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

Responding to a Candidate on Traverse City Biomass Resistance

grassroots resistance to clean energy, biomass

This morning I received an email message from Tom Mair, a Green Party candidate for the Grand Traverse (Michigan) Board of Commissioners, who wanted to know what I thought about the decision in June by Traverse City Light and Power to abandon its proposal to build a wood biomass plant. I served as communications and engagement consultant on the public hearings the utility held this winter.

Tom’s message and my response follow:

good afternoon Keith,
Tom Mair from the Greens here…
where are you on biomass and TCLP now that the TLCP board seems to have shelved biomass?
I’m concerned about biomass in Michigan… is there any regulation of the number of plants (that’s power plants) and the capacity? Seems like there should be. Otherwise every town could build one. Before long there would be too many plants and fewer plants to cut down.
I’m running for GT County Bd of Commissioners Dist 7.

You raise good questions about oversight and management. The TCLP proposal included a sustainable forestry initiative to assure steady fuel supply. After all, what sense does it make to build a biomass plant that couldn’t secure fuel at an affordable rate, causing electric rates to rise? By the way, TCLP had a plentiful supply of fuel from cherry orchard tree wastes, which are routinely burned in giant bonfires with no emissions control or harvesting of heat value at all.

The easy politic here is the flat out lying, exaggeration, misinformation, and fear-mongering of opponents. It was eye-opening to me and reflected the stiff resistance at the grassroots to clean energy projects. I’ve written extensively about that on my ModeShift blog. Check out the bottom of this piece.

Clean energy development is dividing American environmentalism in interesting and potentially harmful ways. The inflexible ideological wing, expressed by TC biomass proponents, essentially wants to do nothing different. The risk of doing something to take care of baseload generating needs was rejected, and the utility’s 30 by 20 goal is likely dead for a good while. That’s a shame if you are convinced that anything we can do to reduce the effects of climate change are worthwhile.

I’ve worked and reported on the climate and energy sector for years and know there is no easy answer.

Some in the TCLP public meetings called for more natural gas generation, but the risks of doing that have been very high in the Antrim play — shredding the forests with 10,000 well pads and thousands of new miles of roads and pipelines. The risks of the new deep shale play are unknown in Michigan but similar formations in other states are raising havoc with water supplies. I also wonder whether Traverse City residents are any more willing to build a right-size natural gas-fired plant within city boundaries.

Some called for reversing a public decision two years ago and rebuilding the Boardman dams, which generate 2 mw. The cost is high and the environmental goal of restoring the river’s natural flow would be halted.

Some called for more efficiency, a good idea and well worth pursuing, as TCLP is doing with more success than most Michigan utilities. But saving energy doesn’t replace the need to also generate it. It also doesn’t obviate the need to replace coal-fired baseload generation.

Some called for more wind, which TCLP is executing. Wind has an important role but is intermittent and doesn’t replace the need for baseload energy.

So the utility pursued a path I call radical pragmatism. If your goal is to reduce reliance on coal, the dirtiest and most resource-wasting fuel there is, and you want to do so with a local source of renewable energy to replace baseload coal-fired electrical generation, then TCLP had a reasonable response. Build a right-size, 10 mw, clean-burning, state-of-the-art, wood-burning, gasification plant that generates heat and power and makes a lot of sense.

It generates half the C02 emissions of a coal-fired plant and burns much more cleanly than the wood-burning stoves that operate in the northwest Michigan homes of its critics. It produces no mercury to contaminate water and fish and no heavy metals, like a coal-burning utility. It will never account for anything like the 29 mining deaths that occurred earlier this year in an Appalachian coal mine. And it produces little if any of the health-threatening particulates that the sham “authorities” contended would sicken women and children. In fact all those light trucks, SUVs, diesel-powered, and gasoline-powered cars the critics drive each day actually produce and stir up health-threatening particulates, as do the western strip mines and coal-burning power plants that provide the region’s electricity.

Lastly, building that state-of-the-art biomass plant would permanently employ 20 or 30 people in good benefits-paying jobs and keep in the community the $4 million dollars that TCLP is sending each year downstate to generate power and to western strip mines and railroads to bring the fuel to Michigan.

As you can see I’m no politician. It’s just clear to me that when weighing the risks and benefits a right-sized modern biomass plant makes more sense than what’s almost certain to occur now. TCLP will be forced to sign contracts with coal-fired utilities to provide Traverse City electricity at reasonable cost. One of those contracts could be with a proposed new plant in Bay City that some of those very same biomass critics have been fighting, in order to block its construction.

What happened with the biomass plant reflects all kinds of social and economic trends that are colliding, including an oppressive fear of the future that has produced a crippling politics of stasis — on the right and on the left.

