New research based on participatory photography and focus groups has shown how solar parks can change people’s landscape perception through a number of factors, not exclusively visual.
According to the study, people that see landscapes in an idyllic way tend to oppose the presence of a solar park, while people with a more utilitarian concept of the rural landscape show stronger acceptance. A research team from Slovenia’s University of Ljubljana has investigated how people’s perception of landscapes can be changed by the presence of large-scale solar power plants. In particular, the scientists sought to understand how noticeable solar power plants in a landscape are, and how they really integrate with it.
Not just Nimby
The researchers stressed that explaining the opposition to utility-scale energy facilities with the Not-In-My-Backyard (Nimby) theory is too simplistic. “Instead of labeling opponents as selfish ‘nimbys’, opposition is framed more broadly as a place-protective action, which puts the landscape in the spotlight,” they wrote in the paper “Contentious eye-catchers: Perceptions of landscapes changed by solar power plants in Slovenia,” published in the journal Renewable Energy. Furthermore, previous studies showed that acceptance of a renewable energy power plant by the local community is initially low, but that it increases (or opposition lowers) at a later stage after it is built. The study is based on the definition of landscape given by the European Landscape Convention: “an area as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors.”
The researchers adopted an urban-sociological approach to study the landscape perception of people through in situ photography, which in their view can ensure a holistic experience of the landscape’s totality.
Participatory photography, which requires participants to photographically document a given object and to write a short report on the pictures, was used as a tool to evaluate landscape perception. “Participants in our study were given digital cameras and notepads and taken on two walks of 30 min’ duration around two landscapes with a solar power plant,” the paper notes. “The two visits happened on the same day, one after another with a short bus ride in between.”
The topic of the research was revealed to participants only after the participatory photography session was concluded. Overall, 28 people chosen with a non-random availability sampling approach participated in the experiment. The three observed plants, all located in an agricultural landscape, ranged in size from 250 kW to 2.8 MW.
Perception of PV
According to the study, only three of the 28 participants did not take a picture of the solar plants, meaning that solar was among the most frequently mentioned landscape features. “Solar power plants also stand out by distribution of connotations as 42% of photos were described in negative terms, while 23% were divided and 27% were positive,” the scientist wrote.
They found that solar parks are perceived as ambiguous objects, as participants have assessed both their costs and benefits, without being sure of which of the two aspects is more important.
The research team explained that those participants with an idyllic view of the rural landscape tended to oppose the presence of a PV installation, while those who saw the land in a more utilitarian way did not see the solar park as being in opposition to the surrounding landscape structure.
“The results provide evidence on the interdependence of visual and non-visual factors and suggest improvements in planning and design of solar power plants,” the researchers concluded.
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