The multiple NIMBYs in the way of “electrify everything”

A new book suggests a climate change answer is “electrify everything” but the author describes some NIMBY roadblocks to this idea:

Photo by Vivint Solar on

Griffith: There is no easy answer. There are different NIMBYs at play. There are “No wind turbines off my coastline!” NIMBYs. There are “No gas line running through my backyard!” NIMBYs. There are “I don’t like the look of solar cells!” NIMBYs. For those complaining about the view, I would remind them that a huge amount of land is already taken up by our energy-transmission systems. Millions of miles of dedicated coal rail lines and natural-gas pipelines are already strewn across the landscape. They only seem invisible because they’ve blended in over the past century.

Thompson: Okay, if there’s no easy answer, what’s the hard answer?

Griffith: I’m going to give you an answer that I’ve only been thinking about for a few weeks. I think the argument will be won on local economics. If you take a suburb with a thousand homes in it, those families might spend $3.5 million a year on gasoline. When those families fill their car with gas, the money immediately leaves the community and goes to Texas or Saudi Arabia. But if the cars are run on electricity that comes from their own rooftops and houses, then no money is leaving the community. You can take that $3.5 million and build new classrooms. That’s really exciting to me…

Griffith: Electricity literally is the network that connects every home. You are connected to everybody through this thing in your community. And it really might be the opportunity for community renewal that America needs. It might be the thing that binds us back together again. Because it saves us money and has a damn good chance of being bipartisan.

This does seem to be the trick: how to convince the majority of Americans that green energy benefits their daily lives. And if they actually gain money for their own households or for goods they want in their community, this would help. If individual homeowners do not want to take more responsibility for generating electricity (solar panels on the roof), it could devolve into arguing which less fortunate suburb should be home to the solar panels, wind turbines, etc.

Thinking bigger, what if green energy enables suburban life to continue, as opposed to a vision where people need to live in denser concentrations in order to use less energy? I wonder about this externality of more electric vehicles: if pollution via driving and the need for gas are reduced, can sprawl even expand?

Overcoming resistance to solar arrays in the Chicago suburbs

Cutting through municipal red tape could help encourage solar development in the Chicago suburbs but it can also take some work to find suitable sites:

Solar power projects have faced logistical challenges and opposition from residents. Proposed installations in Plato Township in northwestern Kane County and in Yorkville were recently met with concern about their proximity to neighbors…

In Oak Park, where large trees, a concentrated population and many historic homes pose challenges for solar projects, officials plans to subscribe part of its municipal electric aggregation program to small, “community solar” installations elsewhere in northern Illinois likely to be built under a new state program, said Mindy Agnew, the village’s sustainability coordinator. There is not expected to be any change in rates in the aggregation program because of the switch, she said…

It could begin with educating residents, she said. The city could look at land for solar installations that is unlikely to be developed or used for other purposes, such as a site with contaminated soil, she said. The city is already considering approval for a developer to build a solar project on a former landfill.

Riley also envisions solar arrays on rooftops. She sees installations on the roofs of the old buildings that largely make up the city’s downtown, such as one array that a private company installed on the roof of their building, which once housed the city library. And as companies such as Amazon build warehouses in the city, she sees the large, flat roofs as ideal for solar installations.

Even an idea that many people find favorable in the abstract might not be so desirable if proposed for construction near residences. I would guess many suburbanites would desire solar arrays to be mostly out of their view. This means locations away from residences – industrial parks, outside of the metropolitan area, etc. –  or hidden from view – such as on the flat tops of buildings – could work.

This leads to a broader question: is it necessarily the case that having visible solar panels decreases property values? Could they instead add value to properties if installed in tasteful ways (and providing for a greener structure)? Or, perhaps a critical mass of residents or owners has to acquire solar panels in a relatively short period of time to turn the tide of local opinion. Suburban single-family home residents can have knee-jerk reactions against anything near their homes due to what it may do to their property values. But, not all changes are necessarily a threat to the financial status of homes.

Limiting suburban redtape to installing solar panels

A program is helping a number of Chicago area communities make it easier for residents to add solar panels:

If you want to install solar panels for your house or business, you’re likely to find a faster and more user-friendly permitting process if your community has earned a SolSmart designation.

Illinois has 18 SolSmart communities, including Aurora, Hanover Park, South Barrington, and Cook and Kane counties. Another 22 — including Elgin, Lake in the Hills, Naperville and DuPage County — started the designation procedure last month.

