Grassroots Opposition To Big Energy – Clean or Dirty


The New York Times is catching up to the grassroots opposition to big energy projects, clean energy or dirty. Today the paper reported on the developing push back to big oil pipelines, big electrical transmission lines, and other energy transport projects of scale.

The dimensions of what needs to be done to push the country from high-carbon energy production to lower carbon production is as vast as anything the nation has attempted. That’s why it’s going much more slowly than most environmentalists and business executives anticipated. Not only are there technical gulfs to be crossed, there also are social oceans to navigate.

Among the most important is a basic American revulsion to size and scale in the clean energy sector that is expressing itself in every part of the country. Here in northern Michigan, for instance, Duke Energy late last year abandoned its plan to build 112 utility-scale wind turbines in Benzie and Manistee counties, principally because of revulsion by enough summer and full-time residents to their size.

As we’ve reported here for several years, there aren’t too many American clean energy sector projects of scale that haven’t come under pressure at the grassroots simply for being big. Big wind. Big solar. Big geothermal. Big transmission lines.

The clash over the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would extend from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast, also involves scale to some extent. It’s the first big individual infrastructure project of the new era of unconventional fossil fuel development that has attracted such public upheaval, though the water-intensive hydro-fracking production technology that led to the higher oil and gas production also is generating pointed criticism.

The oil and gas industry will have a much easier time moving their products to market, as the developments in North Dakota, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and the mid-Atlantic show. Americans are more comfortable with the fuels they know. And most of the pipeline infrastructure is already in place and simply needs to be extended to reach the new gas and oil fields. There’s almost $17 billion worth of pipeline construction, just completed or now occurring in the U.S. without the $7 billion Keystone XL and its earlier completed $5 billion Keystone project.

Completed and Proposed Oil and Natural Gas Pipelines in U.S.

Alberta Clipper — $3.3 billion

Southern Access Extension — $350 million

North Dakota System Expansion – $100 million

Enbridge Bakken Expansion – $560 million

Bakken Marketlink – $140 million

Bakken North –  $200 million

High Plains Expansion – $220 million

Northern Gateway Pipeline — $5.5 billion

Rocky Mountain Express gas pipeline — $4.5 billion

Proposed Cochin natural gas connector — $550 million

Quintana Capital Group oil pipeline: $250 million

Monarch pipeline —  $1 billion

Texas Longhorn — $275 million

Clean energy is encountering more difficult circumstances. The big solar and wind projects, for instance, that only a few years ago were viewed as low-carbon savior technologies by the American environmental community, are now seen as threats — to viewsheds, endangered species, public health, whatever. Transmission lines across wild lands are now viewed as dangerous and unsightly.

The public push-back points to a new stage of development, from centralized power generation in big plants, to decentralized clean energy production. That means installing solar arrays on individual business and residential rooftops, or building small wind generating stations that fit into neighborhoods and communities. While the concept may seem attractive, implementing such a scheme will take at least a generation even if it doesn’t run into any new civic opposition.

In the meantime, America is pushing as hard as it can to perpetuate the fossil fuel era, and losing momentum to China and Europe in clean energy production. The 750 kv transmission line in Gansu Province, China (above), which I photographed a year ago, transports power from new wind and solar installations in the northwestern deserts to the interior, and encountered no opposition.

In contrast, just last week in Michigan, Energy Conversion Devices, the parent of United Solar Ovonic, announced its plans to file for bankruptcy. United Solar Ovonic, the maker of thin-film photovoltaic panels, was for a short time one of the darlings of Midwest clean energy manufacturing sector.

— Keith Schneider

Obama Worries About Big Turbulence in America’s Clean Energy Sector

New York climate emissions counter

Converging trends  are roiling the clean energy manufacturing and production sectors here in Michigan and  nationally. President Obama knows it and is worried. The collapse of the Solyndra solar plant in California is  a prickly presidential campaign issue. Jobs and the country’s capacity to reduce its climate changing emissions, (as shown in the emissions counter above in NYC), also are big outcomes.

On Tuesday evening, the president told the story of an unemployed west Michigan furniture worker who landed one of 50 new jobs at Energetx Composites, a wind turbine blade manufacturer in Holland, Mich. that is the beneficiary of big state and federal clean energy grant support. Holland, by the way, also is the site of two big government-supported battery plants involved in supplying the state’s electric and hybrid car sector.

