Clean Energy Conundrum: The Slippery Slope to BANANAs
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- Feb 10, 2020 3:15 am GMT
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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.
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.