Best of luck in your campaign, Keith

— Keith Schneider

Wind Chill: Young and Old Greens At Odds Over Clean Energy Projects

grassroots opposition to clean energy projectsGabrielle Gurley, a writer for Commonwealth, the magazine of the think tank MassINC, has a rigorously balanced assessment in the most recent issue of the simmering dispute in American environmentalism about big clean energy projects. All across the country, including Massachusetts, where Gurley bases her reporting, grassroots environmentalists are fighting to block clean energy installations.

In the battle between principle and pragmatism, the efforts by older green activists is producing a generational schism in the movement, one of several fractures opening in American environmentalism around clean energy and climate issues.

“Younger environmentalists, alarmed by climate change, seem to have less patience for the siting battles,” reports Gurley. “Alyssa Pandolfi, in her third year of environmental science studies at Northeastern University, is a member of the Husky Energy Action Team, which looks for ways to get students and university departments to reduce their energy usage. She gets frustrated with environmentalists who are more concerned about blocking wind farms than they are about greenhouse gases, acid rain, or the chronic diseases that affect people in coal mining states like West Virginia and Kentucky. “What’s a wind turbine on the horizon if we are killing people [with] our current energy system?” she asks.

Craig Altemose, a graduate student at Harvard and the coordinator of Students for a Just and Stable Future, lobbies on Beacon Hill for a task force to research how the state can move toward 100 percent clean energy statewide in the next decade. He believes that there is no legitimate way to oppose wind projects based on their impact on the environment.

“Every place that you try to preserve today is going to be a different place a hundred years from now if we don’t stop putting carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” he says.”

Readers of ModeShift know how concerned I’ve been about the environmental movement’s response to scaling up the clean energy sector. Earlier this year I designed and helped to execute a public engagement process to help a local utility, Traverse City Light and Power, generate 30 percent of its energy from local renewable resources. The utility wanted to build a right-size, 10 mw, wood burning biomass gasification plant  to replace  dirty coal-burning baseload generation.

Grassroots leaders objected, asserting the plant would “slaughter” forests, “injure” public health with particulates, and cause all sorts of other entirely fictional results. The utility board, after initially voting to approve the biomass plant, abandoned the idea in June citing public opposition. One of the board members who approved and participated actively in the communications plan, Jim Carruthers, who’s also a Traverse City commissioner, then ripped me in the local news for doing “a horrible job” in the engagement process. So  much for working with political pipsqueaks.

By no means, though, was the utility’s experience with such opposition unique.

There will be more reporting on this divide in environmentalism. It represents a threat to the air, water, and land that environmentalists assert they want to protect. It also represents a threat to the movement’s credibility, which this year is sustaining huge damage with its failure (our failure, my failure) to move a nation to action on energy and climate. How can a movement remain influential when one sector — national groups in Washington — actively fights for clean energy investment that a second significant sector — the grassroots — doesn’t think is valuable and is organizing to block. Answer: it can’t.

— Keith Schneider

Principle Trumps Pragmatism: Grassroots Greens Campaign Against Clean Energy, American Power Act


As the expanse of the Gulf slick widened this week and climate advocates reckoned with an American public focused on more urgent risks closer to their front doors, 15 big activist organizations and a coalition of 200 grassroots advocacy groups from across the country, many of them green, lashed the American Power Act.

Greenpeace last Thursday called the measure “more of a ‘dirty energy bailout’ bill than anything else.” In a statement issued a day earlier, the 200 small groups said the Power Act would spur coal, oil, and nuclear development,  “would be ineffective at addressing the climate crisis,” and vowed to kill the bill if the conventional energy provisions were not dropped.

That’s no surprise. The American Power Act calls for federal investments and regulatory changes designed to secure domestic supplies of conventional fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources. Oil, coal, and nuclear power represent the foundation of a profligate way of life that has put the domestic economy and environment in peril. Over the last four decades green groups built an important and effective civic movement to deal with the consequences of dirty energy.

The American Power Act, though, also contains provisions for substantive federal investments in clean energy, transit, Smart Growth, efficiency, and energy-conserving practices. And it calls for capping carbon emissions, trading carbon allowances to generate substantial new revenue, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent of their 2005 levels by 2050. Because of these provisions some of the most prominent environmental organizations support the American Power Act as a strong step in the right direction, although with reservations about the conventional energy provisions.

Green v. Green
Green versus green is nothing new in the history of American environmentalism. The competition between pragmatism and principle is an insistent undercurrent that has surfaced periodically, for example in the rivalry between the big organizations with Washington offices, and the small organizations working in the field.

The differences expressed about the American Power Act, though, may reveal a new and very troublesome dimension to the green vs. green meme. The disagreement over national climate and energy policy underscores a growing trend, little noted in the environmental movement or the media, that involves fierce grassroots campaigns in more than 30 states to defeat big clean energy projects.

The grassroots opposition to clean energy development, most visibly displayed in the nine-year battle to permit the offshore Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, is having the effect of hindering clean energy development, and by extension, climate action.

