Urban voters may like the idea of using more wind and solar energy, but the push for large-scale renewables is creating land-use conflicts in rural regions from Maryland to California and Ontario to Loch Ness.
Since 2015, more than 120 government entities in about two dozen states have moved to reject or restrict the land-devouring, subsidy-fueled sprawl of the wind industry.
The backlash continued last month when a judge in Maryland ruled that the possible benefits of a proposed 17-turbine project did "not justify or offset subjecting the local community to the adverse impacts that will result from the wind project's construction and operation." The judge's ruling probably spells the end of an eight-year battle that pitted local homeowners and Allegany County against the developer of the 60-megawatt project.
Objections to the encroachment of wind energy installations don't fit the environmentalists' narrative. The backlash undermines the claim — often repeated by climate activists such as 350.org founder Bill McKibben and Stanford engineering professor Mark Jacobson — that we can run our entire economy on nothing but energy from the wind and sun. Many of those same activists routinely demonize natural gas and hydraulic fracturing even though the physical footprint of gas production is far smaller than that of wind. Three years ago, the late David J.C. MacKay, then a professor at the University of Cambridge, calculated that wind energy requires about 700 times more land to produce the same amount of energy as a fracking site.
Rural residents are objecting to wind projects to protect their property values and viewsheds. They don't want to live next door to industrial-scale wind farms. They don't want to see the red-blinking lights atop the turbines, all night, every night for the rest of their lives. Nor do they want to be subjected to the audible and inaudible noise the turbines produce.
Even in California, which has mandated that 50% of the electricity sold in the state be produced from renewable energy sources by 2030, there is resistance to wind power. In 2015, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban wind turbines in L.A.'s unincorporated areas. At the hearing on the measure, then-Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said the skyscraper-sized turbines "create visual blight … [and] contradict the county's rural dark skies ordinance."
In New York, angry fishermen are suing to stop an offshore wind project that could be built in the heart of one of the best squid fisheries on the Eastern Seaboard. Three upstate counties — Erie, Orleans and Niagara — as well as the towns of Yates and Somerset, are fighting a proposed 200-megawatt project that aims to put dozens of turbines on the shores of Lake Ontario. As in California, New York has a "50 by 30" renewable-energy mandate.
Outside the U.S., about 90 towns in Ontario have declared themselves "unwilling hosts" to wind projects.In April 2016, a wind project near Scotland's famous Loch Ness was rejected by local authorities because of its potential negative effect on tourism. Poland and the German state of Bavaria have effectively banned wind turbines by implementing a rule that allows turbines to be located no closer than 10 times their height to homes or other sensitive areas.
The defeat of the Maryland wind project came as a relief to K. Darlene Park, a resident of Frostburg and the president of Allegany Neighbors & Citizens for Home Owners Rights. "We were up against an army of suits," she told me. "It's like a brick has been taken off our shoulders."Park's tiny group relied on volunteers and a budget of about $20,000 as it fought the turbines all the way to the state's public service commission.
Neither the communications director nor the CEO of the American Wind Energy Assn., which spends more than $20 million per year promoting wind power, would comment on the rural opposition to wind turbines. Their refusal isn't surprising. If the wind lobby — and their myriad allies at the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups — acknowledges turbines' negative effects on landscapes and rural quality of life, it would subvert their claims that wind energy is truly green.
Just as problematic for the industry's future: to increase wind-energy production to the levels needed to displace significant quantities of coal, oil and natural gas will require erecting more — and taller — turbines (new models reach to 700 feet). But the more turbines that get installed, and the taller they are, the more nearby residents are likely to object.
Wind energy simply requires too much territory. That means we can't rely on it for major cuts in emissions. Indeed, the more wind energy encroaches on small towns and suburbs, the more resistance it will face. That resistance will come from homeowners like Park who told me, "We feel this renewable energy push is an attack on rural America."
Robert Bryce is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author, most recently, of "Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong."