When my travel-heavy schedule permits, I try to show up at the meetings for my town's Renewable Energy Committee. They're usually a quiet affair, as the committee is a small group of volunteers who help the town assembly look into issues like energy efficiency improvements to the schools, some renewable energy opportunities, streetlight replacements, etc.
So I was pretty surprised to show up last night to find that instead of the usual four-person meeting, there was a packed room of around 20. Why? Because of recent local newspaper articles suggesting that the REC was about to put up a wind turbine at the town's middle school.
I sat back and just watched, and it was a fascinating look at the tensions that naturally result from efforts to put up local wind projects, particularly here in New England. To everyone's credit, it was a constructive and respectful conversation, even though (judging from the shaky voices and hands of some folks making comments) emotions were running high. But instead of a fight, it was a very good open airing of facts and concerns all around, aided in large part by the fact that there was no real decision point on the project, which is far from being recommended to the town assembly, much less approved.
But after having looked at a number of wind turbine and wind developer investment opportunities over the past few years, it was my first opportunity to actually sit in a room while one such town conversation was held.
The concerns raised were numerous.
What about examples from towns in Maine, in Illinois, and elsewhere, where people complain about noise, light flickering, and falling property values? In some of these cases, there have been lawsuits. Turns out that evaluating noise and flickering was a mandatory part of the feasibility study, which is still being reviewed. But such concerns are being treated seriously. "People are getting sick!" exclaimed one attendee, but that wasn't really addressed in the conversation except to note that health concerns were naturally also part of the feasibility study.
How big would the turbine be? The analyst had evaluated several options and recommended a 75-meter-tall model, said one member of the committee. "What is that in feet? Please use feet!" another attendee interjected. "It's big," acknowledged one of the committee members, "and that's something we're concerned about."
What's the payback period? Sixteen years, if it is done as a straight one-time investment of capital with no financing. One software salesman in the audience expressed incredulity that anything like that would be considered, since in the private sector people are looking for 18-month payback periods. And the committee agreed that a 16-year payback was pretty bad and not something they were interested in, but pointed out that there are potential financing options available that could result in lower-cost electricity from day one and would not necessarily require a capex/payback calculation -- all of which is still being learned about and thought through. The town simply may not have the wind resources to make it an attractive project, regardless of neighborhood concerns.
How much town money has already been spent on this? None. It's a volunteer committee and the feasibility study was paid for by the state.
In the end, everyone there had an opportunity to say their piece, and it was all within the context of this volunteer committee still digesting the feasibility study. For the most part, the concerns raised were valid ones that the committee was also wrestling with. I didn't hear any concerns that were strictly political or anti-green; in fact, the opposite was true -- some in the audience expressed strong support for the goals of the committee even while they were worried about this particular potential project. I thought it was a really fascinating look at wind project siting issues in local communities.
More broadly, NIMBY ('not in my backyard') issues are not going to go away in the U.S., nor should they just be dismissed as being uninformed or unimportant. These concerns expressed at the meeting last night were for the most part well-founded, thoughtful and understandable. Yet I've seen renewable energy proponents, entrepreneurs and investors sometimes failing to give NIMBYism enough consideration in their processes of idea creation and evaluation. Anyone hoping for a "tipping point" where Americans will eagerly welcome large renewable energy projects in their backyards is probably engaging in wishful thinking.