It also appears to be opening a schism in American environmentalism that could threaten the movement’s credibility. Simply put, at a time of real crisis for the economy and the environment, what kind of leadership can be expected from American environmentalists? Can American environmentalism be a major force for good if it lets ideological principle trump pragmatism?

I Was There
Full disclosure: Last year at this time I was writing about the energy rebellion sweeping the nation as citizens and small organizations worked to close coal-fired power plants, shut down mountaintop removal coal mining, protest rate hikes in utility commission hearings, and take other actions to block expansion of the use of fossil fuels. The momentum leading to the Copenhagen climate summit included significant activism at the grassroots to block conventional polluting energy sources and spur clean energy development and jobs.

Late last year, though, a small utility near where I live in northern Michigan asked me for help, under a consulting contract, to design a communications and public engagement process for their proposal to acquire 30 percent of the utility’s energy from local renewable resources. One facet of the proposal included a plan to build a 10 mw, right-sized, state of the art, clean burning, combined heat and power, wood gasification biomass plant to replace coal-fired power.

The response from some prominent community environmentalists to that idea was intense and surprising. The win for green activists, of course, was to kill the plant, which meant under the circumstances of the utility’s power supply needs continuing to generate energy from coal.

Investigation Reveals Big Trend
I spent several weeks investigating whether the push back was an anomaly or emblematic of something more significant. I found considerable evidence that the opposition to the biomass plant in northern Michigan was part of a national trend at the grassroots to oppose big clean energy projects in dozens of states.

Clean energy developers, of course, haven’t stopped proposing new projects. They are just much more aware of the civic storm such plans are capable of stirring up. Google just invested in a big wind farm in North Dakota. Scandia Wind is proposing a big offshore wind farm in Lake Michigan that has generated considerable support and opposition. Battery manufacturers are settling around Detroit, anticipating breakthroughs in development and sales of the next generation of clean vehicles. Still, the distaste for the scale and number of clean energy projects needed to supplant fossil fuels is unnerving citizens, and they are expressing their concerns in town hall meetings, active opposition campaigns, and in the media.

Last week Linda Cree, an activist in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, expressed these concerns about proposals to build industrial-scale wind farms in a forested region that is steadily losing industry and residents: “What is happening with wind power is that its potential to be an earth-gentle, inexpensive, decentralized source of energy is being co-opted by large energy firms,” she wrote on Enviromich, a statewide environmental e-mail thread. “Going with their program means mega-wind-farms and massive transmission lines – – and the ecological damage and visual blight that accompanies such large scale industrial development.  It means allowing these huge energy corporations access to great swaths of land for their lucrative projects, and encouraging Americans to feel entitled to ever greater amounts of energy.”

“Environmental Rapists?”
Added Amy Cree Dunn of Michigan’s Wild U.P., “Will the environmentalists of today become the environmental rapists of tomorrow?  I certainly hope not.  Industrial colonization is industrial colonization whether it be coal-fired power plants or a mega-windfarm off the wild shores of Lake Superior – with, of course, the accompanying web of high-voltage powerlines criss-crossing the rural-wild landscape and polluting the areas with herbicides and, that nasty phenomenon, stray voltage. ”

In response to such sentiments Barbara Hill, director of Clean Power Now, a Massachusetts non-profit environmental organization that advocated for development of the big Cape Wind offshore development, said in an interview that grassroots opposition to the tools that will help reduce use of fossil fuels and solve climate change will force the environmental community to reexamine its principles and priorities. “We have to ask what we want to accomplish as environmentalists,” Hill said. “Do we not attend change here? Do we just hold holy the things we consider sacred and the hell with development?”

Scale Up
In a new article about the opposition trend in Outside Magazine
, Randy Udall, an energy analyst in Colorado and a member of the greenest political family in America, said “renewable-energy developers are running headlong into half a century of very successful environmentalist opposition to large energy projects. He also told the magazine, “The notion that if we just cover rooftops, we can leave the deserts alone, that we don’t need new wind farms, and don’t need to build new transmission lines—that doesn’t pass the mathematical sniff test.What I say to these people is: Buy a calculator. Run the numbers. We’re going to have to scale up renewable energy in a way we can hardly imagine.

The American Power Act, as introduced, is the second major bill to recognize that point since President Obama took office. The first was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, enacted in February 2009, which invests over $100 billion in clean energy production and practices and is one of the big financial drivers behind the new projects facing grassroots opposition. The new climate and energy bill has billions more for clean energy investment, plus cap and dividend provisions to reduce carbon emissions.

Frankly, the American Power Act provisions to produce more conventional fuel sources make sense, too, even if they curl an environmentalists’ hair. They are meant to buy time until the clean energy economy takes hold, and stave off the continued demise or even the collapse of the quality of life most Americans understand is at grave risk.

By allying themselves with that reality, disturbing as it is, environmentalists nevertheless have a shot with the American Power Act to take meaningful steps to begin curbing the consequences of climate change. Is American environmentalism mature and prudent enough to recognize that opportunity? Let’s hope so.

— Keith Schneider