Renewable Energy Has a NIMBY Problem

Renewable Energy Has a NIMBY Problem

After passing the Inflation Reduction Act, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), with the support of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), tried to pass a permitting-reform bill that could make it cheaper, faster, and easier to build energy infrastructure, including necessary green infrastructure. But the bill was killed by a coalition of Republicans who flip-flopped on the issue, and progressive Democrats. The problem that the bill aimed to address is the often ferocious lobbying, protests, red tape and litigation that is often unleashed by community groups and activists who oppose projects for a myriad of reasons -- from ideology to the demands of those who live near potential development projects, whether it’s offshore wind on the coast or needed transmission lines in the interior of the country.

While disparate grassroots movements are often grouped together under the heading of "community opposition,” there were two distinct strands of public resistance to the new permitting reform bill.

MSNBC: Manchin | 'We Have A Great Opportunity' On Energy Permitting Bill, September 26, 2022.

Senator Joe Manchin: Manchin Speaks from the Senate Floor on Permitting Reform, September 20, 2022.

C-SPAN: Sen. Manchin | GOP opposing energy permit reform is 'revenge politics,' September 20, 2022.

But there's a second group opposing energy projects and depending on exhausting legal delays whose motivations are quite different. This group which fears permitting reform isn't fighting fossil fuel projects, but rather energy expansion altogether. These communities, which tend to be higher-income, sometimes identify as environmentalists in the tradition of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, arguing that safeguarding precious ecosystems requires stopping development at all costs. Others have slowed offshore wind development because it threatened the view from coastal homes in upper income areas. But today, preventing environmental destruction from climate change will require development, and lots of it -- quickly. We can't build a smart grid for clean energy or deploy massive amounts of solar and wind in time if the permitting process is endless and projects die under the weight of litigation. These NIMBYs oppose any changes in their neighborhoods, without realizing that the status quo is damaging and will alter their local communities in horrific ways over time.

Forbes: How Nimbyism Is Holding Back Transition To Clean Energy, September 27, 2022.

WSJ: Why Environmentalists Are Fighting Renewable Energy Development, August 23, 2022.

CNBC: What's Causing Power Outages In The US, August 12, 2022.

Why This Matters

While the permitting reform bill -- widely acknowledged to be a reward for Manchin after he made possible passage of the Inflation Reduction Act -- may be imperfect, rapidly increasing clean energy capacity is a crucial part of lowering global emissions to avoid the worst effects of global warming. According to a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, fossil fuels still supply 80% of global energy even though wind, solar, and batteries have become cheaper and more effective. Meanwhile, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that the US must increase clean energy transmission capacity by 60% to stay on track to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Clean energy can have economic benefits as well -- jobs in the energy sector increased by 4% between 2020 and 2021, outpacing overall US employment rates.

Realizing the potential of clean energy requires a streamlining of the permitting process. "The United States cannot reach its emissions goals, be a climate leader, or ensure that our energy is clean, affordable, reliable, and secure without permitting reform,” Josh Freed, Senior Vice President for Climate and Energy at the Washington, DC-based think tank Third Way, told Grist.

World Economic Forum: Joe Manchin | We Have Got To Accelerate The Permitting Process, May 23, 2022.

Reuters: Creaky US power grid threatens clean-energy progress, May 12, 2022.

60 Minutes: How secure is America’s electric grid?, February 27, 2022.

WW0: Creating Jobs While Decarbonizing the US Economy, June 28, 2022.

Pressing Forward

Localized battles over new renewable projects are a huge hurdle to expanding clean energy nationwide. The Guardian reports: "Over the past year, solar projects in Ohio, Kentucky and Nevada have all been delayed or sunk by irked local people. Ordinances restricting solar, wind and other renewable energy facilities have been passed in 31 states.”

In Pulaski, IN, for example, one of the biggest solar projects in development -- the appropriately named Mammoth Project -- is facing backlash from locals who say the project takes up good land that could be used to farm.

Some environmental development has succeeded in spite of local opposition. For example, Vineyard Wind -- a large offshore wind farm off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard -- originally faced blowback from residents, fueled by disinformation from right-wing think tanks. While it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the first utility-scale offshore wind farm in the nation, the project is moving forward, and could be a major boon to the nation’s clean energy capacity.

CBS (Canada): Oil-rich Texas sees clean energy boom, March 25, 2022.

WTVR CBS6: Wind turbines produced more electricity than coal and nuclear energy for the 1st time in the US, April 22, 2022.

CBS Boston: First Major U.S. Offshore Wind Farm Set To Be Built Off Martha's Vineyard, April 22, 2021.

Construction Review: Vineyard Wind 1, the Largest Offshore Wind Farm Project in the USA, August 2, 2022.