February 25, 2019
Perhaps the most enduring myth in American energy politics is that there’s an endless amount of vacant land out there in flyover country that’s ready and waiting to be covered with forests of renewable-energy stuff. The truth is quite different. All across the country, rural communities — even entire states — are resisting or rejecting “green” energy projects.
Vacant-land mythology abounds.
During the Super Bowl, Budweiser aired a TV ad showing their iconic Dalmatian, riding atop a beer wagon, pulled by the company’s Clydesdales. In the gauzy background, wind turbines are peacefully spinning amid fields of grain. There’s not a power line, road, or building anywhere in sight. Then comes the pitch: Bud is “now brewed with wind power.”
Or, consider Gail Collins’ Feb. 13 column in the New York Times about the Green New Deal, titled “The Answer is Blowin’ in the Wind.” (That Bob Dylan song was the soundtrack for the Budweiser ad.) “If the country really threw itself into wind power, we could, er, breeze toward our goals on that alone,” Collins claimed. Wind energy works “well in places like the plains states” that are “in need of economic development.”
Ah yes, the plains states. Flyover country. Rather than look west, Collins should look north to see what’s actually happening on the ground. For years, three upstate New York counties — Erie, Orleans and Niagara — as well as the towns of Yates and Somerset have been fighting a proposed 200-megawatt wind project called Lighthouse Wind. Perhaps Collins isn’t aware of the opposition because the Times has never run a single story about the Lighthouse Wind controversy.
Collins also could look at Falmouth, Mass., where after years of legal battles, the town recently was forced to take down a pair of wind turbines because of noise and nuisance complaints from neighbors who lived near the turbines.
Rural residents in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, are fighting a proposed 500-megawatt solar project that, if built, would cover nearly 10 square miles. According to the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star local residents believe “the project is too big to be near homes and that it poses potential health and environmental risks. They also are concerned about impacts to property values.”
Transmission lines also face resistance. In 2017, Iowa enacted a law that prohibits the use of eminent domain for high-voltage transmission lines. The move doomed the Rock Island Clean Line, a 500-mile, $2 billion, high-voltage direct-current transmission line that was going to carry wind energy from Iowa to eastern states. Last year, New Hampshire regulators rejected a high-voltage electricity transmission project that was to carry hydropower from Quebec to consumers in Massachusetts. The 192-mile, $1.6 billion project was vetoed in a unanimous vote by the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee.
More high-voltage transmission is essential if America is to make a big shift toward renewables. In 2012, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated that if the United States were to attempt to derive 90 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, it would have to double its high-voltage transmission capacity.
Of course, renewable-energy projects aren’t the only ones facing resistance. Pipelines of all kinds also face staunch opposition from climate-change activists. Oil and gas drilling encroaches on suburban neighborhoods and draws the ire of nearby residents. A key difference is that renewables require far more land. For example, in 2014, the late David J.C. MacKay, then a professor at the University of Cambridge, calculated that wind energy needs about 700 times more land to produce the same amount of energy as a site that produces natural gas with hydraulic fracturing.
The point here is obvious: Any effort to drastically expand renewable-energy production will mean yet more land-use conflicts with rural landowners who don’t want those projects in their neighborhoods. To claim that we can “breeze toward our goals” with renewables alone simply perpetuates the vacant-land myth and undermines serious discussions about our energy and power needs.
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