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Clean Energy Conundrum: The Slippery Slope to BANANAs

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Recently, while in Vermont, I had dinner with a group of friends. The group is made up people that like to not just eat together but also debate various issues, which could range from immigration to education to the frequency of local trash collection. 

As you can probably guess, I am known for my attempts to try to insert clean energy and climate change into our conversations at some point. 

At the recent get-together I talked about what the latest data showed on emissions, temperature, etc. and talked about how we would have to accelerate the deployment of clean energy (defined as having zero GHG emissions). There was resounding agreement. I then said this would mean more clean energy projects, and that a lot of the fields and hillsides nearby seemed as though they could be good places to put small scale solar farms. 

The reaction was not positive. Cognitive dissonance had reared its head. 

The reaction was not unexpected, for the immediate knee-jerk reaction of any of us to something like that is "Oh..I support that stuff, and I know we need it. But I don't really want to have to look at it or live next to it. Can't we put it somewhere else?" 

(I can't deny my knee has never jerked in such a way, before I took the time to think it through. I myself have some farmland in Vermont and it would certainly change the way it has always looked if it was filled with solar arrays or wind turbines.) 

NIMBYISM vis-à-vis energy projects has been with us for a long time. But across America, I am starting to see more examples of where NIMBYISM is becoming more extreme and more isolated from the large challenges that we face. We seem to be on the threshold of entering the dreaded end-state of BANANA - Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything. 

At the dinner party, one discussant astutely said that big solar projects ought to be built out West, where there is plenty of sun and where no one lives. I responded that it was hard to transmit power long distances, both because of physics but also due to NIMBYism even holding back construction of new transmission lines in seemingly remote place. 

Another discussant said that solar ought to be put on rooftops where there was plenty of space. I responded that what he said made sense but that I had seen studies that showed that there was just not enough room on our roofs for what we need. I also mentioned how homeowner associations and historic preservation interest groups were not always pro-solar when it came down to putting something on "their" roofs. I talked about how solar farms/gardens were one way to address this, and everyone liked the idea, but then I reminded everyone that this meant some nearby open space being used up for this. 

I talked about how hydropower, in many if not most cases, is not included in the definition of clean energy in law and regulation, even given the fact that it is not a fossil fuel. I talked about the multiple challenges it faces from indigenous peoples, the recreational boating/rafting industry, and the hunting and fishing community. I conceded that all of these were legitimate stakeholders, but tried to explain that maybe the balancing of interests had to be revisited. 

I talked about how the future of the electricity system will be based on local resources, so as to capture the efficiency, reliability and resiliency benefits of distributed energy. Everyone thought this made sense. But then I said that this meant that there would be more projects in more places, and that this would be part of the bargain in exchange for reducing emissions and addressing climate change. The silent sound of brains working to reconcile this could be heard. 

I talked about how wind energy had its issues and acknowledged the changes it brings to vistas and various other impacts ranging from avian kill to noise issues. I told the group that wind technology was moving to the point where turbines were able to be larger and taller, something that would be good from an energy production standpoint, but not necessarily from the vantage point of local stakeholders. 

If you have been reading my blog to date you know that I am hyper-focused on the timeline for necessary GHG emissions reduction and that is making me re-work my thinking on NIMBYism. 

Here is some of that thinking at this juncture. 

First - There can be "legitimate" reasons to not do any particular clean energy project in a given place at a given time. Some projects may be too costly even if they are clean. (I will resist the tangent of carbon pricing - which of course would impact the "too costly" part). 

Some clean energy projects are not in a place where the power can be easily interconnected to the grid. Some are not near a load pocket that needs their supply. 

There are also legitimate site-specific issues that can arise. For example, a wind farm should seemingly not be sited at the entrance to a busy harbor, no matter how strong and steady the wind is there. 

No project, clean energy or otherwise, deserves a free pass, but maybe it is time for re-prioritization.  

But...

We may have to compromise on some issues in the way we pursue a clean energy agenda. Some of the NIMBYism rationales and arguments that sounded fine in the past might need to be seen in a new light, and it may be that not everyone can have everything they want - or don't want. 

It may be that we have to think a bit out-of-the-box when it comes to siting. We may need to cut clean energy projects some new slack. 

We have to see the forest for the trees. 

The fact is that at the moment there are only so many options for us in the category of zero-emissions energy electricity production and delivery. It is not like there is something else on the shelf right now that is simply being ignored or forgotten. 