The president’s spotlight on the Holland worker and his vow in the State of the Union to “not walk away from the promise of clean energy” reflects, to some extent, his administration’s deep concerns about the swift evolution in overseas competition. He’s also worried about the fast-changing markets for energy, investment capital, and political and public support that are buffeting the American alternative energy sector.

Indeed, while a new wind energy production line opened in Holland last year, 140 miles away Evergreen Solar, a Massachusetts-based solar panel maker, declared bankruptcy in August and closed its new Midland, Michigan plant that employed about 40 people.

On the production side, solar and wind-generated power are holding their own. Solar energy developers added roughly 2,000 megawatts of new generating capacity last year, about double what was added in 2010. Wind energy propducers added nearly 7,000 megawatts of new generating capacity, 31 percent more than in 2010, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

But siting new plants is often a dogfight. Here in Benzie and Manistee counties where I live Duke Energy threw in the towel this month for a proposed 112-turbine wind farm. Opponents were essentially motivated by their revulsion to big towers interrupting a gentle wooded landscape. The issue was scale. Similar opposition is developing to the Obama administation’s proposal to open federal lands to big solar developments, as my Circle of Blue colleague, Brett Walton, discovered in Colorado’s San Luis Valley.

The popular pushback to big new clean energy projects is just one of the sources of turbulence in the U.S. clean energy manufacturing sector. On the one hand, big companies like GE announced plans in October to build a $300 million solar panel plant in Aurora, CO., that will employ 355 people when it opens this year. On the other hand Amonix, which in May completed a $18 million, 244,000-square foot plant in North Las Vegas to put over 300 people to work manufacturing equipment for big solar thermal plants in the desert Southwest, announced on January 25 that it was laying off 200 workers because of slow market conditions.

The picture in the wind energy manufacturing sector is a little clearer, though not by much. Gamesa, the big Spanish wind turbine maker, has two plants in Pennsylvania and employs 800 people. The company has opened over a dozen big wind farms nationally, including three in its adopted state. In 2009 it laid off several hundred workers but has rehired them. Meanwhile Vestas, the Danish wind energy manufacturers has built four wind manufacturing plants in Colorado that employ 1,500 workers.

Several market trends are smacking the wind energy. First is foreign competition, especially from South America, where new wind blade plants have been built specifically for the U.S. wind market, the world”s second largest behind China. The second is the federal wind energy production tax credit, which expires at the end of this year. Vestas, for instance, has threatened to close its Colorado plants if the tax credit is not renewed. While support for renewal is weak among Republican U.S. House and Senate members, it is strong among Republican governors in windy states — Ohio, Michigan, Nebraska, Kansas, the Dakotas — because of the role it is playing in encouraging job growth.

The third big trend affecting the wind industry is the boom in natural gas production, which is lowering prices and prompting more utilities to consider gas-powered generating units. Last week, the United States reduced its estimate for how much gas lies in the nation’s deep shale deposits by 40 percent. But those numbers are almost certain to be revised again, probably repeatedly, as production companies gain a better understanding of what is there. Even with the lower estimate there are still huge reserves of gas, and of oil, in those shales.

— Keith Schneider

Historic Preservationists Rally To Kill Clean Energy Projects


Add preservationists to the list of American interest groups determined to kill clean energy projects. Preservation Magazine published a good piece on the troubling trend in its summer 2011 issue.

Along with all of the other concerns I’ve raised about the myriad and all-too-effective campaigns at the grassroots to curtail clean energy development, add this thought. At least in clean energy development the United States has the opportunity to replace scenic vistas with energy sources that don’t pollute and are sustainable. Which is a good thing considering that the conventional energy sources add to climate warming that is damaging the forests and grasslands that form those very same scenic vistas.

In my previous work on Smart Growth, the campaigns organized by the Michigan Land Use Institute and our partners were driven in part by one undeniable fact: In every case beautiful landscapes were being replaced by parking lots and big roads and other out-of-scale projects not fit for a new era of energy scarcity, climate change, and diminishing incomes. Moreover, those new projects — Walmarts, Meijers big box stores, fast food, chain motels — drove average wages down, not up. They drained community vitality.

The clean energy sector, if it develops any scale at all, will employ high-skill people earning better wages. It fits much more readily into a natural landscape. And it responds to climate change, which I fear could be the most important threat to the nation’s economy and security because of the fury of the storms we’re seeing now.

So what are preservationists preserving when they oppose clean energy projects? Vistas that are undergoing damage due to the culture’s unyielding reluctance to pursue a cleaner and safer energy path.

A Hydrocarbon Boom Unfolds While Northern Michigan Fears The Wind

save-benzie1 billboard wind opposition

The history of renewable energy, at least the way many in the environmental community imagined it with the election of President Obama, is a straight story line. A courageous young leader, worried about economic and national security, takes on the big energy dogs and begins to shift the United States away from dirty, dangerous, and expensive fossil fuels.

Then there is history the way it actually unfolds. Markets and personal values and incomes and public attitudes and global competition and fate and chance are all shaken together like one of those hand-held snow storms in glass. Things eventually settle but the outcome can be so random.

That’s one way to explain the fierce resistance to a proposal by Duke Energy to build over 100 utility-scale wind generators in four townships in Benzie and Manistee counties. Public opinion polls show broad support for clean and renewable energy development. But individual projects, like Duke’s, are having a harder time getting built than the poll results suggest.

Difference of Wind Opinion
The push and pull is reflected almost weekly in the Benzie County Record Patriot. “We are being given an opportunity to help preserve what we have here and show the rest of the world we are willing to take a stand in the fight against pollution,” writes Emily Nugent, a recent college graduate raised in Benzie County who noted she was dismayed by the anti-wind signs and billboards (like the one pictured above in Frankfort). “I thought our community has been in support of taking care of our environment, not opposed to a greener way of life.”

“It is not sound green energy policy to substitute one form of pollution for another,” counters Michael Connolly, a resident of Arcadia, a Lake Michigan coastal village in Manistee County that is a hotbed of opposition to the Duke plan. “What is the gain to substitute reliance on fossil fuels for another form of aesthetic/visual and possible health risk pollution.”

Glenn Puitt of the Michigan Land Use Institute has been covering the issues and his latest piece on leasing is worth reading.

In the balancing of the actual risks of coal-fired generating stations and the perceived hazards of wind power it just seems so obvious which way the scale tilts. Coal mining kills, pollutes streams, wrecks mountaintops, tears apart prairies, and depletes water supplies. Coal combustion produces mercury-loaded emissions that contaminate lakes and enter the food chain. And carbon from coal-fired plants in the U.S., China, and other nations is the principal source of climate changing emissions.

Wind power, meanwhile, can be a threat to birds and bats, can produce an irritating flicker at some points on the ground during specific hours of the day in certain parts of the year, and is generated atop tall towers that some see as such a visual blight they worry that tourism revenue and property values could decline.

Risk Perception Impedes Clean Energy Development
Nevertheless, perceived risks of wind power and other renewables are proving to be powerful drivers of public sentiment here in northern Michigan and around the country. Developers are having a hard time getting new clean energy projects built.

Though a handful of new biomass plants came online in 2010, principally in the southeast states, a number of others — including one in Traverse City — also were cancelled due in part to financing problems and what Renewable Energy World, a trade news organization called “increased scrutiny by environmentalists and regulatory agencies.”

Last year just one company, Nevada based Ormat Technologies, brought a new geothermal power plant online, a 15MW plant in Jersey Valley, Nevada, according to the 2011 Annual U.S. Geothermal Power Production and Development Report. This in a generating sector that had developed over 3,000 megawatts of capacity in previous years.

Last year, 5,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity came online. That was half the new generating capacity built in 2009. This year, the U.S. wind energy industry appears to be doing better. In the first quarter of 2011, according to the American Wind Energy Association, 1,100 megawatts of new wind energy was installed in the first quarter and 5,600 megawatts is under construction.

But it also appears clear that wind energy development will not come close in 2010 and 2011 to matching the 18,400 megawatts of new generating capacity built in 2008 and 2009. To some extent this reflects uncertainty in financial markets and government support. But it also is the result of resistance at the grassroots to big projects. Realtors in Wisconsin, for instance, support Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to restrict wind development in that state.

Of all the renewable alternatives only solar photovoltaic energy appears to be holding its own, especially for photovoltaic systems installed on home and business rooftops. The residential market doubled last year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Utilities also opened three concentrated solar power plants, though green groups on the  West Coast are nervous about the big solar projects planned for deserts in California and the Southwest. They say the big plants, which cover hundreds of acres, can harm the land and wildlife.

Meanwhile Hydrocarbon Boom At Continent’s Center
What is clear today is that while Americans battle over clean energy projects. stunting green development, climbing gas prices serve as a daily reminder of just how strung out on oil this country is. The fossil energy industry is flexing its muscles in government and the finance community, winning permits and billions in cash to perpetuate the age of fossil fuels. The result is one of the grandest industrial expansions in recent decades, much of it at the center of the continent.

North American, Asian, and European companies are spending $15 billion annually to turn tar sands into oil in northern Canada; $7 billion annually to drill shale oil wells on the northern Great Plains; $30 billion to build a pipeline network for transporting tar sands oil, shale oil, and natural gas between Canada and the U.S. through the center of the continent, and to the Texas Gulf Coast; and $22.6 billion to expand and modernize refineries in the Midwest, Great Plains, and Gulf of Mexico. (See list of pipelines and refinery expansions below).

A Canadian tar sands developer  wants to open a new tar sands mines in Utah , and as of 2010, North Dakota is the fourth-largest oil-producing state in the nation-quickly heading to number two, behind Texas.

For the first time since the 1970s, the amount of oil being produced in the United States is on the rise. In 1977 US crude production was 8.1 million barrels per day. Production climbed in all but one of the next nine years to nearly 9 million barrels per day. From there production fell steadily each year until 2008, when it bottomed at 4.95 million barrels per year.

Production started up in 2009 and continues. Unfortunately, the sources of that fuel are more difficult and dangerous to extract and transport, and they carry greater risks of air pollution, groundwater contamination, water consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions than ever before.

— Keith Schneider


Completed and Proposed Oil and Natural Gas Pipelines in U.S.

Keystone and Keystone XL pipelines — $12 billion

Alberta Clipper — $3.3 billion

Southern Access Extension — $350 million

North Dakota System Expansion – $100 million

Enbridge Bakken Expansion – $560 million

Bakken Marketlink – $140 million

Bakken North –  $200 million

High Plains Expansion – $220 million

Northern Gateway Pipeline — $5.5 billion

Rocky Mountain Express gas pipeline — $4.5 billion

Proposed Cochin natural gas connector — $550 million

Quintana Capital Group oil pipeline: $250 million

Monarch pipeline —  $1 billion

Texas Longhorn — $275 million

US Refinery Expansions

Motiva (Shell) planned completion 2012 – $7.5 billion

BP Whiting Expansion, underway – $3.8 billion

Detroit Marathon expansion – $2.2 billion

Valero Port Arthur expansion – $1.4 billion

Total Port Arthur expansion – $2.2 billion

Wood River expansion – $1.8 billion

Marathon Garyville expansion – $3.7 billion

Grassroots Opposition To Wind Energy Receives Scholarly Assessment

china-gansu-wind-farm-450 Roopali Phadke was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government from 2003 to 2005 when an intensifying civic struggle over a developer’s proposal to build the nation’s first offshore wind farm in Cape Cod caught her attention.

The battle line between supporters and opponents was readily apparent. But the soldiers filling out the ranks of the opposition leadership were especially confounding. They included Senator Ted Kennedy, one of the nation’s most influential liberal lawmakers, his nephew Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council and one of the country’s most prominent environmentalists, and Bill Koch, a billionaire fossil fuel energy developer, prominent funder of freemarket conservative causes and candidates, and twin brother to David Koch, a billionaire oilman from Kansas who was busy financing a radical anti-government, anti-environmental movement that came to be known as the Tea Party.

“I saw during the permitting process how support and opposition to Cape Wind splintered normal alliances,” said Phadke, (see pix right) who is now an associate professor of environmental studies at Macalester College in Minneapolis. “I dug in deep on that project and it opened up for me how pervasive opposition to wind energy is around the country.”