The designation means towns and counties have streamlined processes and reviewed ordinances to clearly spell out requirements, and staff members have been trained to properly examine installation plans and inspect the finished work…

There are 223 SolSmart communities across the country. The program launched in April 2016 with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to the International City/County Management Association and The Solar Foundation, which provides technical assistance.

Residents of the American suburbs like their local government and local control yet this is an example where local bodies can get in the way: does every suburb have to go through separate processes to address solar panels? It sounds like the SolMart program helps provide resources and guidance so that suburbs do not have to do all the work on their own.

Thinking more broadly, what other suburban initiatives could be addressed at a similar level? I’m guessing a national campaign to have more permeable driveways might not work as well or one that installs containers to catch rainwater from gutters. I wonder if the solar panels issue works in part because the demand for them is still relatively small in the Chicago suburbs. Or, perhaps it is because it deals with roofs – a part of buildings that is not as visible – so concern is minimized.

“How solar power and electric cars could make suburban living a bargain”

New technologies may help the American suburbs live on for decades:

[A] new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Magali A. Delmas and two colleagues from the UCLA Institute of the Environment suggests that recent technologies may help to eradicate this suburban energy use problem. The paper contemplates the possibility that suburbanites — including politically conservative ones — may increasingly become “accidental environmentalists,” simply because of the growing consumer appeal of two green products that are even greener together: electric vehicles and solar panels…

Installing solar panels on the roof of your suburban home means that you’re generating your own electricity — and paying a lot less (or maybe nothing at all) to a utility company as a result. At the same time, if you are able to someday generate enough energy from solar and that energy is also used to power your electric car, well then you might also be able to knock out your gasoline bill. The car would, in effect, run “on sunshine,” as GreenTechMedia puts it.

A trend of bundling together solar and “EVs,” as they’re called, is already apparent in California. And if it continues, notes the paper, then the “suburban carbon curve would bend such that the differential in carbon production between city center residents and suburban residents would shrink.”…

The reason is that, especially as technologies continue to improve, the solar-EV combo may just be too good for suburbanites to pass up — no matter their political ideology. Strikingly, the new paper estimates that for a household that buys an electric vehicle and also owns a solar panel system generating enough power for both the home and the electric car, the monthly cost might be just $89 per month — compared with $255 per month for a household driving a regular car without any solar panels.

Read on for the discussion of how both solar panels and electric cars are becoming cheaper to purchase and operate. Yet, I’m sure environmentalists and critics of sprawl would argue these costs aren’t the only ones incurred by suburban life. Other factors include using more land, spreading out services (from police to shopping centers), the resources needed to build and maintain individual properties, and the loss of community life.

This is another piece of evidence that the suburban based lives, the space where a majority of Americans live, is not likely to disappear anytime soon.

When the new McMansion next door blocks your solar panels

This is a twist on the issue of a McMansion being built next door: what if it blocks your solar panels?

What happens when the community wants terrace houses and a developer says ”no thanks, I’d prefer 20 storeys”? Which anonymous expert then knocks him back to 18 and compliments himself on his Solomonic even-handedness? Who prevents the new ”complying” McMansion next door from overshadowing your new solar panels? Who decides who gets listened to?

One complaint about teardowns or larger buildings constructed next door is that they can block sunlight. This can be a big deal, particularly in cities where really tall buildings could block sunlight for blocks. Indeed, many cities have restrictions on the footprint and the shadows large buildings can cast.

But, I’ve never seen the argument that it isn’t really about experiencing natural light and is more about solar panels. How many people are affected by this issue? Do homeowners have a right to access direct sunlight so they can power their dwellings? This sounds like a new area for regulations.

Solar panels are not just only for McMansions

Solar panels are apparently not just for McMansions; they can even be used on Habitat for Humanity homes:

It’s solar Friday around these parts (job growth! innovation! sabotage!), with the news getting more and more awesome. Solar isn’t just for the rich, and it doesn’t only belong on skyscrapers and McMansions, but also on homes for families who qualify for Habitat for Humanity.

PG&E has donated about $1.7 million in the form of solar panels for 64 Habitat homes in the Bay Area. The solar paneled homes generate about 300 kilowatt hours a month and cause a yearly reduction in utility bills of about $500.

Overall, Habitat for Humanity is no environmental slouch these days, recently registering its 100th LEED certified home in Michigan.

