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

About The Gail Wind Farm: Two Perspectives

Duke Energy, which last month merged with Progress Energy to become the nation’s largest electric utility, proposes to build a 112-turbine, $360 million wind farm in four rural townships in Benzie and Manistee counties. The company, in its public statements, says it hopes to begin construction in the spring of 2012. Duke also says it has reached binding leasing agreements with landowners who own 10,000 to 11,000 acres of the 16,000 acres in Duke’s wind development zone.

The proposal has stirred strong emotions here, prompting two townships to issue wind construction moratoriums, and leading two citizen opposition groups to form. Support or opposition to the Duke proposal transcends politics, income levels, residency, age, or any other conventional means to measure public opinion.

My own view is that the project, carefully and intelligently sited, is a good thing for the region. That’s an easy call for me to make given that I just spent three years as communications director for the Apollo Alliance, a proponent of “clean energy, good jobs,” and the U.S. Climate Action Network, which is convinced about the science of climate change. It’s clear to me that wind, solar, nuclear and other non-fossil fueled  energy sources represent a sound response to the warming earth. I also am convinced that the new public and private revenue that the project generates is a plus for families, job growth, and local governments.

But my experience seeking to site new renewable energy projects in this region, and the entirely unscientific poll I’ve conducted with friends and neighbors in Benzie and Manistee counties, indicates to me that Duke will be lucky to build one new turbine.

Resistance is High
With the exception of landowners who seek to gain $20,000 or more a year in lease payments for every wind turbine sited on their ground, the resistance to the towers is powerful. They are seen as too big, too loud, too intrusive, and too much of a threat to property values and this region’s small town way of life. Moreover the people I know, including myself, who view the wind power project as an important step to leverage the new energy markets of the 21st century, harvesting new public and private income and cleaner energy, are not likely to jump into the policy and advocacy ring.

My involvement, for instance, is likely to solely focus on reporting new developments. The narrative of Duke’s proposal, whether they succeed or not, is a story about this region and this country.

Last week, following my “Afraid of the Wind” post, I received several messages from two smart friends who have differing views of the Gail Windpower Project.

Two Lawyers, Two Views
Jim Olson, a friend who was raised in Traverse City, now lives up the road in Honor, and is routinely recognized by his peers as one of the country’s best environmental lawyers, supports wind energy, but is reserving judgment on the Gail wind project.

“I support wind energy in our region, including the places where the wind is, the coastal areas,” he writes. “This does not mean I support Duke Energy’s project as proposed.  To date, I do not and will not until I see more of whether and how Duke Energy will work with local landowners, communities, and those from whom they are leasing the location to exploit the wind.  In addition, I see wind as a commons, in which all should share in some way. So I’m still thinking through what this looks like with the large, centralized corporate, big wind turbine model.

“As I said in my emails and elsewhere, I prefer a lower more appropriate wind turbine/ or wind generation in our region, including community wind projects and I believe Congress and our state legislature must provide an equivalent or even playing field through tax incentives for all of us, not just Duke or big energy.

“The dilemma for some about this project is the lack of subsidies and legal structure for alternative wind energy projects, such as community, lower scale, and residential,” Jim wrote. ” To be sure there are some tax breaks for residential and others businesses, but little structure for community smaller call electrical utility wind energy operations.”

“Under current tax, financial, and legal conditions it is next to impossible for these alternatives to make much headway,” Jim continued.  “Hence, the country, and communities like Arcadia/Frankfort are faced with either “yes” or “no” in participating in the nation’s commitment, an absolutely necessary one, to renewable wind energy – energy independence, non-fossil fuels, mitigation of climate change effects that undoubtedly will occur and worsen if nothing is done.

“So we need to support wind turbines,” Jim added. ” This is because of climate change and because there are significant tax subsidies that make them real; but the local area accepting the effects from large scale operations, like Duke’s, must receive open-minded measures that minimize impacts, address land use, and level the playing field, sort of speak, in the social justice sense, due to lack of options and alternatives.