To lose an archeological site would be terrible, but how much it is worth when it comes to ensuring there is sufficient emissions-free energy to adequately address climate change? Maybe not as much as we used to think?

To adversely impact avian, aquatic or any other kind of wildlife is not something I want to personally entertain, given my own personal portfolio of interests and hobbies, but is a new balance required - or at least an exploration of a new balance?

Maybe we need to just admit there is an adverse impact on some parties from projects and focus on how to provide them with a requisite benefit of some kind? It is not like this has never been done before. Maybe we need more of it?

Is the only answer to create more government policy which overrules NIMBYism? That is a harsh thought, isn't it.   

To be able to look out at a landscape that looks like it always has (at least in your lifetime) is precious. Maintaining open land and untouched skylines is important. But how important is it if that objective hinders the rapid achievement of decarbonization? 

We have already had our cake and eaten it too when it comes to energy and emissions. We are now in a race to decarbonize and getting more clean energy in place is an essential way to get there. 

Let's all think about that.

Dan Delurey's picture

Thank Dan for the Post!

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Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 10, 2020 2:15 pm GMT

Really appreciate hearing your firsthand account on bringing these discussions to people who may not be as gung-ho about them as you are-- these conversations need to keep happening and at these dinner parties and similar gatherings really can be where some minds are changed.

I fear that a lot of NIMBYism will rear its head in ways that challenge socioeconomic considerations and equity-- if people who support clean energy advancement then say they don't want them nearby, what sites are going to be most likely? We risk them being built on land where nearby residents don't have as much influence or resources to 'fight' back-- low income or disadvantaged communities. We can't allow that to be the trend and instead have to educate everyone on the importance of localized siting, like you mentioned to them!

Dan Delurey's picture
Dan Delurey on Feb 12, 2020 6:20 pm GMT

Thanks for your comment, Matt. Your point on environmental/siting justice is a good one, and I perhaps should have given a nod to that.  Dan

Ned Ford's picture
Ned Ford on Feb 14, 2020 7:57 pm GMT

I've had many similar discussions - although most of them online.   I tell people who are fearful of a world covered with solar panels that first, we need about 1.5% of total U.S. or global dry land to be covered with solar panels and wind turbines for a complete global warming solution - although that needs some framing to be a clear answer:

First, that is a conservative (in the sense of the world which one political party seems to have forgotten) estimate of the renewable generation needed to eliminate all fossil fuels including all plastics and chemical feedstocks, all non-electricity fossil fuels and all nuclear power which retires and must be replaced.   It assumes this will not be done until about 2045, and includes about 0.9% annual growth in total energy consumption due mostly to population.

It's a bit misleading because the wind will only actually occupy about 5% of the land in question.   But this is a place to start the conversation.   When people are fearful of a world covered with solar panels, perhaps we ought to ask whether they are fearful of a world covered with soot and smog.  The last time most people in this world saw a clear sky was the day after 9.11.2001.  But as a practical matter, most states have plenty of land where people are not making so much money from the land that they would fight converting it to wind or solar.    Dual use land for wind is obviously a common practice.  Dual use for solar is less so, but there is some really cool exploration gettingunder way, including using solar to shade arid lands and enhance plant growth and animal shelter.

There are many rural communities in the U.S. where the people cannot afford to paint their houses and pay for their schools and roads, and the conversion of 1.5% of the local land to wind or solar production will be a major benefit to the entire community.   In fact, so much so, that these communities will seek to convert more, perhaps 5 - 10% of their total space, making it possible to solve global warming without building any wind or solar at all in the crowded communities where most people live.

Of course that won't happen.   People want their solar panels, in spite of what is most economic.   I say that because utility scale wind and solar generation farms are able to produce power for anywhere from half to a tenth of the cost of rooftop solar, depending on a lot of things.   In most of the U.S. the transmission needed to bring this power to the cities already exists, but where it does not, it will be a small cost compared to the benefit of lowering rates by shutting down more expensive coal, natural gas and nuclear plants.

I have to assume that when I write things like this people assume I am being hyperbolic, because I don't see it reflected in most conversations.    But since late 2017 wind and utility scale solar have been so much cheaper than they used to be that we can now build them anywhere in the world and displace more expensive fossil or nuclear power.    That's not hyperbole.    It's just factual information.

