Clean Energy’s Environmental Problem: The Need for Planning and Consensus Among Unlikely Foes
With increased focus on how to jump-start the economy, commentators have focused attention on a traditional debate that pits the “clashing priorities of jobs versus the environment.” However, when clean energy projects are actually proposed, the irony is that “pro-environment” groups are often the loudest critics. For example, when Cape Wind (a 130-turbine wind farm scheduled to be built in Nantucket Sound) was first proposed in 2003, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound was filing lawsuits, mounting political pressure in Boston and Washington, and espousing harsh “environmental” critiques: The turbines will break up and the oil inside will spill into the sound; birds will be torn apart in “pole-mounted Cuisinarts”; and “whales will bump their heads.” Even Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a well-known environmentalist and President of the Waterkeeper Alliance, voiced his own peculiar opposition: “People want to look out and see the same sight the Pilgrims saw.” (Apparently these concerns do not apply to the not-so-pilgrim yachts and diesel-powered motorboats sailing across the Sound).
In Washington State, the same contradictory “clash” occurs. Klickitat County, for example, created a so-called Energy Overlay Zone (EOZ) in 2004 that serves to ease the red tape involved in siting new generation facilities, including wind. The first of its kind in the country, the EOZ involved a county-wide environmental review as a means to streamline the conditional use permitting process so developers know where they are welcome. The results have exceeded expectations: Klickitat County has already generated more than one gigawatt of wind generation, at least 90% of the landowners in the community have contracts with wind developers, and the wind farms employ roughly 5 to 10 operations and maintenance workers per 100 MW of capacity. This translates to over 100 new jobs for a county that watched 600 of its best paying jobs disappear in 2001 when an aluminum smelter was shut down. As one county official noted: “People were really struggling with how to get started again, and that’s where this renewable energy — particularly the wind energy — is changing the whole dynamic.”
Despite the positive economic news, environmental groups, such as Friends of the Columbia Gorge (FOCG) and Save Our Scenic Area (SOSA), believe the EOZ zoning is too broad. Detractors have raised wildlife concerns—including reports of a golden eagle killed by a wind turbine—as well as wind’s perceived negative aesthetic impacts. These arguments are raised in the media, at county planning commission meetings, and debated before administrative tribunals, such as the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. This rather puzzling debate between “clean energy” and the “environment” underscores an important point: development of clean energy will require creative planning, political and administrative solutions, just as it will require technological innovations. In fact, in many instances, the technology is already there. What is needed are tools to build consensus, address community opposition, and increase political will.