I don’t know if this was the intention of the article but this seems to be highlighting the relatively high price of solar panels. The suggestion at the beginning is that one can only find solar panels on wealthy houses, like McMansions. (There might also be room here to debate whether McMansions could truly be green, even with plenty of solar panels.) Thus, we need to look at the example of Habitat for Humanity where they have found ways to be green even while providing cheaper new house for those who need it. If Habitat for Humanity can make this happen, can other builders?

I wouldn’t be surprised if solar panels become very common on new houses in the next few decades. Not only are they green, it could help homes become more self-sufficient, something I think plenty of homeowners would like in the wake of disasters like Hurricane Sandy. Yet, we have been hearing for years how solar panels are supposed to become cheaper and thus more accessible to more Americans but it hasn’t happened yet…

Pondering 24+ hours of no electricity

I recently wrote about a question that could garner some interesting responses from students: “what does civilization as we know it rely on?” I suggested electricity would be high on the list of technological advancements and after a 24+ hour period last week without power, I have some additional thoughts about something we take for granted.

1. Having no power even for a few days had me wondering about premodern and modern sleeping patterns. Without electricity, one would really benefit from getting up with the sun rising and going to sleep at dark. Were there night owls before electricity or is this a modern condition?

2. Having refrigerators and freezers helps remove us from the process by which food is made. The daily process of purchasing or producing fresh food is unnecessary with electricity but is more likely if one can’t store food for long periods of time.

3. Most of our modern entertainment and information gathering relies on electricity.

4. Natural light within a house becomes much more important without the possibility of electrical lighting. The trend in recent years is toward more natural light and while this may be aesthetically pleasing and more green, it also provides some insurance when there is no power.  

5. If we get to a point where we all have electric cars, what happens then in a power outage? Is this an added bonus of the Chevy Volt which also can run on gas?

6. I would be interested in knowing how the electrical grid is set up. While I know this is secret information (trade secrets plus avoiding mischief and crime), I wonder how redundant the grid is. That is, how many homes and businesses are connected in such a way that electricity can reach the building by several paths meaning it would be more difficult to knock out the power?

7. Why not include short-term, a few days or so, backup systems or small electricity generators (solar, gasoline, etc.) in new homes? Between electricity outages and people worried about a collapse of modern society, might there be a market for this?

Solar and wind energy sprawl

Here is a different kind of sprawl: in order to produce large amounts of electricity from solar and wind power, solar and wind installations will need a large amount of land:

But there’s the rub: while energy sources like sunlight and wind are free and naturally replenished, converting them into large quantities of electricity requires vast amounts of natural resources — most notably, land. Even a cursory look at these costs exposes the deep contradictions in the renewable energy movement…

The math is simple: to have 8,500 megawatts of solar capacity, California would need at least 23 projects the size of Ivanpah, covering about 129 square miles, an area more than five times as large as Manhattan. While there’s plenty of land in the Mojave, projects as big as Ivanpah raise environmental concerns. In April, the federal Bureau of Land Management ordered a halt to construction on part of the facility out of concern for the desert tortoise, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Wind energy projects require even more land. The Roscoe wind farm in Texas, which has a capacity of 781.5 megawatts, covers about 154 square miles. Again, the math is straightforward: to have 8,500 megawatts of wind generation capacity, California would likely need to set aside an area equivalent to more than 70 Manhattans. Apart from the impact on the environment itself, few if any people could live on the land because of the noise (and the infrasound, which is inaudible to most humans but potentially harmful) produced by the turbines…

Not all environmentalists ignore renewable energy’s land requirements. The Nature Conservancy has coined the term “energy sprawl” to describe it. Unfortunately, energy sprawl is only one of the ways that renewable energy makes heavy demands on natural resources.

The commentator goes on to recommend using more nuclear and natural gas power as “have smaller footprints.” Is this claim of “sprawl” just a distraction to keep people away from these energy uses? Sprawl is not usually a word you want to be associated with. It implies the wasteful and haphazard use of land, typically referring to the American suburbs where cookie-cutter subdivisions, strip malls, and asphalt (roads and parking lots) have covered open land.

There is still American land that could be used as 5.6% of American land is developed (though farmland might be getting more expensive). What if these power plants were built on land that is already unusable or not arable? Of course, any kind of use would displace animal habitats and disrupt open space – there seem to be more stories these days about the ill effects of wind farms on both nearby animal and human life. But is open space or renewable energy more important? The real question here is whether the use of large amounts of land for green energy is a worthwhile tradeoff compared to other energy sources.

