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Angry US landowners are killing off renewable energy projects

There’s an old saw in the trash business that says, “everybody wants their trash picked up but nobody wants it put down.”

That’s not a perfect analogy for what’s happening with renewable-energy projects in New York and New England but the sentiment behind it is familiar. A recent Gallup poll found that 73 percent of Americans favor increased use of wind and solar energy. But in New York and the Northeast, adding large increments of new renewable capacity is getting increasingly difficult due to growing local opposition. Land-use conflicts are also hindering high-voltage transmission projects.

Last May, Cambria in upstate New York rejected a proposed 100-megawatt solar project because it violated the town’s zoning laws, and another upstate town, Duanesburg, recently imposed a six-month moratorium on new solar projects.

Last July, the New Hampshire Supreme Court voted unanimously to uphold the state’s rejection of the proposed Northern Pass transmission line, a 192-mile-long project designed to bring hydropower from Canada to New England.

In January, the company backing Dairy Air Wind, the only remaining wind-energy project being developed in Vermont, announced it was pulling the plug on the single-turbine facility due to a “political environment that is hostile to wind energy.”

These land-use conflicts aren’t limited to the northeast. Last year, some 200 protesters were arrested while attempting to stop construction of a wind project on the island of Oahu. In Germany, the expansion of wind and transmission projects has been almost completely stopped due to widespread rural opposition.

The conflict stems from the vacant-land myth: the notion that there’s plenty of unused land out there in flyover country that’s ready and waiting to be covered with wind turbines, solar panels, power lines and other infrastructure.

The truth is that growing numbers of rural and suburban landowners are resisting these types of projects. They don’t want to endure the noise and shadow flicker produced by 500- or 600-foot-high wind turbines. Nor do they want miles of transmission lines built through their towns, so they are fighting to protect their property values and views.

A fundamental constraint on the growth of renewables is they require lots of land to produce significant flows of energy. And as more large-scale renewable projects are proposed, more land, and more people, are being affected.

Nuclear power, meanwhile, produces a lot more energy in a small amount of space, evidenced by the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, which will be prematurely shuttered by April 2021. Indian Point produces about 16 terawatt-hours of electricity per year from a footprint of one square kilometer.

Replacing that output with wind energy would require installing hundreds of turbines over some 1,335 square kilometers (515 square miles) of territory. Thus, from a land-use or ocean-use perspective, wind energy requires about 1,300 times as much territory to produce the same amount of energy as is now being produced by Indian Point.

The Brattle Group recently estimated that New England states will need to double electricity production to achieve an 80 percent cut in emissions by 2050. Achieving that cut with renewables will require adding as much as 7 gigawatts of new capacity every year between 2021 and 2050, which, the firm says, amounts to “four to eight times as much renewable capacity every year as currently projected for the next decade.”

But given the ongoing land-use conflicts, adding that much new renewable capacity appears to be little more than wishful thinking.

The conclusion is clear: Dense cities need dense sources of power generation. Sure, renewables will grow. But land-use conflicts are already hindering their expansion. If New York and New England want to reduce emissions and keep the lights on, they will need energy sources that are low-carbon, scalable and affordable. That means using more natural gas and nuclear. It also means rather than closing nuclear plants like the Indian Point Energy Center, policymakers in New York and other states should be fighting to keep them open.