“The other thing I’ve been thinking about is the cross-effects of competing subsidies for wind turbine versus unconventional fossil fuel development in the west.  Clearly, these subsidies, along with any for so-called “clean coal” have to go or be reduced, which is a political impossibility it seems, for now anyway. Otherwise, Duke simply takes subsidies for all, including wind, and uses those major economic cash inflows to keep burning coal and other fossil fuels.”

Arcadia’s Friend
Tom Carr, a friend who owns a lovely home in Arcadia Township, and a lawyer whose family has summered along the northern coast of Lake Michigan here for generations, sent a thoughtful essay encompassing his opposition. “The likelihood is that the vast majority of Arcadia residents and visitors would support harnessing wind energy if it could be done economically and without significant “collateral damage” to the local environment.”

Tom wrote: “I am a 3rd generation property owner in Northwestern Lower Michigan, my grandfather having begun coming to the area in 1920 or so.  My views are those of my own family, my brother, my sister, our 9 adult children and their families.  Of that group, 6 own property on the lakefront or overlooking Arcadia.  I believe my thoughts mirror those of the vast majority of property owners in and visitors to Arcadia Township.

“The reality is that “large scale operations” of any kind don’t belong in these areas, whether wind farms or hog farms.

“While our nation may need to have a commitment to renewable energy, that doesn’t necessarily mean that as a nation we have to have an “absolutely necessary” commitment to renewable wind energy (or, necessarily, any commitment to wind energy), versus to solar energy, nuclear energy, or other alternatives to carbon based energy sources, or that any such commitment is so important as to diminish to the status of petty irritants the collateral damage than may occur to areas in which renewable energy projects are located.

“It may be possible to identify relatively remote areas of Arcadia, Blaine, Pleasanton and Joyfield Townships where placement of 112, 495-foot-high industrial wind turbines is feasible.  However, there is no place for such installations in the “valley” of Arcadia or on the surrounding ridge lines.

“Perhaps the turbines can be located in remote areas of the Townships, so as to significantly alleviate or eliminate altogether the aesthetic, health, tourism and support services and blade flicker issues.  Even if that is the case, though, as conditions precedent to commencing construction, Duke should be required to compensate adjoining property owners for diminution in their property values and provide surety for the cost of removal and restoration.

“I am part of an extended family that has enjoyed the area for more than 90 years, has major emotional and financial commitments to it, wants to see the beauty, serenity, and way of life continue unabated. I feel no more obligation to put any of what I  —  and, for example, my siblings and the 9 families in the next generation of the Carr clan  —  value in Arcadia at risk to support “our nation’s commitment . . . to renewable wind energy” than I believe that residents of the Grand Traverse region would if the project were to be sited on Old Mission Peninsula or any of us would were it to be sited on the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

“To the contrary, I will work others to see that the project does not impinge upon our valley or the surrounding ridge lines, and will happily support like-minded people in the other affected townships.”

— Keith Schneider

Afraid of the Wind


Earlier this month, on a snowy afternoon, the newly renovated Garden Theater held the largest crowd I’ve ever seen indoors in the small Lake Michigan coastal town of Frankfort, with the exception of girls and boys basketball games. On tap that day was a polemical documentary film, “Windfall.” Two groups of citizen activists held the screening to build civic momentum in opposition to a good-sized utility-scale windfarm proposed for Benzie and Manistee counties.

Afterwards the big crowd, composed principally of local residents, many of whom I have known for years, heard from Ray Franz, the newly-elected Republican state House Representative, and from Elizabeth Wheatley, an assistant professor of sociology at Grand Valley State University in Allendale.

