Battle Over Bowers Wind: A case study in wind turbine NIMBYism

Why would any rational person or group actively lobby against a project that generates clean electricity from thin air while creating jobs and sending cheques to landowners and municipalities?

That’s a great question.

Local opposition has tanked many renewable energy projects, including the $100 million (USD) Bowers Wind development in rural, Maine—Bowers Mountain. The 16 turbine project by First Wind (now SunEdison) would have generated enough electricity for 25,000 homes and provided royalties for local government.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection denied the proposed project as it would have “[compromised] views from a scenic resource of state or national significance”, of which several nearby lakes are classified as. First Wind appealed the decision and a citizen Board of Environmental Protection ruled 4-1 against the the appeal.

Film-maker Roger Smith, affiliated with the Salt Institute, documented the dispute by interviewing local proponents and opponents of Bowers Wind and recently picked up the 2015 Yale Environment 360 Video Contest award for his work. The film (below, duration: ~10 minutes) highlights the lives entangled with the scuttled wind initiative; personal interviews with local outfitters, residents, and town administrators—all of whom have strong opinions on turbines in their back yard.

What is NIMBYism?

NIMBY is an acronym that stands for “Not In My Back Yard”, which, according the to Berkeley Daily Planet, has its origins in late 1970s Upstate New York. Here, a local homeowner’s association banded together to fight an incoming petrochemical facility in their neighbourhood. Since then, “NIMBYism” has been used to describe local opposition to plans or projects and has often been used a rhetorical tool by a project proponent.

From nuclear waste facilities to dangerous pipelines, NIMBY activities can grind regulatory proceedings to a halt or outright stop specific developments. However, as project supporters use the NIMBY label against the opposition, local activists and their allies might prefer a different label: concerned citizens or residents opposing X, Y, or Z. And, to be sure, these folks come from both sides of the political spectrum.

Wind turbine NIMBYism

It’s one thing to oppose energy projects that inflict disproportionate costs on certain groups while not sharing the upside, but it’s quite another to block seemingly win-win-win concepts like wind turbines.

Clean energy? Check. Economic demand and a willing developer? Check. Local economic benefits? Check.

As with most wind developments, opposition against Bowers Wind coalesced on the visual appearance of large turbines (over 100 metres tall). Personally, I think wind turbines are graceful, a sign of progress and harmony with nature. However, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and, in the case of Bowers Wind, hunting and outfitting guides opposed the project on the grounds that the appearance of of the lakes and mountains would be disrupted by towers and swooping blades.

Actually, if you watch the documentary, it seems that the outfitters are mostly concerned about their customer’s perceptions—they’re afraid they’ll lose business as hunters and fisherman shop elsewhere. It’s interesting that the outfitters use the language of environmental activists in that they refer to First Wind as “industry”. It’s hard to imagine a wind energy company being lumped into a somewhat pejorative category that’s usually reserved for fossil fuel extractors and shippers. For what it’s worth, CleanTechnica has an interesting post that spells out nine different types of anti-renewables NIMBYists.

Media war

A glance at the websites of two of the principal opposition groups, the Partnership for the Preservation of the Downeast Lakes Watershed (PPDLW) and Friends of Maine’s Mountains, yields some interesting information. The groups throw every argument against wind energy: from claiming it has little economic basis without tax credits to refuting RE carbon savings to citing that wind won’t replace fossil fuels. PPDLW’s website has a wind farm photo gallery where a quarter of the wind turbines pictured are in flames. The group even goes as far as to market a fiction book called “Killing Maine“, which pits the protagonist against a corrupt wind industry that bribes state politicians and employs assassins for its own ends.  

Towards a solution

While a prescription for public approval in the face of such a broad—though I suspect, quite shallow—opposition might seem daunting, resolution lies with sharing and/or communicating the benefits. One wonders if First Wind could have inoculated against the concerns of specific groups, like the outfitters, by entering into a dialogue with individual opponents.

Why do the outfitters think that turbines will hurt business? Would a survey of the perceptions and preferences of hunters and fishers shed some light on the problem. What sort of experience do hunters and fishers really look for when they head to the outdoors? Is it really one without artificial intrusions like wind turbines? The road infrastructure required to make travel to outfitting lodges possible is both extensive and unnatural.

For many of the outdoor enthusiasts I know (including hunters and fishers), conservation and living within ecological carrying capacity is a strong principle. One could make a strong argument that clean energy helps to preserve biodiversity and forest and watershed health. Forget climate change, shifting from coal, which Maine admittedly doesn’t have much of, to wind could provide real benefits for regional ecosystems.

Ultimately, the argument for wind turbines providing a global environmental good may not hold a lot of sway. In that case it’s important to make concessions or share benefits to the locals. Surely, wind royalties for local government would lead to improved infrastructure and local economic development that would benefit both the outfitters and their customers. If not, diverting some revenue into grants and conservation efforts might be persuasive in diffusing NIMBYism in this case.

The long game, however, resides in a cultural transition into accepting new technologies and vistas. “Natural landscapes” have been under transformation for thousands of years and are highly cultivated. Like bridges, canals, reservoirs, farmland, and cities dotting the horizon, not to mention curated forests and other so-called natural habitats, wind turbines are here to stay.

Images (Flickr): valard

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