Friday, January 8, 2010

NIMBY Revisited:

Response to a Reader Comment

Rod Adams makes a good point in his comment about a statement in my last December posting. I was reacting to the proposed legislation that would restrict the development of renewable energy technologies in the Mojave Desert. I agree with Rod that I did make an overly broad statement. Furthermore, he is right that there is value to maintaining some unspoiled landscapes, and he is right that remotely sited power plants require more transmission lines--and transmission losses--than power plants sited near population centers.

However, I made my statements because I did not see the legislation as being aimed at reducing transmission costs and losses. Rather, I saw it as a NIMBY type reaction--in this case, Not in My Recreation Area (NIMRA). And although I fully agree with Rod that underground nuclear power plants take up far less space than solar plants, have far less visual impact on the environment, and can be sited closer to areas of demand, I somehow doubt that those supporting this legislation would embrace nuclear plants as an alternative to degrading the desert. The truth is that they don't want either.

I was reacting to a narrower concern--my growing frustration with a population, or at least a significant percentage of the population, that doesn't seem to recognize that modern society requires infrastructure that has to go someplace. I don't see anyone who wants to give up the comforts and conveniences we have come to enjoy. Oh, they pay lip service to being more energy efficient, but not to the extent it will remove the demand for more infrastructure over time--power plants, factories, mines, waste disposal sites (of all types), etc.

And I am frustrated particularly with those who dismiss the role of nuclear energy because they believe that renewable energy is "the" answer, never realizing that renewable energy has its own set of drawbacks, not the least of which is that it has far greater land requirements than nuclear power does.

So when it comes to trying to put anything--and in particular, all these solar and wind farms--somewhere, we end up with a contradictory list that looks a lot like NOPE (Not on Planet Earth). Let's see:

• We shouldn't put things in suburban neighborhoods because that's where most people live;
• We shouldn't put things in deserts, because we want to preserve the pristine areas that remain;
• We shouldn't put things in scenic areas, because that will disturb our views;
• We shouldn't put things in economically disadvantaged areas because of historical injustices;
• We shouldn't put things where the wealthy live, because they have the clout to fight it;
• We shouldn't put things in rural areas, because they're not the ones who benefit most.

I'm not being sarcastic or dismissive. I happen to be sympathetic to most of these desires for restrictions. To a degree. I believe we have to be careful of our impacts on different environments and populations. But I also believe we have to make some compromises in all these areas to have the benefits of sufficient clean energy. I believe that we have to have a mix of ALL technologies. I believe we have to put some in some undeveloped or scenic areas--so we have to be able to make some rational decisions about how to preserve some of this area while using other parts of it. I believe we have to put some where rich people live, some where poor people live, some in urban or suburban areas, some in rural areas--so we have to make some fair decisions to share the impacts.

And, of course, underlying all these, I agree with Rod that choosing technologies with smaller impacts on the land would give us a huge head start in sorting out these other problems. But, given the evidence, I wonder if we can do it.

In any event, in order not to end on a note of despair, I propose NIMRA as well as three more acronyms that occurred to me as I was writing this. To my knowledge, these are all brand new ones:

NIMRA: Not in my recreation area
NIRUA: Not in remote, undeveloped areas
NIRPY: Not in rich people's yards
NIEDA: Not in economically disadvantaged areas


1 comment:

  1. Gail:

    I understand and agree with your frustration. Here is some food for thought.

    Whenever there is a battle to restrict development, there is a lot of the TALK that you have mentioned about protecting various valued environments or populations. If you dig below the surface of the discussion, you can also find that there are economic interests involved that use that vocal debate as cover. Often, the people with economic interests write the checks to keep the vocal opposition in business.

    For example, when a big box retailer announces plans to build a store in a relatively small town, the local merchants often get together to oppose the project because they fear that the large company will be able to undercut their prices or provide services that they cannot afford to match. When a new waterfront development is proposed, owners of existing waterfront properties often oppose the development because it might increase the supply of waterfront homes, thus lowering the value of their current asset. (I have accurate information about at least one large environmental group that works to restrict development on the shores of a local water source. It gets a lot of funding from developers who own existing waterfront properties.)

    I believe that a lot of the energy debates fall into this category. When it is difficult to build new infrastructure, the existing infrastructure has to work at a higher capacity, making it more valuable due to the increased revenue opportunities. When supplies of abundant nuclear energy are hard to deliver to the market, that increases the cost and value of existing supplies of fossil fuels.

    I do not think that this kind of opposition will go away, but it would sure be easier to defeat if we can portray it accurately.

    I cringe when I hear a nuclear engineer say something like "the environmentalists do not like us". For people who are just concerned that their lights work when they flip the switch, that kind of comment can make them think that even the nuclear engineers believe that there is something about their technology that threatens the environment. NOBODY likes that idea, so the somewhat disinterested person simply stores away the idea that nuclear is "not environmentally friendly" - even though that is completely false.

    If instead, nuclear engineers would say "oil companies do not like us", or "government leaders like collecting taxes on natural gas sales", or "every nuclear plant removes a market for 4 million tons of coal per year", people would get the idea that a major portion of the controversy is about market share, not about environmental impact.

    If it really was about environmental impact, a power source clean enough to operate inside a submarine would win out every time.