As Gulf Slick Spreads Environmental Movement Takes Unexpected Heat

Gulf Oil Spill

Paul Krugman, the Nobel Laureate economist,  Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for The New York Times, and friend of most things green wrote a piece over the weekend that should give environmentalists heartache. In a column about the big Gulf oil spill, Krugman described how the environmental movement has been steadily losing political momentum because it’s been so successful in scrubbing the skies and clearing the waters of the visible hazards of pollution. He also lays the blame for the movement’s diminishing influence on the persistent attacks of the right who constructed “a narrative in which advocates of strong environmental protection were either extremists — “eco-Nazis,” according to Rush Limbaugh — or effete liberal snobs trying to impose their aesthetic preferences on ordinary Americans.”

Krugman then adds this: “I’m sorry to say that the long effort to block construction of a wind farm off Cape Cod — which may finally be over thanks to the Obama administration — played right into that caricature.” Ouch!

For any reasoned environmental advocate, myself included, that is a warning sign of the damage to the movement’s credibility that is gradually unfolding as a result of the schism between national environmental leaders — strong advocates for clean energy investment and projects — and grassroots environmental organizations working so hard in more than 30 states to halt the projects in their communities.

The juxtaposition of an expanding environmental disaster in the Gulf — an event that unites all of environmentalism — with the grassroots push back on the available alternatives to fossil fuel has proven irresistible to some writers and prompted pleas of sanity from clean energy advocates and prominent environmentalists.

In a letter to the editor last week responding to a town councilor’s criticism regarding Cape Wind’s decision to purchase turbines from the German manufacturer Siemens, Barbara Hill, the executive director of Clean Power Now made this statement.

Back in 2003, GE had a 3.6-megawatt turbine it was ready to begin manufacturing in the U.S.; but the resistance in Massachusetts from the well-funded and politically connected opposition at that time, including the late Sen. Kennedy, Gov. Romney and the Barnstable Town Council, led it to move to a place that was wind friendly: China. The only offshore wind turbine manufacturers are overseas, because that is where the market is — as well as the national policies and subsidies to advance the industry and the associated jobs. And it doesn’t take nine years to get an offshore wind project fully permitted. Had opponents focused on a larger vision instead of their myopic view we would be the benefactors of all those jobs and economic opportunities.”

Bill McKibben, the author and environmentalist, also pleaded last year with local green organizers to consider the outcomes of their protest, which is to raise concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere steadily beyond the safe threshold of 350 ppm. “We are already well beyond 350 and accelerating rapidly in the wrong direction,” he wrote. “So when local efforts to delay or stop low-carbon energy projects come into conflict with the imperative to act urgently on global warming, they have to take second place. Because even if we win every other battle, if we lose 350, it won’t make any difference at all. You can “keep” every river and bay and lake and mountain and wilderness, but if the temperature goes up 3 degrees globally, it won’t matter. The fish that live there won’t be able to survive, the trees that anchor the landscape will die, the coral reefs will bleach and crumble. Whatever the particular part of the world that we’re each working on, it’s still a part of the world. Global warming is the whole thing.”

And Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki echoed that concern in an article last year. “I’m worried about the escalation of rhetoric on both sides,” said Suzuki. “Yes, it is urgent that we find ways to tackle the problems caused by fossil-fuel use and excessive energy consumption. And it is true that some opponents of technologies such as wind power are motivated more by NIMBY self-interest than science or true environmental concerns.”

— Keith Schneider

Diving Deep for Geothermal Energy Finds Acceptance and Political Heat on Surface

Geothermal Power

One of the potential success stories of clean energy development on private and federal lands in the West involves NV Energy, which announced in February that it will purchase 32 megawatts of renewable energy from a planned Central Nevada geothermal plant. The Ram Power Corporation is developing the Clayton Valley Geothermal Project, which is scheduled to begin construction in 2012.  It is one of five geothermal leases that Ram Power has acquired from the Bureau of Land Management in Esmeralda County, Nevada where the developer hopes to generate as much as 160 megawatts of electricity.

Talk about clean energy that is capable of generating baseload power without climate changing emissions and at prices competitive with wind or coal. But geothermal development is slow going. Projects are expensive, and often located in places off the high-transmission path. And in some states rich in geothermal resources, Hawaii in particular, the high temperature resources are either located in sensitive environments or close enough to existing communities that people just don’t want to go there. So Hawaii still burns a lot of oil for its electricity, though the state is moving aggressively to succeed in clean energy development.

Nevada, which produces 300 mw of geothermal power annually, is the number two geothermal energy producer in the country, behind California. It has more future geothermal energy in the planning stages than any other state, potentially 200 mw to come between 2012 and 2014.  Ormat Technologies, which has gained $13 million in Energy Department funding, is planning to build a geothermal plant capable of generating at least 40 mw of baseload power in Nevada’s Independence Valley. Construction could start in 2012. It also has bought into a geothermal project in Elko County, which it will develop in phases, the first of which calls for generating 16 mw.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who represents Nevada, has been a big help to the state’s geothermal industry, the result of $90 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which could eventually add 1,000 state jobs. But Nevada also has much more geothermal energy it is capable of producing, perhaps 3,000 more megawatts, the equivalent of three big coal-fired power plants. The rub is the cost — $12 billion — and that most of the geothermal resources in Nevada are located in the northern portion of the state, meaning a new transmission line would have to be developed in order to move power to the southern portion of the state. And as we reported earlier this week public resistance to new transmission lines can be fierce.

