The new look of NIMBYism
Activists protest Tessera Solar's plan to build a 709-megawatt solar thermal power plant in Southern California's Yuha Desert. Renewable energy projects large and small increasingly are the target of "not in my backyard" opposition. Photo courtesy lhogue/flickr.
Jan. 4, 2012
Traditional "not-in-my-backyard" activism shifted in 2011. Renewable energy projects are increasingly drawing the ire of local opposition. And it's not just Big Solar.
By Rae Tyson
for The Daily Climate
So-called "NIMBY" activism, once reserved for projects like landfills, prisons and big box stores, has started to impact proposed renewable energy projects throughout the nation. Last year, not-in-my-backyard opposition delayed or cancelled a wide range of proposals involving wind and solar power and biofuels production nationwide.
"Siting for renewables certainly has gotten very challenging," said Nathanael Greene, director of renewable energy policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In California, public opposition has successfully blocked or stalled major wind and solar energy projects, many of them in wilderness areas. But it is not just big projects that are attracting opposition. A homeowners' association in Palos Verdes, Calif., in December rejected the installation of household rooftop solar panels in the community.
In Amesbury, Mass., residents are trying to block a developer's plan to erect enough solar panels to power 16 homes.
"It's not 'not in my backyard,' it's everybody's backyard," a nearby neighbor told the local Eagle Tribune.
In New Jersey, a planned solar panel installation in Greenwich Township attracted more than 100 angry residents at a public hearing. In another northern New Jersey community, residents protested a utility's plan to install solar panels on existing power poles.
"I don't understand that," said Greene. "Power poles aren't exactly aesthetically pleasing to begin with."
At the University of Massachusetts, a proposed two-megawatt solar farm drew similar opposition.
In Vermont, residents and environmentalists joined forces to protest the erection of 21 wind turbines in the state's sparsely populated northeast corner, on one of the largest pieces of privately held land in the state.
A similar reaction greeted a proposed wind farm project in Maine's Highland Mountains.
Even proponents acknowledge that some renewable projects could have a negative impact on air and water quality – and endangered or threatened species. Solar thermal installations, for example, can require significant quantities of water. And both wind and solar power require the construction of a transmission network to carry the juice to existing electrical grids.
"Do we say, 'Screw the environment for the sake of renewables' or do we say, 'Screw renewables for the sake of the environment'?" asked Greene.
Researchers say that, while public opinion polls show strong support for renewables as an antidote to energy production that contributes to climate change, the support wanes if the proposed project is nearby.
In Oklahoma, the Osage Nation filed a lawsuit to block the construction of an 8,300-acre wind farm. The tribe was concerned that 94 wind turbines and their network of electrical lines and roads would harm the tallgrass prairie.
"In some areas, those big projects just cannot get over those hurdles," said Frank Maisano, an energy specialist with the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Bracewell & Guiliani, which represents the wind power industry.
In Michigan, a $235 million, 56-turbine wind farm was greeted by a public protest and a lawsuit to block the project. Among the reasons for opposition: Turbine noise and diminished property values. The 101-megawatt project was to be completed in 2012. Now, the completion date is uncertain.
Meanwhile, efforts to build a 200-turbine, 1,000-megawatt offshore wind farm in Lake Michigan have stalled in the face of public hearings packed with irate residents and skeptical local officials. To the east, in Ontario, legislators in February enacted a moratorium on all off-shore projects – two years after passing the Green Energy Act calling for a 20 percent increase in renewable energy generation by 2015.
A University of California, Santa Barbara, study [pdf] identified the basis for that opposition. Wind power in general has overwhelming support – roughly 72 percent of the public say they support it. But when a site is close to home, support drops to 53 percent, researchers found.
"A distrust of developer objectives, and lack of local ownership [are] the foremost reasons why they oppose wind farms," the study concluded.
Opposition to biofuels, particularly ethanol, a federally-mandated fuel additive, is a little more complex, according to Paul Thompson, a Michigan State University professor of agricultural, food and community ethics. The opposition is based, in part, on economics and the impact on food prices, notably corn-based commodities.
"The first is the food-fuel trade-off," he wrote in a 2008 study [pdf]. "We should not be surprised that people make an association between reports about food riots in Haiti or Mexico and the thought that farmers are devoting larger and larger portions of their output to ethanol production."
But the second ethical issue concerns the environmental implications of the push toward biofuels, Thompson said. And that has NIMBY implications.
In Delray Beach, Fla., local residents opposed a biofuels project because it included a plant to produce oil from jatropha seeds. Neighbors did not object to the crop; they balked at the construction of a facility to crush the seeds.
Proponents are starting to push back.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, committed to reducing his state's reliance on traditional energy sources, this summer asked a federal court to dismiss an injunction by environmentalists to block a 370-megawatt solar plant in the Mojave Desert. Opponents said the project could have a significant impact on the habitat of native tortoises.
"When local communities try to block the installation of photovoltaic, we act to overcome the opposition. Some kinds of opposition you have to crush," Brown said in a speech.
Rae Tyson pioneered the environmental beat at USA Today in the 1980s and today restores and races vintage motorcycles in central Pennsylvania. DailyClimate.org is a nonprofit news service that covers climate change.
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