As alternative energy grows, NIMBY turns green

With more renewable energy projects trying to come online, the country grapples with the balance between local land use and a national push for clean energy.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
7 min read

Painting the Golden Gate Bridge yellow might cause less fuss than trying to install a wind farm off Cape Cod's historic coast.

But when you're trying to build where the wind is strongest or the sun is brightest, you never know what obstacles you may run into.

In Massachusetts, a proposed wind farm called Cape Wind was dealt a blow last Friday that will delay what would be the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. The Massachusetts Historical Commission agreed with local Indian tribes who claim that the location for the wind farm should be considered for listing in the National Historic Register because the Wampanoags' history and culture are "inextricably linked to Nantucket Sound," according to the opinion.

An offshore wind farm in north Wales, U.K. Vestas

"If the tribes are successful, that would have a severe chilling effect (on the entire wind industry) because tribes up and down the coast could make the same claim," said Mark Rodgers, the communications director for Cape Wind. "Never before has an open ocean been caught up in this kind of declaration."

Then again, never before has a rare combination of private and government investment pumped so much into alternative energy projects. As these projects grow in frequency and scale, a new breed of NIMBY (not in my backyard) is emerging: Opponents of wind or solar installations who generally support renewable energy, just as long as they are built somewhere else. Coal and nuclear plants, it turns out, aren't the only energy facilities people don't want built in their backyards...or coastlines.

The Cape Wind fight, in particular, has brought together a testy combination of excellent wind conditions, opposition from well heeled local residents including members of the Kennedy clan, and a surprising assertion of Native American rights.

The National Historic Register is expected to make a ruling on whether the Sound can be considered eligible for protection as a traditional cultural property within 45 days. In its environmental review, the U.S. Minerals Management Service had previously concluded that it should not because the agency found the visual effects from the farm would be minor, and no historical archaeological resources in the Sound were identified. (Click for PDF of report excerpt).

Two tribes of the Wampanoags, who are descendants of the people who greeted the 17th century Pilgrims to Massachusetts, say they have long opposed Cape Wind because an unobstructed view of the ocean is vital to their culture, which calls for them to greet sunrise each day.

If there is a ruling in favor of the Wampanoags, it could delay approval by up to a year, according to reports. So far, Cape Wind, which is run by a group of investors who developed natural gas plants in the past, has spent $40 million over eight years. Developing the project, which would benefit from a tax credit or cash subsidy, is expected to cost more than $1 billion.

The claim is coming to a head at a time when Cape Wind had cleared all state-level environmental and siting permits, despite opposition from well organized local groups and powerful politicians, including the late senator Edward Kennedy. The family's compound would have a view of the 130 turbines, which would be placed five miles off the coast of Cape Cod. The project would supply about 75 percent of the electricity used on Cape Cod with 130 offshore turbines that would be visible as small spikes on the horizon, according to simulations.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said last week that he wanted his agency to make a decision on whether to give Cape Wind federal approval by the end of year--a deadline that is now in question.

On Monday, Massachusetts representative Edward Markey, who heads the House Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, sent a letter to Salazar on Monday, urging his department to approve the project before the start of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in early December because it would "send a strong message to international negotiators about the United States' commitment to developing sources of clean energy and reducing global warming pollution."

Green vs. green
Wind isn't the only form of clean energy that's running into opposition. Earlier this year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce established a Web site called Project No Project, where it lists dozens of energy-related projects caught up in "green tape." The Chamber blames delays on NIMBY or "radical environmentalism."

The Chamber of Commerce has come under fire by environmentalists and a handful of its members for its opposition to proposed climate change legislation, but a number of renewable energy projects, mostly in wind, are being held up along with coal and nuclear projects, according to the Chamber.

Directly related to renewable energy is the thorny issue of transmission lines. Most of the wind and solar resources are in the middle of the country, far away from the areas of heavy electricity demand, which means that new lines need to be built to take advantage of the country's renewable resources.

