Promoting PIMBYism

A good method for converting so-called NIMBY opponents of turbines and other renewable-energy infrastructure would be to give locals a stake in the enterprise’s economic success. Photograph by Simon Dawson / Bloomberg / Getty

“No vote for wind power advocates” – wind power opponents’ election poster for the 2017 parliamentary elections. Source: windwahn.com

We have giant turbines along the ridge at the top of the mountain where we live. I enjoy looking at them, not because they are pretty, or perfect, but because they represent progress. I never had the NIMBY inclination. If the turbines were in my face all day, every day, or if I had some sense that they were affecting my property value, perhaps I would feel differently. I had thought of the acronym PIMBY, thanks to those turbines uphill from us, before reading this, but am glad to see it is a thing. Thanks, as always, to Bill McKibben for his newsletter’s role in getting us to see further down the road:

The Shift to Renewable Energy Can Give More Power to the People

The pandemic has driven a lot of people outdoors: reports show that park visits are up around the world and parking lots at hiking trails are packed. That’s understandable—by now you’d need to chop down a sizable forest to print out the studies showing that time in nature reduces stress, cuts healing times, and enhances the functioning of the immune system. As Sadie Dingfelder wrote in the Washington Post in December, “I’ve always found it relaxing and rejuvenating to be outdoors, but the anxiety and isolation of the pandemic, the uncertainty of civil unrest and, oh, I don’t know, the potential crumbling of American democracy have made me crave nature like a drug.”

That’s good news for the planet and for people. Studies have demonstrated, for example, that kids who spend more time outdoors grow up to become more environmentally inclined. If you love something, you’ll protect it: from the day that the Sierra Club was founded, that’s been the mantra of the conservation movement. But there’s one trapdoor here: if we’re going to build out renewable energy in the ways that the climate crisis requires, it’s going to require intruding on some of that landscape. A new report from Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law finds that state and local governments across the country have been passing laws designed to restrict the expansion of solar and wind projects. Sometimes, they’ve acted at the behest of the fossil-fuel industry—as Molly Taft reported in Gizmodo last week, the Koch front group Americans for Prosperity played a part in blocking a major Texas wind farm.

But some of the push came from local people who just didn’t want to look at wind turbines. As the Sabin study concluded, “ ‘not in my backyard’ and other objections to renewable energy occur throughout the country, and can delay or impede project development.” I’ve definitely seen that phenomenon at play in Vermont, where I live. Plenty of people with no apparent allegiance to oil or gas have managed to impose a de-facto moratorium on new windmills on ridgetops, and challenged construction of solar farms for being eyesores. Their arguments are often absurd—the idea, for instance, that windmills cause cancer was adopted by Donald Trump from nimby opponents of turbines, even though the medical evidence is clear that windmills don’t cause harm. (Just as it is clear that particulate pollution from fossil fuels now accounts for nearly one in five deaths worldwide, ahead of H.I.V./aids, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.) Yes, wind turbines kill birds—perhaps a quarter of a million every year in the United States, compared with the 6.8 million that die after colliding with cell-phone and radio towers and the billions that succumb to domestic cats. (And, if we keep raising the temperature on the current trajectory, two-thirds of American bird species will be threatened with extinction by 2100.)

There’s a bad reason that some of this resistance will eventually dissipate: bigger players are coming into the renewable-energy industry, and eventually their clout is going to match the Kochs’—NextEra Energy, a Florida-based renewables provider, briefly passed ExxonMobil in market capitalization last autumn, and one assumes that it is hiring lobbyists. But a better method for converting—in the words of a Clean Energy Wire analysisnimbys into p(lease)imbys would be to give locals a stake in the economic success of the enterprise. The simplest way is through ownership—early German solar and wind expansion, beginning in the nineteen-nineties, was eased by the fact that much of the equipment was owned by local coöperatives and even by churches, which made money off it. But, as the scale of Europe’s renewables industry expands—wind power may need to grow by a factor of twenty-five this decade to meet the Continent’s targets—it’s becoming increasingly difficult for small players to buy into projects. As Paul Hockenos reports at Yale Environment 360, the European Union is trying to spur more community ownership of renewables, but, as huge offshore wind farms begin to sprout, only large corporations have access to the billions of dollars required for construction…

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