On Monday, the Seattle City Council passed a resolution that adds the city to the list of municipalities that have committed to a local version of the Green New Deal. More than 100 cities have now declared their intent to obtain all of their electricity from renewables or “clean” energy sources. Furthermore, the Sierra Club claims that one in four Americans now live in communities that are “committed to a transition to 100% clean, renewable energy.”
While there’s no doubt that renewable energy is politically popular, there’s also no doubt that wind energy projects – both onshore and offshore – are facing increasing opposition and that, in turn, could cause the all-renewable goals to be missed.
To be sure, the US wind industry is growing. Overall capacity tripled over the past decade and an estimated 13,000 megawatts will be added this year. But recent news out of Oregon, Massachusetts, North Dakota, and Germany shows that regulators, local governments, and environmental groups are slowing or derailing wind projects. Furthermore, the industry is also facing the expiration of the federal production tax credit, the lucrative subsidy that has driven much of its growth.
History shows that when the tax credits dry up, new wind-energy installations plummet. In May, the Energy Information Administration underscored this point, explaining that in 2012, (just before the PTC was temporarily phased out) the “high level of annual capacity additions…was driven by developers scheduling project completion in time to qualify for the PTC. Similarly, the increase in annual capacity additions for wind scheduled for 2019 is largely being driven by the legislated phaseout of the PTC extension for wind.”
The industry is also facing regulatory uncertainty. Last week, the Trump administration announced that it was delaying approval for Vineyard Wind, a proposed $2.8 billion, 800-megawatt offshore wind project that aims to put dozens of turbines in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard. The delay will allow federal agencies to do a “robust cumulative analysis” of the environmental impact of offshore wind projects.
The federal delay on Vineyard Wind came about three weeks after the conservation commission in Edgartown, Massachusetts voted 5 to 1 to deny a permit that would have allowed the wind project’s high-voltage transmission cables to pass through the Muskeget Channel. The commission said the project’s owners did not submit “sufficient information to protect against long-term and short-term adverse effects on the resource area,” which they said “is critical for the protection of marine fisheries, land containing shellfish, storm damage prevention, flood control, and protection of wildlife habitat.”
Wildlife concerns were a factor in an August 1 ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court which will halt the construction of the proposed 194-megawatt Summit Ridge wind project near the Deschutes River. The court invalidated a set of rules that were adopted in 2017 by the Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council that limited public participation in the siting of new energy projects. The ruling is a win for nine environmental groups who were opposed to the wind project, which according to a spokesman for Oregon Wild, “threatened bald eagles, golden eagles and several other important bird and bat species.”
In June, the North Dakota Public Service Commission unanimously rejected a 200-megawatt wind project in Burke County due to concerns about wildlife. According to the Grand Forks Herald, in 2016, officials from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department said that NextEra Energy, the developer of the proposed project, “could not have picked a worse spot.” In March, the US Fish and Wildlife Service recommended against the project due to the number of bald and golden eagles in the region, which also has a “high concentration of significant, relatively rare, high quality breeding waterfowl habitat.”
In February, Apex Clean Energy withdrew its application to build 108 megawatts of wind capacity on New York’s Galloo Island, a small island off the eastern shore of Lake Ontario. The project was withdrawn after Clifford Schneider, a retired biologist who worked at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation for 34 years, discovered that Apex knew that bald eagles had been nesting on Galloo Island but didn’t disclose that information in a timely manner to state regulators.
Nor are the concerns only about wildlife. In May, in Indiana, Tippecanoe County commissioners voted 3-0 for a zoning ordinance that prohibits wind turbines taller than 140 feet. According to the local newspaper, the commissioners decided the “county couldn’t afford to hamstring other kinds of development with long-term leases tying up tens of thousands of acres.”
Perhaps the most remarkable example of the opposition to wind energy can be seen in Germany, a country that has long been touted by renewable-energy advocates as a model to be copied. Last year, climate activist Bill McKibben declared that “Germany has shown the path forward.”
But last month, the German newspaper Die Welt, reported that new wind installations in Germany during the first six months of 2019 “collapsed” falling to the lowest level since 2000, the year the country introduced the Renewable Energy Act. Just 231 megawatts of new wind capacity were installed during the first half of the year, which according to the German Wind Energy Association, “corresponds to a decline of 82 percent” when compared to the same period in 2018.
Die Welt reports that the main cause of the slowdown is “the legal resistance of wildlife and forest conservationists fighting new wind farms.” More than 70 percent of the legal objections are based “on species conservation, especially the threat to endangered bird and bat species.” In addition, some 17 percent of the legal objections to new wind projects are due to concerns about the noise generated by the turbines. In all, some 11,000 megawatts of new wind energy capacity in Germany is being held up due to fights over permits.
The punchline here is obvious: if Germany is, in fact, showing the way forward on renewable energy, the US wind industry should be ready for headwinds.
Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His sixth book, A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations, will be published in 2020 by PublicAffairs.
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