A real NIMBY problem

OWOE Staff: The battle against climate change is not going well. President Biden’s climate agenda has fallen apart. Russia’s war in Ukraine and its fallout within Europe has led to an increase in coal power and a push to increase world oil output. Germany is proceeding with plans to shut down its last 3 nuclear power plants in December which will eliminate 6% of its annual electricity generation and 11% of its non-fossil based generation. World oil production which peaked in 2019 at 99.7 million barrels per day before the Covid pandemic slashed demand has risen back almost to pre-pandemic levels and is expected to exceed those levels in 2023. We can all lament those factors as lost opportunities, but there are two factors driving Americans’ behavior that make OWOE seriously question whether any real progress can be made. We call them NIMBYism and IWINYism. We will address NIMBYism, or the Not in My Back Yard syndrome, here and cover IWINYism, or the I Want it Now or Yesterday syndrome, in a future post.

Figure 1 – protest signs in Falmouth

On a recent visit to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, your OWOE editor came across a number of streets in Falmouth sporting yard signs opposed to the Mayflower Wind Project. The Mayflower Wind Project is an offshore wind farm that will be located over 30 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard and 20 miles south of Nantucket. The development has the potential to generate over 2,400 megawatts (MW) of power from as many as 150 wind turbines. Current plans are to transmit 1,200 MW of power via subsea cable to a grid connection at Brayton Point/Somerset near Fall River. The next 1,200 MW will be transmitted via subsea cable to a land crossing in Falmouth, then underground to an inland grid connection. Virtually every house on some of the streets displayed the signs – see Figure 1.

At a public meeting held on June 8th, residents overwhelmingly voiced opposition to plans by Mayflower Wind to run electric cables though Falmouth. Arguments included concern about construction traffic and noise, electromagnetic fields from the cables, impact on home values, impact on tourism, aesthetics of the substation, etc. Many finished their comments saying that they support clean energy and even the project itself – just not in Falmouth. And there it is – NIMBY. This brought back memories of the demise of the Cape Wind Project in Nantucket Sound, which would have been the first offshore wind farm in the US and which spent 16 years fighting for approvals from all stakeholders before being abandoned in 2017. The development company dealt with dozens of government agencies, native tribes, organizations, politicians, lawyers, and local citizens and could never get all onboard. One opposition group alone filed more than 25 court appeals to obstruct the construction of the project. In the background were the Kennedy’s with all their money funding the battle to not obstruct the views from their estate or to interfere with their yachting in the Sound.

OWOE finds the really interesting issue in the current Mayflower Wind project to be that the actual impact to the community is so minor – a shore crossing, a substation, and an underground cable. And yet, one group or organization can block a project that has undeniable benefit to society as a whole.

There are plenty more examples. If we turn our attention just north of Massachusetts, we can find a battle over a transmission line to transmit 1,200 MW of hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts. This would entail 145 miles (233 km) of transmission line of which about two-thirds would follow existing power line corridors with an extension of 53 miles through Maine’s North Woods. The project was opposed by environmentalists, Maine residents who didn’t trust the local power company, politicians who didn’t think Maine was getting enough out of the project, and energy firm NextEra which provides fossil fuel to the state. In fact, NextEra donated $20 million to the opposition which was used to by television advertising that many felt killed the project. In a 2021 referendum, a majority of Maine voters did, in fact, vote against the project. The legality of that referendum is currently before the Maine Supreme Court. Again, the impact to Maine is minor – a 53 mile transmission line through the pine trees in a state that has over 17 million acres of forest which cover over 89% of the state’s land area.

How about the Ocean Wind project offshore New Jersey? The project would have a beach crossing drilled 60 feet under the beach, then run below the streets, just like water lines or other utilities. The proposal is deeply unpopular in Ocean City and other shore towns. Opponents cite the visual impact of the turbines from the beach (note they are 15 miles offshore) and also say the plan will damage the environment and the commercial fishing industry.

Or the two lithium mines and a geothermal power plant in Nevada that are in court fighting conservationists, environmentalists, tribes and others who otherwise generally support the effort to expedite the transition from fossil fuels to renewables.

Even in progressive California there is strong NIMBYism. In 2019 San Bernardino county, the largest county in California that is approximately 70% desert, banned renewable energy projects that mostly serve out-of-town utility customers from large swaths of land. Residents see the existing solar projects as eyesores that destroy desert ecosystems, fuel dust storms, and drive away tourists. Just west of San Francisco farmers and environmentalists oppose what would be the largest solar plant built in the San Francisco Bay Area because it will spoil the rural landscape. The company developing the project feels that they have mitigated all concerns except “we just don’t want it here”.

Hearing all these stories makes one wonder if there is any hope to achieve the goal of powering this country primarily off sustainable low carbon (nuclear and geothermal) and renewable (wind and solar) energy. Both wind and solar farms require relatively large areas for deployment, have visual impact, inevitably cause some disruption to the local environment, and will require transmission lines to high density population centers. Anti-nuclear sentiment remains high (no one wants a nuclear reactor in their back yard!). And even geothermal plants, which have small geographic footprints and produce bundles of clean baseline power, are getting pushback. There are numerous parties who could be impacted (or believe they will be impacted) by these projects, and we give so much power to each of those parties (especially ones who have lots of money), that it is hard to believe we can do something for the greater good of society.

We’re at peak NIMBYism now and OWOE doesn’t see any reasonable means to change that soon enough.

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2 thoughts on “A real NIMBY problem”

  1. Falmouth Ma. is the poster child for improperly placed wind turbines. The town’s people fought long and hard to get rid of the two Vesta’s V-82’s that they where plagued with and finally won when a judge named them a public nuisance. Falmouth has already paid enough of a price for wind energy.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I can understand frustration by Falmouth residents regarding the earlier wind turbines. There’s no doubt that turbines can have noise issues, as well as shadow flicker issues and potential problems with migratory birds. All of those, and more, are important considerations that must be addressed when siting wind farms. But addressing and mitigating issues is no different than what must be done to build a conventional power plant, a factory, a freeway, a shopping center, a housing complex, etc. The difference is that while most of those activities have their predominant impact locally, the fight against climate change is a planetary fight. What Cape Cod does regarding Mayflower Wind will ultimately have an impact on sea level rise in Boston, glacier melting in the Swiss Alps, and fires in California. In my opinion, a wind farm that is 30 miles offshore that only impacts the local community with a shore crossing, relatively small substation and underground cable represents a good trade-off. I should also note that just up the street from all the yard signs is a big shopping center with a Wal-Mart. That has and will continue to have a much bigger impact on the neighborhood. And, after spending most of my career in the oil business, believe me that if an oil company has contributed to a campaign to stop a development, it is no way driven by concern over the community.

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