Oregon is expected to receive $40 million for geothermal development, according to Senator Ron Wyden. And California, which has 46 operating geothermal plants generating over 2,500 mw of electricity, more than any other state and second only to the Phillipines, will receive $23 million in  federal investment, according to the list of projects made public last year by the Energy Department.

Hawaii, though, has only one project on the list because it has one operating 25-30 mw plant — Puna Geothermal Venture — and no others. Reason: Public resistance in a state with bounteous volcanic and hot spring activity and lots of underground heat. But the location of the geothermal resources has stirred lots of opposition over development, including from the influential Rainforest Action Network. The plant’s operations, largely due to a blowout of a well in 1991, also has raised safety concerns. The current plant, initially developed in the early 198os and shut down, was modernized, enlarged, and started in 1993.

Hawaii still generates a sizable portion of its electricity with expensive oil. Despite proposals by geothermal development companies and active interest by the state to promote the technology, which state officials view as clean, renewable, and safe Hawaii continues to burn oil for power because citizens discourage geothermal as a ready alternative. Hawaii is busy promoting biofuels to replace diesel fuel for electric generating plants, and a new generating station is expected to receive its fuel from a biodiesel plant in Grays Harbor, Washington, that converts canola from Canada into fuel, and that just restarted operations after an explosion late last year.

— Keith Schneider


New Transmission Lines Invite Public Uproar in 7 States


On March 2 more than 60 residents of Canyon City, Idaho appeared at a public hearing to consider a new 500-kilovolt transmission line that might run through their county. Most weren’t happy about it. “They brought us in late and they haven’t fulfilled their public involvement responsibilities,” said Ken Holliday, a rancher.

The public concern that residents displayed about Idaho Power’s 250-foot corridor, and the 150-foot tall towers that would command its route, is a microcosm of the fierce resistance that citizens are mounting in Idaho now, but also in seven more states. Idaho Power abandoned another route along I-84 because of even stiffer citizen opposition.

In February 2009 President Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which included $10.9 billion to upgrade and modernize the electric transmission grid. The idea is to extend the grid to places it doesn’t reach now, and to make electric transmission much more efficient. The injection of federal funds has prompted a surge in proposals for new transmission construction projects. It’s also unnerved many communities because of the lands that would be disturbed and public concerns, none proven, that high energy transmission lines are a health hazard.

In Maryland earlier this month 80 people filled the Kemptown United Methodist Church in Frederick to express opposition to the Potomac Appalachian Transmission Highline, or PATH project. CAKES — Citizens Against the Kemptown Electric Substation – organized the meeting. Allegheny Power wants to build the substation near the end of a 275-mile, $1.8 billion joint project between Allegheny Energy and American Electric Power. The transmission line itself is the focus of an opposition campaign by the Sugarloaf Conservancy and other groups that view the line as unneeded, and an aesthetic intrusion.

In Minnesota, the a utility’s plan to build the Xcel Hiawatha powerline has run into a storm of public opposition, largely around potential health issues.

In New Jersey, PPL Electric Utilities in Pennsylvania and Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G) want to build 500-kilovolt transmission towers along an already existing path of smaller 230-kilovolt towers that run through Warren, Sussex and Morris Counties, ending in Roseland, Essex County.

The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities and Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission have approved the project, but the National Park Service must also agree because the $1.2 billion corridor and towers would affect the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, the Middle Delaware National Scenic and Recreational River, and the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.Citizens, led by local chapters of the Sierra Club, are fighting the proposal, citing what they say is a questionable need for the project, and that other solutions were available. Many opponents says the construction of the towers, as well as their long-term use, would negatively affect air quality, water quality, and the safety of the surrounding wildlife.

In New York state, environmental activists are closely monitoring developments around a proposal to build a 300-mile transmission line from Quebec to New York City that would be buried under Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. Transmission Developers Inc., a Toronto-based company, also is trying to build a 150-mile underwater transmission line from Maine to Boston that has generated significant public attention and concern.

Residents near Bowie, Texas are raising a ruckus about a proposed 345-kV electric transmission line crossing Montague County, and have asked that county’s commissioners for help. The proposed transmission line would be 135-150 miles long depending on the route approved by the Public Utilities Commission and covers eight counties. The new line is a response to the Texas Legislature’s directive in 2005 to expand wind power in the state, the largest generator of wind energy in the U.S.

And as I noted in yesterday’s post, reporting on opposition to big solar projects in the West, Los Angeles has dropped plans for a big transmission line to carry renewable from the desert to the city. The line prompted fierce opposition, which also resulted in cancellation of some renewable energy projects.

— Keith Schneider