A few weeks ago, I ran into a prominent employee of the Sierra Club who declared something to the effect of “we have to quit using coal, oil, and natural gas.” That, of course, is the official dogma of America’s “largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization.” The group says it is “committed to eliminating the use of fossil fuels, including coal, natural gas, and oil, as soon as possible. We must replace all fossil fuels with clean renewable energy, efficiency, and conservation.”
This same Sierra Clubber also expressed dismay about the difficulty of siting big renewable-energy projects and how they are being hindered by “NIMBYism.” Upon hearing this, I quickly interjected that I loathe that term, which, of course, is short for “not in my backyard.” I explained that everyone, everywhere, cares about what happens in their neighborhood, even out there in “flyover country” – that is, the places that are far away from the comfy confines of places like San Francisco, Princeton, Stanford, and other locales where fantasies about an all-renewable economy seem to proliferate.
I went on to introduce myself and explained that I have been tracking the issue of land use and renewables for many years. I explained that rural residents are objecting to wind projects because they don’t want to see the red-blinking lights atop those 50- or 60-story-high wind turbines, all night, every night, for the rest of their lives. They are also concerned — and rightly so — about the deleterious health effects of noise from the turbines, sleep disturbance, and potential decrease in their property values. I followed up by emailing this person — at their Sierra Club email address — a link to my April report for the Center of the American Experiment, “Not In Our Backyard,” which documents the widespread opposition to Big Wind and Big Solar in rural America. I included a link to the Renewable Energy Rejection Database. That database, which I have been maintaining myself, now lists 317 local communities or government entities from Maine to Hawaii, that have rejected or restricted wind projects in the US since 2015.
I didn’t get a reply. So I resent the email. Again, no reply.
The Sierra Clubber’s silence speaks volumes. The San Francisco-based group doesn’t want you to know about the surging opposition to Big Wind — or the growing hostility to Big Solar — in places like Iowa, Virginia, Nevada, Montana, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. Why not? Because those myriad rejections and restrictions are proof that land-use conflicts are the binding constraint on the expansion of renewable energy development in the U.S.
The Sierra Club is so eager to downplay the land-use issue that last week, it published an article in its flagship magazine, Sierra, with the headline “The NIMBY Threat to Renewable Energy.” The article focuses on Vermont, where Big Wind has been getting a hostile reception for years. In fact, last year, the state’s only pending wind project, which had just one wind turbine, was withdrawn after facing fierce opposition. The article doesn’t provide much historical context on Vermont. It ignores the 2015 vote in the town of Irasburg, where locals rejected, by a tally of 274-9, a proposed five-megawatt wind project that was to be built near their town. That same year, as I reported in the Wall Street Journal in an article published in 2016, residents in the town of Swanton rejected a seven-turbine wind project proposed to be built atop nearby Rocky Ridge. The tally: 731 votes against, 160 in favor.
None of that was in the Sierra article. Instead, the nut of the article said that while “some opposition to renewable energy projects is based on legitimate concerns…you can’t underestimate the power of people not wanting to look at something and having the means to make the problem go away.” Yes, that pesky problem of people not wanting to look at giant industrial energy facilities in their neighborhoods. How dare them.
The Sierra Club doesn’t want you to know about the surging opposition to renewables because it decimates their claim that we can live without hydrocarbons and nuclear energy and instead run our economy solely on unicorn farts and fairy dust, oops, I mean solely on solar and wind energy.
The graphic above shows the number of restrictions and rejections since 2015. Among this year’s rejections of Big Wind was the unanimous vote in June by the Shasta County Planning Commission to reject the proposed 216-megawatt Fountain Wind project, which aimed to put up to 71 turbines standing 679 feet high near the town of Burney.
Rather than report on the rejection in Shasta County, which sits about 250 miles north of San Francisco, Sierra magazine sent their writer all the way to Vermont. Call it NIMBY journalism. After all, why cover land-use conflicts in California when you can write about Vermont’s “rolling hills, organic farms, roadside maple syrup stands, and white clapboard churches on quaint town squares”?
The Sierra Club doesn’t want you to know about the rejection of the Fountain Wind project in Shasta County because that project provides another example of one of Big Wind’s favorite tactics: put the turbines where rich people ain’t.
Wind projects are never going to be built in places like Marin, Malibu, or Montauk. Folks in those places can afford to hire powerful lawyers and lobbyists. Instead, Big Wind always aims their projects at low-income counties where the opponents don’t have as much money to fight back. That’s true of Shasta County. Of the 58 counties in California, Shasta County ranks 46th in median household income. According to the Census Bureau, the median household income in Shasta County is about $54,700. That’s far less than the California average of about $75,200.
The Sierra Club doesn’t want you to know about the surge in land-use conflicts because those conflicts are occurring at the same time the Biden administration is pushing a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure package that includes tens of billions of dollars in new subsidies for wind and solar energy as well as the construction of thousands of miles of high-voltage transmission lines to accommodate more renewables.
