NIMBYism: A global obstacle to a renewable energy future

NIMBYism is a challenge to a sensible energy future that we have written about before. But NIMBYism is a challenge not only in America but around the globe. Whether solar panels, drying clothes outdoors, white roofing, subways, or otherwise, many paths toward a better energy future face opposition from those outraged over perceived impositions on their way of life, or at least their views in some way. Perhaps the most visible battles are those over wind turbine installations.

Recently, the New York Times took us to the Greek isles:

The tiny Greek island of Serifos, a popular tourist destination, depends on its postcard views of sandy beaches, Cycladic homes and sunsets that blend sea and sky into a clean wash of color. So when a mining and energy company floated a plan earlier this year to build 87 industrial wind turbines on more than a third of the island, the Serifos mayor, Angeliki Synodinou, called it her “worst nightmare.” She imagined supersize wind towers looming over the island, destroying romantic vistas, their turbines chopping the quiet like a swarm of helicopters. The project is now stalled, and Ms. Synodinou doesn’t regret it. “No one would come here,” she said. “Our island would be destroyed.”

One of the realities of the 21st century, NIMBYism is no longer a backyard activity. Greek opponents to wind turbines have easy and immediate access to battles over wind turbines in other locations (see, for example, Cape Wind). But not only do they have examples, they have an active ally in the Industrial Wind Action Group (IWAG), ready to provide information and support to opponents of wind projects anywhere, anytime . . . including in the New York Times:

“These are not just one or two turbines spinning majestically in the blue sky and billowing clouds,” said Lisa Linowes, executive director of Industrial Wind Action Group, an international advocacy group based in New Hampshire that opposes wind farms.

As an aside, for a moment, “Industrial” is a very carefully chosen part of the title and directly derived from the heavily funded ($3.3 million in 2005 alone, with one-third from fossil-fuel magnate Bill Koch) anti-Cape Wind efforts. Chosen so carefully because it, “was the direct result of focus groups . . . It frightened people who thought they lived in a pristine environment.”

But, back to IWAG’s complaints and comments.

Lisa Linowes is correct. A modern industrial wind farm is likely to have 10s to 100s of wind turbines, spread over an extended area and installed over a long time horizon. And, yes, these turbines do have an impact. They can kill birds, although well-sited, modern turbines kill very few; far fewer than would be killed by the avoided fossil-fuel emissions and climate change. And yes, turbines can cause noise. Far less than a diesel generator or a gasoline fueled car driving by the house or, well, even the normal noise level of a modern office. And, yes, 100 meter high turbines are, well, big (actually, BIG) and can intrude on sightlines.

While many view these spinning turbines as a welcome sight, a beautiful evocation of a cleaner, more prosperous future, there are those NIMBYists who call for a cleaner future, just as long as none of the cleaning occurs in their backyard. They see the wind turbines, have their blood boiling in anger, and then flip the switch for fossil fuel powered electricity, blind to the direct link between this and pollution that effects everyone – themselves included.

To calm some of this anger it seems to me that in the United States and elsewhere, there is a value in looking to compensating people directly for the impact on their backards. Indeed, on the island of Skyros they are already doing this.

EN.TE.KA has partnered with a local monastery to build between 70 and 85 turbines on a barren stretch in the island’s south owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. EN.TE.KA’s managing director, Constantinos Philippidis, said the turbines were expected to bring in yearly revenues of at least 2.5 million euros (about $3.73 million) for the island.

An additional step that the developers of clean energy could consider is the provision of free, or reduced fee, electricity to those whose ‘back yard’ has been impacted.

The NY Times treatment of the issues around wind development is good, but it is frustrating that they do not cite the serious literature developing around these issues; literature like the 190 page Investigation into the Potential Impact of Wind Farms on Tourism in Scotland which found both positives and negatives aspects of wind development. They provide paths for controlling some of these negatives through thoughtful placement of turbines. And, around the world, actual impacts seem to be on the positive side of the equation. In Northern Greece the Panachaiko Mountain wind farm has become one of their most recognizable, and photographed, landmarks. The same can be said for a small installation near Coyhaique, Chile that has become a symbol of local control over their energy future.

But let’s return to Serifos, where opposition to the wind mills has, not unexpectedly, focused on their noise and intrusion on sightlines.

It’s an argument that irritates Mr. Tsipouridis of the Hellenic Wind Energy Association. “We’re living in the most polluted era of humanity,” he said, “and it’s sheer hypocrisy to spend so much time talking about wind turbines’ noise and aesthetics.”

Sheer hypocrisy. Hmmm. I wonder whether Mr. Tsipouridis is being too polite. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg over at Sustainablog

Wind energy opponents are a pretty stubborn lot, and I doubt anyone will convince them that wind turbines in the Greek islands would ultimately benefits residents and tourists. Given the most likely alternative of more coal power, it’s a little hard to understand their thinking. As much of that coal likely has to be shipped to at least some islands, it’s hard to imagine that wind wouldn’t be a more cost-effective option in the long run.

Putting aside that direct financial cost of coal there is no question that that coal’s CO2 will waft over the islands, sooner or later. And this brings us to the contradiction at the heart of the position taken by NIMBYites who oppose wind development: their backyards will be disturbed eventually, whether by wind development or the eventual effects of global warming. It is simply a matter of time. Wind presents them with an option that they have some degree of control over and that provides certainty; both certainty of impacts and certainty of future electricity supply. Why then would you not choose the option you can control and that offers long-term benefits?

 Image Credit: Paul Anderson from Wikimedia Commons.

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