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Renewable Energy, Meet the New Nimbys

4 September 2009 1,369 views No Comment

Technology changes, but human nature doesn’t. Environmentally friendly energy projects are running into the same cries of “not in my backyard” that stymied a previous generation of alternative-power efforts.

Even as Americans tell pollsters they are eager for alternatives to fossil fuel, some are fighting proposals for solar and wind projects and for the thousands of miles of transmission lines that would be needed to carry the cleaner energy to market. The protests echo grass-roots opposition that has blocked nuclear plants and energy-producing trash incinerators for decades.

The new backlash is fueled by worries that renewable-energy projects would occupy vast amounts of land to produce significant amounts of power. Either renewable projects would have to be centralized and sprawling, covering many square miles apiece, or they would need to be distributed in pieces across millions of rooftops and lawns.

Renewable-energy projects would reduce pollution and combat climate change. The trade-off is that many more people would have to see wind turbines, solar panels and other energy infrastructure near their homes in order to diminish the need for coal mines and other fossil-fuel facilities.

“Anywhere I walked on this property, we’d be able to view them and we’d be able to hear them,” says Tina FitzGerald, who lives with her family on a 12-acre Vermont farm near where a developer has proposed erecting five wind turbines, each about 400 feet tall. “There should be a place for these — someplace that isn’t going to impact families quite so much.”

In California, which is considering a goal of producing a third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, some residents are fighting proposals to build vast solar-energy plants in the Mojave Desert, one of the most remote and reliably sunny spots in the U.S. Up and down the East Coast, meanwhile, residents are opposing plans for wind farms, fearing they will mar views and lower property values.

Americans aren’t alone in their skittishness. In the U.K., which also aims to generate about one-third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, local opposition is holding up proposed wind projects. Resistance in Ontario led the Canadian province to pass legislation in May establishing a framework for locating renewable-energy sites; local opponents will be able to challenge projects on environmental or safety grounds, but not for aesthetic reasons.

In a report last year, the Paris-based International Energy Agency cited “not in my backyard” sentiment as among the top five threats to the growth of renewable energy world-wide.

The U.S. has to make a tough choice, says Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank that supports giving the federal government more authority to push renewable-energy projects forward. That will be necessary, he says, to curb the country’s dependence on foreign oil and its greenhouse-gas emissions. “You have to ask yourself: At what point do priority national interests need to override local goals?”

The clash over whether it is more important to produce nonpolluting domestic energy or to protect environmentally valuable places poses a dilemma for some longtime activists.

Calvin French, a 72-year-old retired high school English teacher, has belonged to the Sierra Club all his adult life. Leaders of the environmental group are working with California officials to help pick sites for big renewable-energy transmission lines as a way to combat climate change. But many club members, including Mr. French, want to protect their favorite places.

His battlefield is the Carrizo Plain, a 460-square-mile swath of grassland about 115 miles north of Los Angeles that is traversed by the San Andreas Fault.

The parched, rugged expanse is home to species including the endangered kit fox and the antelope-like pronghorn. It also is one of the most alluring spots for solar panels in the nation’s most populous state. There is prolific sunlight. Much of the land has been subdivided into farms, meaning that acreage no longer can be defended as untouched. And there is a high-voltage line nearby, with capacity to carry solar power to the public.

Amid local opposition, county and state officials for months have been mulling three big solar-energy projects that together would amount to some of the biggest solar arrays in the world.

“Big things like global warming” are difficult to understand, says Mr. French. “But you can go out into a beautiful place and say, ‘This needs to be protected.’ That’s easy to understand.”

Around the world, countries that have rolled out fossil-fuel alternatives most aggressively have used heavy-handed government action to address such sentiment. France, for example, now produces about 80% of its electricity from nuclear energy. But France’s national government manages the country’s nuclear-construction program, and it has pushed ahead for decades despite sometimes-heated public protests.

Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress now are fighting over how much power the federal government should have in getting energy projects built. Many renewable-energy proponents say a massive network of new transmission wires would have to be built to bring large supplies of renewable power to population centers. A Senate committee passed a bill in June that would give the federal government authority to decide where to put new power lines if states, which now make those decisions, move too slowly.

The drive for more federal control has the support of many executives in the electric industry, who say the new transmission lines should be available for energy from all sources, including fossil fuel. But there is plenty of opposition to giving Washington that power. Some lawmakers from densely populated states don’t want big new transmission lines running through their land. Many state utility regulators also object to an increased federal push.

Caught in the middle are states where renewable energy suddenly is big business. Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal likens his state’s wind boom to the coal rush that hit Wyoming three decades ago in the wake of an energy shock.

At a wind-energy conference in Wyoming last month, Gov. Freudenthal, a Democrat, delivered a stern warning to wind-turbine developers, telling them to make sure their projects don’t harm a small bird called the sage grouse.

“What I have is an obsession with making sure that the economy of this state continues to function, and it won’t if that bird gets listed,” according to his office’s transcript of his remarks.

Anything that nudges the sage grouse toward the federal government’s list of endangered species, he explained, would trigger land-use restrictions that would jeopardize Wyoming’s main economic engine: the production of coal, oil and natural gas. “Generally in this state, we support economic development,” he told the wind developers. But “when all of a sudden it ends up in our backyard, our view changes a lot.”

Jeffrey Ball responds to reader questions at WSJ.com/Currents. Email him at powershift@wsj.com

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