Friday, April 30, 2010

There Once Was a Wind Farm From Nantucket: Rethinking Energy Production

By Dave Rochlin -
Originally posted on

The state of Vermont is poised to shut down the Yankee nuclear power plant, after months of underground tritium leaks, and misleading statements from Entergy's local management team.

A BP drilling rig explosion will lead to as much as 4 million gallons of crude oil leaking out into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening wide-scale coastal damage.

29 miners were killed this month in an explosion in a Massey Energy coal mine in West Virginia.

You would think that these messes would have the public - and especially environmentalists - running towards wind power as a solution...without even factoring in the climate change benefits of renewable energy. Yet in Cape Cod, some environmental groups and residents are fighting hard to overturn approval of the nation’s first offshore wind farm. The Cape Wind project will build 130 turbines covering 25 square miles of Nantucket Sound. As the New York Times reports, the offshore wind farm would lie about 5 miles from the nearest shore on the mainland, and about 13 miles from Nantucket Island. The tip of the highest blade of each turbine would reach 440 feet above the water.

Is anyone seriously more concerned about 400 foot towers 5 miles off shore than they are with oil spills and radioactive leaks ino the water tables? The answer seems to be yes.

As one resident put it, "I’m 100 percent for alternative energy, but just not in Nantucket Sound.” The movie The Age of Stupid also documented similar attitudes in the UK. The term for this is NIMBY (Not In My BackYard), a sort of reverse tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons describes "a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently, and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen." In this case, the individuals will prevent a common resource from being created, but the outcome is the same.

If we're serious about renewables, this sort of thinking has to change. Dams, turbines, and solar panels visibly alter local vistas and ecosystems, so there is a perceived and visible negative impact to renewables. In contrast, most of us don't see mountain top mining, fossil fuel related CO2e emissions, or where spent nuclear reactor fuel goes to slowly die over thousands of years. It's also much more convenient for energy to be produced somewhere else and transported - inefficiently and at great expense - to where we use it. Everyone wants wind power, but not always the windmills.

My friend Rosie, who grew up in Nantucket, has a more enlightened view: "Cape Wind will certainly diminishes the vista, but that's the price we have to pay to get clean energy. It's better than an oil spill, a nuclear accident, air pollution, and war." She's actually more concerned with a second issue raised by opponents to Cape Wind: that a private firm - Energy Management Inc. (EMI) is developing the project, and plans to make money at it. But both Vermont Yankee and the leaky oil rig in the Gulf are also private enterprises. If cleantech is going to succeed, private firms will need to have the opportunity to make profits. A lot of speculative capital is needed to scale up new innovative approaches and the delivery of clean energy.

It's clearly time to change how we think of electricity production. When it comes to farming (roughly 1% of the US economy) we want to buy local, know where our food comes from, and support a vibrant private sector. Since energy expenditures are 6-8% of our economy, maybe we should be thinking along the same lines.

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