The Sierra Club doesn’t want you to know about the surging opposition to renewables because if they acknowledge that land-use conflicts are already hindering or stopping the expansion of renewable projects, particularly in California, what do they have left to sell? The same Sierra Clubber told me the group is a “campaigning organization.” Thus, if America’s biggest environmental group were to acknowledge that their campaigns – against coal, nuclear, natural gas, and oil – were all based on an obese prevarication, it wouldn’t have anything to campaign about.
The Sierra Club doesn’t want you to know that in New York, Big Wind is so unpopular — and so many towns and counties have defeated proposed wind projects — that under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state pushed through a regulation known as Section 94-c that gives Albany bureaucrats the authority to override the objections of local communities and issue permits for large renewable projects. In June, a group of local communities and environmental groups sued the state saying that the new regulation violates the home rule authority of towns and that the state was, in effect, colluding with Big Wind and Big Solar developers to ram through new renewable projects.
John Riggi, a town councilman in Yates, New York, one of the municipalities suing the state, told me a few months ago that Yates and others “are fighting to keep our lands free from environmentally destructive, culture killing and unwanted industrial renewable energy projects.”
The Sierra Club doesn’t want you to know that rural Americans and towns are fighting back because wind turbines create noise pollution. That pollution, which includes infrasound and low-frequency noise, can cause sleep disturbance in humans. For instance, in March the select board in Scituate, Massachusetts, ordered a wind turbine in the coastal town to be shut down at night from mid-May to mid-October. The problem, according to the Boston Globe: complaints from neighbors who say “they can’t sleep at night because of noise” the wind turbine makes.
In April, the planning board in Foster, Rhode Island, voted 5-1 to ban wind turbines in the town. The board took action after hearing from residents of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, who had turbines built near their homes. The Valley Breeze newspaper reported that Portsmouth residents warned the board “about their experiences, complaining about constant noise disturbances, vibrations, and loss in home values from turbines in their neighborhood.”
The Sierra Club doesn’t want you to know that the negative health effects related to noise pollution from wind turbines have been known for more than a decade and that back in 2009, the Minnesota Department of Health found that sleeplessness and headaches are the most common complaints about wind farms from nearby residents.
The Sierra Club doesn’t want you to know about people like Julie Kuntz, a clinical pharmacist who farms in Worth County, Iowa, and has been fighting big renewable projects in her area for years. In April, in response to citizens’ concerns, the Worth County Board of Supervisors passed a temporary moratorium on new wind projects that expires in July 2022.
I met Kuntz last month in the town of Albert Lea, Minnesota, during an event sponsored by the Center of the American Experiment to discuss my “Not In Our Backyard” report. I talked to her again by phone this morning. “I’m a fifth-generation Iowa farm girl,” Kuntz told me. “My parents raised me on a century farm that’s three miles from where I live now. These are my people. This is my area. I’m going to fight to preserve it.”
The Sierra Club doesn’t want you to know that in the last three months alone, large solar projects in Pennsylvania, Montana, and Nevada have been rejected or withdrawn due to local opposition. In June, Mount Joy Township supervisors rejected a plan for a 1,000-acre solar project proposed by Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources
In July, a permit for a 1,600-acre solar project was denied by the Butte-Silver Bow Zoning Board by a vote of 5-0. According to the Montana Standard, the board members “cited the pure size of the array, saying it would undeniably change the landscape” of the local region and that “the public’s strong opposition carried weight.” Also in July, a proposed 850-megawatt project that aimed to cover 14 square miles of the desert north of Las Vegas with solar panels was pulled after drawing “opposition from naturalists and environmentalists, recreation enthusiasts, tribal groups, and local residents for its potential impact on the area.”
In Wisconsin, local residents in Dane County are fighting the proposed 300-megawatt Koshkonong Solar Center, which is being promoted by Chicago-based Invenergy, one of the world’s largest renewable-energy developers. In Virginia, a group called Citizens for Responsible Solar is fighting three large projects that aim to pave thousands of acres near the town of Culpeper with solar panels.
I could list many more of the fights that are raging around the country to underscore the point that land-use conflicts are the limiting factor in the growth of renewables. I could also talk about the problem of solid waste disposal and the fact that some 720,000 tons of wind turbine blades are expected to end up in U.S. landfills over the next 20 years.
But I’ll end with one more example of the scale problem with renewables, this one from California. In March, the California Energy Commission issued a report on “how the state’s electricity system can become carbon free by 2045.” Achieving that goal, according to the report, will require adding new renewable capacity “at a record-breaking rate for the next 25 years. On average, the state may need to build up to 6 gigawatts of new renewable and storage resources annually. By comparison over the last decade, the state has built on average 1 GW of utility solar and 300 megawatts of wind per year.”
Given the rejection of the wind project in Shasta County in June and the fact that California has about the same amount of wind-energy capacity today (about 6,000 megawatts) as it did in 2013, the commission’s scenarios about six-fold increases in annual deployment of renewable capacity are nothing more than wishful thinking.
But then, the Sierra Club doesn’t want you to know about that, either.