The film and the post-screening remarks by Franz and Wheatley also were unrelentingly critical. Franz announced his intention to campaign for dismantling the state energy tax credits, state renewable energy standards, and other public investments and policies that attracted Duke Energy to consider building 112 utility-scale wind turbines in our beautiful and gusty corner of the country. He essentially said such measures were a waste and an overreach by government to influence free markets. Wheatley described attending the first-ever international symposium on the health effects of wind power, held in Ontario in October. She reported, based on anecdotal evidence she collected, that low-level sound waves from wind turbines could cause spontaneous abortions in farm animals.

I’ll be writing about the fate of Duke Energy’s $360 million proposed clean energy investment in future postings. For background, Glenn Puit of the Michigan Land Use Institute just posted a first-rate assessment of the project and the issues. Jim Dulzo, the Institute’s managing editor, is readying an online report for Sunday that is meant to clarify some of the science related to wind turbines and health effects.

More significant to me is what that January 16 event illustrates about the condition of our community, and in a larger sense,  our country. Stripped to its core, the meaning of that event is this: We’re afraid of the wind.

I’ve spent a career documenting in precise detail the consequences, unintended and otherwise, of technology scaled up and applied across industrial sectors. In March, 1979 I covered the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, watching as General Public Utilities engineers vented radioactive gases to prevent a hydrogen-fueled explosion that could have torn the top off the melted reactor’s containment vessel.

Ten years later I was in Valdez, Alaska, reporting on a drunken Exxon captain who’d been asleep when the bottom of his tanker was ripped open on a reef that every sea captain on Earth knew was there and had been studiously able to avoid. The rest of that assignment, and two more to Alaska, focused on the aquatic effects of crude oil in cold maritime environments, and the cultural fracturings all that oil prompted in Cordova and the other fishing villages of Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

Fifteen years after that I took clear note of the changes in northern Michigan’s snow sports industry as a result of warming temperature. And four years later reported on the 12-year drought in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin, the nation’s pimary food-growing region, where entire farm sectors were being put out of business by the most visible example of the effects of climate change in any industrial nation.

In between all of this my pen, notebook, now laptop computer and IPhone, traversed the various risk-benefit, economic, scientific, and political experts, the grassroots activist offices, corporate suites, and major media newsrooms that form the basic geography of vigorous environmental dispute in the U.S. I’ve explored in too many published words to remember, as well as broadcast interviews and public speeches the gathered facts about the toxicity of farm chemicals, the wisdom of introducing genetically-engineered organisms into the environment, the safety of burying radioactive wastes in underground dumps in New Mexico and Nevada, the hazards of nuclear weapons production and disposal, the cost and risks of incinerating dioxin-contaminated wastes, just to name a few.

The decades of the late 20th century and the earliest years of the 21st that formed the heart of my career were largely defined by the central idea of American environmentalism. The industrial world was a danger to air, water, land, wild creatures and people. But sound law, effective regulation, civic activism, and strong reporting could be applied to substantially reduce the risk. America, in short, showed itself capable of mitigating harm, cleaning up pollution, and preserving the wild places that supported the nation’s natural diversity. I have lived for 20 years in northwest Michigan, a clean and beautiful place that proved the effectiveness and value of these ideas.

I just never thought we’d be afraid of the wind.

More than three years ago my work shifted to a new path fostered by the understanding that climate change, national security risks, and the nation’s crying need for innovation to spark job growth represented a remarkable opportunity for environmentalism. One of the most important solutions for the warming planet, oil-related wars, and new jobs was pursuing clean energy development here at home. Nature offered an answer in unlimited quantities of energy from the sun, the wind, the earth (geothermal), and from converting plants to fuel. Applying our intelligence to harvest these sources, including producing cars that didn’t need oil-based fuels, represented a much safer way of conducting our affairs.

The basic construct of a transition to new energy sources seems sound. By no means, though, are Americans convinced about the benefits or the risks. As I noted in an earlier post this week, Republicans are suspicious of the science of climate change and ideologically opposed to public investment in clean energy. Grassroots activists are resisting construction of clean energy projects of scale all over the country and especially here in Michigan. Most everybody else is hardly paying attention, driven instead by concerns about job security, falling incomes, the price of gasoline, their liberal neighbors, their conservative neighbors, China, terrorism, you name it.

