In response to the threat of climate change, many governments have set policy goals to rapidly and extensively increase the use of renewable energy in order to lessen reliance upon fossil fuels and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Such policy goals are ambitious, given past controversies over large‐scale renewable energy projects, particularly onshore wind farms, that have occurred in many countries and involved bitter disputes between private developers and local ‘NIMBYs’ (not in my backyard) protestors. This article critically reviews recent research into how public engagement is conceived and practiced by policy makers and developers, with a specific focus upon the UK. The review reveals a distinction between different scales of technology deployment, with active public engagement only promoted at smaller scales, and a more passive role promoted at larger scales. This passive role stems from the influence of widely held NIMBY conceptions that presume the public to be an ‘ever present danger’ to development, arising from a deficit in factual knowledge and a surfeit of emotion, to be marginalized through streamlined planning processes and one‐way engagement mechanisms. It is concluded that NIMBYism is a destructive, self‐fulfilling way of thinking that risks undermining the fragile, qualified social consent that exists to increase renewable energy use. Breaking the cycle of NIMBYism requires new ways of thinking and practicing public engagement that better connect national policy making with local places directly affected by specific projects. Such a step would match the radical ambitions of rapid increases in renewable energy use with a process of change more likely to facilitate its achievement.