Behind The Opposition Trend
A year ago, while serving as a communications consultant to a small northern Michigan utility, I smacked into the same trend, and it encompasses opposition to more than wind energy development. Traverse City Light and Power proposed to generate 30 percent of its power with renewable sources by 2020, and the utility’s board viewed a 10-megawatt, combined heat and power, state-of-the-art, clean-burning wood biomass gasification plant as a good start. It would employ 20 to 30 people, and cycle $4 million a year through the community that otherwise was being sent to Wyoming and Lansing for dirty, climate-changing, mercury-producing coal-fired power.phadkephoto

The proposal was a no-brainer to me. But my views certainly weren’t as widely shared as I anticipated. Last June, after a fierce grassroots pushback, the utility abandoned the project.

The experience, though, prompted me to report intensively on the civic fate of other clean and renewable energy projects around the country. I’ve collected my articles in a ModeShift special report that documents community battles impeding renewable and clean energy projects — wind, solar, geothermal, smart grid — in more than 30 states.

I’m convinced that the opposition movement, which is national, growing, connected online, and sharing data and organizing techniques, represents a significant barrier to the clean energy industry’s development in the U.S. But I’ve felt more isolated on this point in the journalism and academic community than I expected. That’s likely because national polls, including one reported last week by Dave Roberts of Grist, consistently show that Americans support the clean energy alternatives.

I’ve concluded, though, that when the theoretical becomes the actual, Americans are changing their minds about clean energy. Here in northwest Michigan’s Benzie and Manistee counties, where I’ve lived for almost 20 years, a Duke Energy proposal to build 112 utility-scale wind turbines has encountered serious turbulence from many people who I know personally and previously expressed strong support for clean alternatives.

A Social Scientist’s Findings
Last week, in a conversation with Roopali Phadke, a political scientist trained at Wellesley, Cornell, and U.C. Santa Cruz, I learned more about the causes of the resistance. Phadke has attracted National Science Foundation grants for a project that “seeks to better understand how communities can navigate controversy and engage in the process of wind energy development.”

In a new paper that’s going to press in Antipode, a journal of geography, Phadke documents 130 wind opposition groups in 30 states. The numbers, she says, are increasing. “It’s a significant movement,” Phadke told me.”The wind developers didn’t see this coming — the number of groups, how networked they are, and what a challenge it is to their industry.” In her paper, which draws its narrative from opposition to a Duke Energy windfarm proposed for federal land in Nevada, Phadke concludes that the movement reflects “the emerging social resistance to re-sculpting of energy geographies.”

“Local opposition to wind development in the New American West is representative of broader shifts in the economic and aesthetic value of once historically “productive” rural landscapes,” she writes.

Phadke added: “As a conspicuous technology capable of both sustaining and thwarting the realization of an imagined rural ideal, utility-scale wind energy development across American landscapes calls forth similar social reconciliation as was faced with the expansion of railroads, steamships, and factories in early modern America.”

The American wind energy industry, which has attacked Republican opposition to state and federal incentives, is not yet acknowledging the influence of its grassroots opponents. In October I called the American Wind Energy Association,  and reached Denise Bode, the Washington-based trade group’s chief executive officer. I asked Bode what AWEA was doing to respond to the civic efforts to block wind projects. “What are you talking about?” she said before hustling off the phone.

No doubt, in her private conversations with AWEA’s board and staff, there is considerable concern. The American Wind Energy Association reported earlier this year that wind energy generating capacity increased by just 5.1 gigawatts in 2010 in the U.S. That’s half of the generating capacity increase in 2009, and less than a third of the 16.5-GW increase in wind generating capacity built last year in China. (see pix above from northern Gansu Province).

The Washington-based trade association faulted political uncertainty about federal and state incentives, roiled financial markets, and diminished interest by the nation’s utilities to commit to wind. The association didn’t mention the increasing grassroots resistance to wind power in rural areas.

“The focus of the industry, the government, and national environmental organizations has been on technology, jobs, and making the economics right,”  said Professor Phadke. “But they’ve glossed over the civic work that needs to be done. This is a revolution in energy production. There is an assumption that everyone has been on board. They aren’t.”

— Keith Schneider