It's too hard to teach people in a conversation about how wind and utility scale solar are so much cheaper than all other options, including all other renewables, and how storage is already cheap enough to make it possible to have 100% renewables, but there are items we can use to help this.   I'd love to work on a collection of links.  There was a report last year about how we can now replace all the hydropower in the U.S. with solar on 13% of the impoundment areas, and save money.   The same is probably going to prove true of a lot of other renewables, but I hope we concentrate on fossil fuels first.   So far, that seems to be how it is going.

We are so far from needing storage to make renewables work that most people don't have any idea how many technologies are in the running.   Pumped hydro, compressed air, hydrogen, batteries of course, and in Europe someone is building an industrial scale elevator with cement blocks to store energy.  That's not the entire list either.   Once we have about 80% of our electricity coming from wind and solar we will have a market signal for this storage to emerge.

I'm very curious about the cost of turning renewable electricity and water into hydrocarbons like methane and simple alcohols.    I'm already convinced that hydrogen will be used to power existing natural gas plants as a major part of the storage solution, but whether it is used directly as hydrogen or turned into methane or another easily managed hydrocarbon remains to be seen.

All of this is already cheaper than what we do today.   That's not easy for most people to believe.  But in a few years everyone who pays any attention at all will know it.  

I think the 1.5% of land figure is an important point.   30% of the U.S. and 30% of the world is considered to be desert.   In spite of the heroic desire of some preservationists to protect desert habitat, not all of that desert is either habitat, or preserved as it stands.   We won't use an all-desert strategy.   People will build rooftop solar, and wind is a tremendous economic asset for farming.

This will happen.   It will be cheaper than what we do today to get energy.   The only question is whether we will do it fast enough to stop global warming before it gets so far out of control it begins to happen in spite of our efforts.   And being agile with answers like this is a critical lubricant to the process.  Thank you for having dinner with your friends.    And thank you for telling us about it.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Feb 15, 2020 1:41 pm GMT

I must say, that does not reflect my experience with Vermonters.    On the contrary, my experience is that they are less NIMBY oriented than most. People from New Hampshire, on the other hand...

Vermonters are quite proud of the status of Burlington as the first city in the country whose electricity comes strictly from renewables. (Note, that does not necessarily mean GHG emissions free.)

https://www.smartcitiesdive.com/ex/sustainablecitiescollective/burlington-vermont-city-powered-renewable-energy/1058431/

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 18, 2020 2:33 pm GMT

That's interesting that you note a stark difference between VT and NH when they are direct neighbors and geographically similar. To what do you attribute the difference in attitude?

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Feb 18, 2020 9:18 pm GMT

I wish I knew. Vermont has long been a bastion of quite progressive and independent politics. New Hampshire is also independent thinking, though far more conservative. I think the difference goes all the way back to colonial  days.

Dan Delurey's picture
Dan Delurey on Feb 19, 2020 9:41 pm GMT

Matt/Mark - the difference does indeed go back to colonial days. Vermont was not one of the 13 original. It was a no-man's land claimed by both NY and NH, with the latter having issued "grants" to Vermont inhabitants. The latter came up from other parts of Southern New England to gain all sorts of freedom. They did not want to be part of NY, where a feudal land-ownership system was still largely in place from the days of the Dutch.  The Green Mountain Boys formed up as a militia against New York incursions - not to fight in the Revolution (although they soon did that). Vermont did become the 14th State but only after briefly existing as a Republic (similar to the Texas story).  But while wanting to be independent from other governments, Vermonters have always been progressive and community-minded within the state and still are very serious about the Town Meeting form of government. They are not "live free or die" independents like in NH.  

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 20, 2020 1:16 pm GMT

Really fascinating history lesson, Dan-- thanks so much for sharing!

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 16, 2020 7:47 am GMT

"But across America, I am starting to see more examples of where NIMBYISM is becoming more extreme and more isolated from the large challenges that we face."

Dan, NIMBYism is not more extreme than it ever was. But it's the first time Vermonters have had personal experience with the excessive land use of renewables - wind, solar, and even biomass - and realized that to replace Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant with renewables, that's what comes along for the ride.

I thought they might have felt quenching their irrational fear of nuclear was worth it, but I guess it's not. And frankly, I'm glad. I'm glad the land investments of those who fought to shut down VY are losing value, because now they'll appreciate VY's contribution for what it was worth. Even if it's too late to save VY, maybe they'll speak out to prevent it from happening somewhere else.

 

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