Boiled down, the country is expressing its fear of the future. Fear is the dominant American emotion of our time. Fear could halt a major clean energy investment in my home county and has already done so in many others across the country.

How is it that a nation so fearless that it put a man on the moon, built an interstate highway system, protected civil rights and women’s rights and gay rights, made industrial workers the highest paid on Earth, instituted an environmental protection program that grew the economy eight-fold, strengthened its great universities, and elected a black president has become immobilized? How is it that we’ve become afraid of the wind?

— 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

Blocking Wood Biomass, Blocking Coal in Michigan — Does it Make Sense?


Eartha Jane Melzer, one of the reporters in Michigan whose work merits close attention, posted a piece a week ago on Michigan Messenger that described the legal work the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council are doing to block a big new coal-fired power plant in Bay City.

Here is one of the important events associated with the transition to the clean energy economy. On one hand environmental organizations are pursuing legal suits and other actions in and out of Michigan to block new coal-fired utilities. More than 100 new coal-fired plant proposals have been halted, according to the Sierra Club. Last year at the Democratic National Convention I had a chance to speak to Carl Pope, then the Club’s executive director. He confirmed my sense that the Beyond Coal campaign was the most successful grassroots organizing project in the Sierra Club’s 118-year history.

That’s a good thing for the planet and the advent of the transition away from polluting, expensive, and obsolete fossil fuel.

On the other hand citizen groups, NIMBY’s, and other local advocates have joined with a number of grassroots environmental organizations around the nation, including one in Traverse City, and are seeking to block important clean and renewable alternatives. I’ve been writing about the grassroots push back here on Mode Shift. I became interested — full disclosure — after Traverse City Light & Power asked me to help them design and execute a public information and engagement program to enable citizens to help choose an appropriate renewable energy path.

I’ve found that all of the clean energy alternatives are under pressure — wind, solar, geothermal, transmission lines, and biomass here in Michigan. Even efforts to improve energy efficiency are having a hard time being implemented in communities. The WSJ wrote a piece about that earlier this year from Boulder, Colo.

For the moment and the foreseeable future utilities in Michigan and the Midwest have five choices to supply baseload energy — the kind that runs 24/7, 365, which is not yet available with wind and solar. They have coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear, and wood biomass.

In almost every case in which alternatives are under challenge, Traverse City included, the default position for utilities is more coal or more natural gas. Efficiency and conservation gets you part of the way to a solution, but only part of the way. Power is still needed for families and businesses and industry.

The Traverse City utility has bought wind, bought landfill gas, investigated solar, and proposes to build a state of the art, clean-burning (much cleaner than coal), efficient combined heat and power, right-scaled (10 mw), home-grown (fits the region’s move to local foods, local regional land use and transportation plan), gasification wood biomass plant fueled by waste wood from Michigan’s timber and forest industry. It would employ 20 to manage the plant and 20 involved in supplying fuel. Among the array of available alternatives to Michigan’s coal-fired power plants, a state-of-the-art plant that burns wood at small scale seems to me to be a prudent way to proceed.

I recognize this is tough stuff. In my career as a grassroots environmental advocate, and founder and former executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, when we got in the way of a Wal-Mart (Charlevoix, early 2000s,) the region retained a wetland and an intact downtown business center. When we replaced bypasses in Petoskey and Traverse City, we got back intact wild rivers, forests, and land use and transportation plans designed to foster more compact and prosperous communities. When we helped kill proposals to drill for natural gas and oil along the Lake Michigan and Lake Huron shorelines, we preserved some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

When grassroots environmental organizations oppose a right-scaled, local, state-of-the-art, clean-burning wood biomass plant their “win” is no victory at all. If they succeed we all get more coal, likely from the same new plants that their major environmental organization brothers are trying to block.

— Keith Schneider