Renewable energy projects of all sizes, but especially grid-scale projects, are increasingly running into concerted opposition from NIMBYs who, while they might favor clean energy, don’t want it located anywhere they can see it. NIMBY of course is an acronym for ‘Not In My Back Yard’ while BANANAs are even more extreme, saying ‘Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody.’
From the Cape Wind project offshore in Massachusetts, to homeowner associations in Arizona banning rooftop solar, to concerted efforts to block big solar in the Antelope Valley in Los Angeles County, NIMBYs are doing what renewable energy proponents thought would never happen. They are sometimes stopping projects from being built and also slowing them down for years.
Cape Wind, which wants to install 130 400-foot-tall wind turbines 5 miles out in the ocean off Cape Cod, is by now a classic example of an interminable regulatory process which can easily be manipulated and gamed by those with money. The original permit was filed in 2001. Battles have continued since then. It really does seem that much of the opposition is from a few wealthy folks who don’t want to view those icky turbines hovering somewhere out near the horizon. A common NIMBY tactic, and certainly one employed at Cape Wind, is to drag out the process as long as possible, until the venture capital dries up or tax credits expire.
But it’s not just martini-sippers on their verandas who don’t want to look at wind turbines far out in the ocean. Homeowner associations in Arizona tried to block homeowners from installing rooftop solar. The stated reason was because it was unsightly. But then, so are power blackouts, and quite literally too. Such rules are astonishingly myopic especially considering that Arizona has abundant sunshine. Happily though, their state legislature passed a law saying that anyone can install rooftop solar and that associations could not block them from doing so. Arizona has also made tax credits available for home solar with the predictable result that rooftop PV installations are now growing fast.
Wind turbines are the most frequent target of NIMBYs. The area around Palm Springs CA has hundreds of wind turbines and is frequently cited by NIMBYs as an eyesore. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I think wind turbines are graceful although I would certainly not want to live next to a wind farm. But then, practically no one does, as wind farms tend to be in remote, desolate areas. Incidentally, Palm Springs has a genuine history and museum of wind turbines all around it, from the earliest small models to the current generation of powerful behemoths. The area was chosen because heat from the desert sucks air in from Los Angeles past the towering mountains of San Jacinto and San Gorgonio, in effect acting like a giant bellows.
Palm Springs has over 3,200 turbines while Altamont Pass in central California has nearly 5,000 and most of them are old too. One possible solution to the proliferation of old, small turbines is to replace them with modern turbines, which are more cost-effective and produce vastly more power. GE is planning a monster land wind turbine that will produce 15 MW. 45 of them could produce the same amount of power as all the turbines currently in Palm Springs. This could cut down on protests about the unsightliness of wind turbines.
But solar power isn’t immune from NIMBYism either. First Solar has met substantial opposition to their plan for a 230 MW PV installation in Antelope Valley as have plans for a wind farm and hybrid wind-solar there. While NIMBYs may certainly have genuine concerns, like over water usage in deserts for solar plants, they do seem to want power instantly available at a reasonable cost but never want to look at a power line or power plant. But you can’t have it both ways. Power is best for a community if it is generated nearby. And that means people will have to look at the means of transmission and the power plants too.