(The use of “a Manhattan” as a unit is interesting: I think it is supposed to represent a recognizable and decent sized chunk of land. We are told you would need “more than 70 Manhattans” to provide electricity for California. But compared to the vastness of the United States, this unit size is silly. Manhattan is 23 square miles so “More than 70 Manhattans” is at least 1,610 square miles. Rhode Island, “the nation’s yardstick,” has 1,045 square miles of land or about 1,500 square miles if you include water (according to the Census). If we roughly multiplied California’s needs times 8 (308 million total Americans divided by California’s roughly 37 million people), we would need about 13,500 square miles for green energy – this is a little bigger than Maryland as a whole. The US has 3.79 million square miles. So there would be room for this green energy (though you would then have to factor in transmission lines) somewhere in the United States.)

h/t Instapundit and The Volokh Conspiracy

NIMBY reactions to small solar panels on utility poles

Green projects seem to have a good amount of general support. But when plans are made or carried out in particular locations, residents can become upset at how this changes the neighborhood. A recent example involves a plan to install small solar panels on a large number of utility poles in New Jersey:

Residents and politicians in Ridgewood, Wyckoff, and several other posh suburban towns just outside New York City are attacking local utility company PSE&G for putting up solar panels. Specifically, in an attempt to double the Garden State’s solar capacity, the company has been installing 3-foot-by-5-foot solar modules on utility poles. And the reactions are less than positive: “It’s just horrible,” said Ridgewood’s Deputy Mayor Tom Riche, according to an article in The Record, of Bergen County, N.J. on Sunday.

PSE&G wants to add 40 megawatts of solar capacity to the energy mix by 2013 as part of its Solar4All program, and the company is putting 180,000 solar panels on utility poles, schools, and other structures at a cost of more than half a billion dollars.  Among the objections (followed by the utility’s responses):

  • Crews install the panels without any warning. (PSE&G owns the poles.)
  • Residents gripe that the panels are “crammed” onto some blocks while some blocks have none at all. (Poles must have southern exposure and meet other criteria.)
  • Town officials are worried about liability caused by falling ice and snow. (Liability is actually PSE&G’s problem.)

Jerseyans aren’t the only ones raining on solar’s parade with an “ugliness” charge.

Three things strike me about these complaints:

1. Suburbanites tend not to like any changes in a neighborhood if they were not given prior warning. Or, we might even make a stronger argument: perhaps suburbanites just simply don’t like any changes to their neighborhood unless they have direct control over the changes being made.

2. As the end of this post points out, the utility pole is not exactly a paragon of beauty to start with. I currently live in a neighborhood with underground wires and fairly regularly I’m grateful that I don’t have to look at utility poles. Perhaps there are people out there who like their utility poles just the way they are – but this seems to go back to the first thought above.

3. This actually sounds like a clever idea on the part of the utility company. Since they already have the poles in place, why not put them to use and generate a decent amount of electricity through a distributed system? I wonder if the utility company predicted any outcry from citizens – and if so, perhaps they should have announced giant wind farms or something like that first so people would later be willing to settle for utility pole solar panels.

Learning from the country’s largest urban solar plant

The Chicago Tribune reports on a 40 acre solar power plant on the south side of Chicago, the largest urban solar plant in the United States. While the plant is not very big (generating 10 megawatts), some things I learned that shed light on the broader issue of clean energy:

-Benefits of a plant this size: “The solar plant generates enough electricity to power about 1,500 homes, and its clean power means less greenhouse gases are emitted, the equivalent of taking 2,500 cars off the road each year.”

-Perhaps Chicago is not a bad place to build solar facilities: “The sun in Illinois is more intense than in Japan or Germany, the world’s two largest solar markets.”

-On a national level: “Nationwide, there are more than 22,000 megawatts of large-scale solar projects under development, or enough to power 4.4 million homes.”

-“Green jobs” generated by building solar plants do not necessarily last over time: “Exelon’s West Pullman plant, for example, created about 200 jobs, but only during the six months of construction, he said. “It certainly wasn’t something that went on for years,” Lynch said.”

-Wind power is the main green energy for the near-future in Illinois: “Power companies in the state must get at least 25 percent of their electricity from green sources by 2025. Of that amount, 75 percent must come from wind, while only 6 percent must come from solar”

Summary: this plant has some clear benefits including cleaner energy and construction jobs. But there is a long way to go before solar plants, particularly in urban areas, can generate enough electricity at a reasonable price.