocks at a corporation”: wind energy development and distributive justice in Canada. J Environ Policy Plann. 2017;19: 754–768 and Walker C, Baxter J. Procedural justice in Canadian wind energy development: a comparison of community-based and technocratic sitting processes. Energy Res Soc Sci. 2017; 29: 160–169.