NIMBYism Threatens Green Energy Projects and Consumer Welfare

Over the last few years, there has been a growing awareness among Americans that the U.S. needs to do more to meet its environmental commitments by diversifying its energy sector and investing more in renewable energy. New innovative technologies have opened the door to a wide range of options that would allow the U.S. to harness greater amounts of energy without harming the environment or requiring Americans to pay unreasonably high rates for electricity. Unfortunately, several obstacles stand in the way, and one of the biggest is NIMBYism.

NIMBY stands for “not in my backyard” and refers to local residents’ opposition to a proposed development in their area. However, the term can be applied to local opposition to a variety of different kinds of development, including energy projects, which some activists erroneously believe threaten the environment.

Like with any project, green energy projects require a certain amount of space to operate. This inevitably means an undisturbed piece of land somewhere will likely be developed. This is true regardless of whether the project is a hydroelectric dam, nuclear power plant, solar farm, or wind farm. The point is, for most Americans, the benefits far outweigh whatever minimal disruption to the environment occurs as a result of the project.

Unfortunately, this view is not shared by an increasing number of NIMBY activists whose unrealistic understanding of conservation are in direct conflict with America’s need for energy independence. Every year, these activists help block or stall numerous green energy projects that would help expand U.S. energy production and lower costs for consumers. Examples exist for nearly every form of renewable energy.

One recent example is the National Audubon Society’s decision to sue a California bay area county over its approval of a new wind turbine facility at Altamont Pass. Claiming the facility would be a hazard to migratory birds, the group opposes the project and would prefer that the existing 5,000 wind turbine farm also close. Other groups and local government have opposed wind farms on similar grounds. According to one estimate, 317 wind energy projects have been restricted or blocked by government entities since 2015.

NIMBYism has also impacted solar projects. In San Diego, residents of the town Jacumba Hot Springs, along with support from environmental groups, have filed a lawsuit against the developer of a new 604-acre solar project. The project would power 57,000 homes, provide residents $4 million in local community benefits, and set aside 435 acres of open space for wildlife. However, some residents are opposed to the plan because they fear it may drive away tourism and harm the environment. Other recent examples include actions by the Sierra Club to block a solar plant in Florida.

Sometimes NIMBY opposition also takes the form of demands to tear down existing energy facilities, usually hydroelectric dams or nuclear power plants. This type of opposition is particularly damaging to both the environment and U.S. energy production because it removes a steady source of energy for local communities that can lead to higher prices and grid instability.

For instance, in Washington several environmental groups have been fighting for years to remove four lower Snake River dams. They argue that the dams harm salmon migration and disrupt native ecosystems. However, they also produce a combined 3,000 megawatts of carbon free power that both experts and federal agencies warn cannot be easily replaced. In fact, local nonprofit Northwest River Partners estimates their removal would likely result in a 25% increase in electricity prices for residents. Similar demands have been made in other parts of the country as well. In Maine, conservation groups recently filed a lawsuit against the owner of several central dams, citing violations of the Endangered Species Act.

Nuclear power is also a common target. Just last year, NIMBY activists celebrated the closure of New York’s Indian Point Energy Center, a three-unit nuclear power plant that was responsible for producing 25% of all of New York City’s energy. Environmental groups claimed the nuclear plant was too close to the city and posed a danger to both inhabitants and the environment. However, experts point out that as a result of the closure, the city has had to construct three new natural gas plants that combined will generate only 90% of the total energy produced by Indian Point. In addition, New York is now unlikely to meet its climate goals and consumers will see higher energy prices. Other nuclear power plants face a similar future that could also raise prices including California’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant, which is scheduled to close in 2024.

It is clear that no form of green energy is free from the heavy scrutiny of NIMBY activists. This is a problem because there will always be tradeoffs to whatever type of energy is harnessed from the environment. American energy projects already face a range of obstacles including federal, state, and local laws, a cumbersome permitting process, and a fickle political environment that is sometimes openly hostile to certain forms of energy. The last thing these projects need is for NIMBYism to inhibit America’s progress towards achieving energy independence and burden the American consumer with higher energy prices.

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