There are a number of proposals to carry renewable energy around the country, including high-voltage power lines where less electricity would be lost in transmission. But many face local opposition because of the visual impact from these added wires.

For example, a coalition in Texas has formed called Protect North Palo Duro Canyon, where there is a proposal to string transmission lines across the canyon to carry electricity generated by wind turbines. The group wants to stop the development because of the environmental and historical significance of the place, the group says.

"Wind energy generated in the Texas Panhandle can serve the needs of populous cities such as Dallas and Austin and is important to the future of this state, but not at the cost of natural treasures such as the north Palo Duro Canyon and other beautiful areas in Texas," said Bob Currie, a coalition member.

In addition to drawing opposition from local landowners, the national push for clean energy is raising a "green vs. green" debate between the environmental benefits of renewable energy versus preservation of valuable ecosystems.

An illustration of the proposed Ivapah project in the Mojave Desert shows how much land is needed for utility-scale solar. This project, still being pursued by BrightSource Energy, would take up six square miles to supply electricity to 140,000 homes per year, using mirrors arrayed in a circle around a tower. Using less than 2 percent of the Mojave Desert's land would supply electricity for all the homes in California and cut carbon emissions by 30 million tons a year, according to the company. BrightSource Energy

Driven by a California state mandate that utilities get a significant portion of their electricity from renewable sources, there's a land grab going in the desert areas of the U.S. Southwest that get the direct sunlight suitable for concentrating solar power.

These machines, which concentrate the sunlight to make steam for an electricity turbine, require large tracts of land for utility-scale power generation. As a result, most of these project developers have submitted project proposals to the Bureau of Land Management for siting and environmental reviews, which has created a backlog of applications.

BrightSource Energy, which has been picked to supply hundreds of megawatts of electricity to utilities, last month had to scrap a plan to build a solar power plant in a region of the Mojave Desert that had been set aside for conservation by the environmental group Wildlands Conservancy. California senator Dianne Feinstein said that specific location is not suitable for wind or solar development because it would lead to destruction of the desert ecosystem. Although she supports solar and wind development, she is proposing added protections for the region near other conservation lands, including Joshua Tree National Park.

Common sense?
With the list of clean-energy projects growing, there are efforts to speed up reviews. The Interior Department said last week that it would fast-track environmental reviews of six solar power plant proposals in California. Altogether, these projects would occupy 28,000 acres of land--almost the same area covered by the City of San Francisco--and generate 2.5 gigawatts of electricity, or enough for two million homes, Salazar told reporters.

In Massachusetts, which is encouraging development of clean energy businesses, state officials are considering a way to unblock reviews of a number of stalled wind energy projects.

Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick said last week's decision on Nantucket Sound and historic preservation listing was "ridiculous." In a statement, he said, "We are going to have to get serious about alternative energy installations where they make sense, and every environmental and regulatory review has concluded that Cape Wind makes sense."

The project's well organized opposition group, the Alliance to Save Nantucket Sound, says that placing turbines offshore will damage the environment and hurt tourism. It even recruited regular Martha's Vineyard visitor Walter Cronkite to record radio and TV spots, but he later changed his position, saying he "hadn't done his homework."

Meanwhile, environmental groups are trying to find ways to distinguish NIMBY sentiment from the real need for environmental protection. In general, groups like the Sierra Club favor renewable energy development, even though wind turbines, for example, do pose a danger to birds and bats. Even the Massachusetts chapter of the Audubon Society, which counts many birders in its members, has given conditional support to Cape Wind.

What's needed is data to rule out specific locations that pose too many risks, environmental groups say. Environmental advocacy group the National Resources Defense Council earlier this year developed an online mapping tool to choose the sites best suited for renewable energy. The point of the application is to show people the most suitable sites, which should avoid roadblocks during the review process.

"We need to develop our renewable resources if we are to address the challenge of climate change, but that development must be carried out in an environmentally responsible way," said Johanna Wald, a senior attorney at the NRDC in a blog post. "If it is done right, informed environmentalists will, I believe, stand up in support."