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?

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.