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When energy isn’t popular—anywhere

What do the words “banana,” “cave,” and “nope” have in common?

To industry wonks, they are all acronyms explaining the opposition that energy projects of all stripes face. The most familiar term for that opposition is NIMBY, or “not in my backyard.”

But others are getting more popular among industry experts, as siting problems become more common. BANANA stands for “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything.” CAVE is “citizens against virtually everything.” NOPE stands for “not on planet Earth.”

These acronyms are a creative way to convey what’s a serious—and growing—challenge facing energy projects, ranging from pipelines to wind farms to coal power plants to natural-gas drilling sites.

“Personally, I had a wind farm proposed for the property right next to mine,” said Eric Rosenbloom, a Vermont resident and the president of the National Wind Watch, a small, loosely organized anti-wind-power group. “That’s what compelled me to do some research, and that’s when I learned it wasn’t worth it.”

Rosenbloom said that his volunteer-based organization doesn’t advocate, but it does network and send newsletters highlighting what he says are reasons wind is a “lose-lose” proposition for the country: It can be harmful to wildlife, the farms take up large swaths of land, and the windmills themselves are big and noisy. Those concerns, combined with the fact that wind is an inherently intermittent source, requiring backup power, convinced Rosenbloom that the project isn’t worth it.

So did that wind farm in Vermont ever get built? “No. The town zoned it into impossibility,” Rosenbloom said. That was nine years ago.

Challenges like these have only grown since the Obama administration provided about $90 billion of support for renewable-energy projects through its 2009 stimulus package. According to a database administered by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in March 2010, 333 energy projects were stalled, delayed, or blocked altogether by a combination of protracted regulatory reviews, local opposition, and lawsuits. Of that 333, almost half (140) were renewable-energy projects; and, of those, 89 were wind projects.

“One of the most surprising findings is that it is just as difficult to build a wind farm in the U.S. as it is to build a coal-fired power plant,” Bill Kovacs, senior vice president of environment, technology, and regulatory affairs at the chamber, told House lawmakers this week during a hearing on bipartisan legislation that would streamline regulatory reviews of all types of projects, including energy ones.

The chamber, which launched the database called “Project, No Project” in 2009, has been at the forefront of this debate and its importance to improving the economy. But clean-energy advocates agree that the one-two punch of long regulatory reviews and local opposition is a problem.

“Innovators of almost every technology from an energy production standpoint that I come across at some point complain about redundancy in permitting and the lead time it takes to get this stuff done,” said Tim Greeff, vice president for government affairs at the Advanced Energy Economy, a coalition of clean-energy companies formed earlier this year. “And then you have the legal challenges from local groups who are completely within their right to do so, and we would never say local folks should not have a say in what goes up. But we do get to a point where the BANANA issue comes in: No one wants to have anything built next to them, ever.”

The acronyms are familiar to environmentalists’ trying to ban new coal-fired power plants. The Sierra Club has successfully shut down 100 coal plants in its “Beyond Coal” campaign by fighting plans at the local level. The acronyms are also applicable to some of the high-profile energy projects that the country is currently debating, including the Keystone XL pipeline and Cape Wind, a wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass. In their own way, both of these projects are delayed because people who live where the project would be built don’t want them. They both, not surprisingly, also have broad implications for the country’s energy and environmental policies.

“There is a lot of local resistance to projects, whether it’s a transmission pipeline or wind farm or whatever,” said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. “You have to recognize there is enough of a national need that you have to have a process for considering local input, but then go ahead to the extent the national interest requires.”

President Obama delayed the approval process for the Keystone pipeline last November because of local concerns in Nebraska about the project’s impact on a major aquifer. That project has been winding its way through different regulatory processes for more than three years. Cape Wind, the offshore wind-farm project that’s poised to be the country’s first, has been slogging through the permitting process and beating back local opposition from powerful politicians like the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., for more than a decade.

“We want the renewable energy and reduced carbon emissions, but on the other hand, a wind farm or solar farm can have very extensive land impacts and sometimes water impacts,” said Michael Powelson, director of the Nature Conservancy’s North American Energy Program. “So how do you balance those?”

The conservancy has worked extensively with renewable-energy developers to ensure that their projects minimize the amount of harm to the environment and wildlife, and it doesn’t actively oppose most projects and doesn’t litigate against projects, Powelson said.

It’s not just pipelines and wind farms facing NIMBY challenges. The recent discoveries of shale natural gas have been found in areas of the country, such as the Northeast, whose residents are not used to energy production.

The impetus for Gasland, a documentary on the effects of natural-gas drilling, came from companies’ efforts to drill on land in Pennsylvania owned by the family of Josh Fox, the film’s director. When asked why he decided to focus on natural gas and not on other fossil fuels like oil and coal, Fox replied: “Gas is what came to me.”