Disinheriting the wind

Published December 1, 2000

Not long ago, a remarkable meeting was held in Montauk, on the eastern tip of Long Island, New York. Residents of that area faced the most serious power supply problem in the entire Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) system. If electricity demand continued to increase, Montauk might find itself with a blackout.

LIPA’s proposed solution: Build three 80-foot windmills to supply power to the area.

Now, the opinions expressed in polls rise and fall like the tides off Montauk. One week Bush is in the lead, the next week Gore pulls ahead. But in terms of energy, the polls have remained constant for about two decades.

When respondents are asked, what energy systems do you expect to be dominant in a few decades, renewables–solar and wind–always head the list. Some mention nuclear. A handful, realizing changes in energy system infrastructures require billions or trillions of dollars, stick with coal and oil.

In the quarter-century since the energy crisis of 1973, the main changes in electricity supply have been the rise of nuclear power to second place, and the almost complete disappearance of oil-fired power.

So it was somewhat surprising when Montaukers, rather than urging LIPA chairman Richard Kessel to build not three, but dozens of windmills, told him to put his proposed windmills where the sun doesn’t shine.

Where energy comes from

Why the contradiction? In spite of massive propaganda and Texas oil-man-sized subsidies, renewable energy, as it is generally defined by the public, has contributed little to the U.S. energy mix. The latest official data are contained in Renewable Energy Annual 1998 with Data for 1997, issued by the Energy Information Administration.

Of the 94 quads (quadrillion British Thermal Units, a large energy unit) we used in 1997, only seven were from renewables. Of that seven, almost all came from hydroelectric and biomass.

Most hydro dams were built decades ago. If you wanted to build one today, you’d have to complete a pile of paperwork about as high as the proposed dam itself . . . and even then you’d be turned down.

Most biomass energy comes from pulp and paper companies burning wastes–something they did long before the emphasis on renewables.

What most respondents in the national surveys mean by renewables is solar and wind. In 1997, they produced about 0.1 quads, or one part in a thousand of our energy supply. And as far as electric utilities producing solar and wind energy, as LIPA’s Kessel proposed, the amount is so small it rates only an asterisk in the EIA’s tables.

In the 1970s, advocates of renewables said, why should most of the government’s energy research money go to nuclear? If only a small portion of this were spent on solar and wind, they could be brought to commercial viability within a few years.

But in testimony presented to Congress last year, it was noted that the benefit-cost ratio of energy produced to research dollars was thousands of times greater for nuclear than renewables.

No windmills need apply

The confrontation in Montauk was a classic NIMBY moment. The acronym refers to Not In My Back Yard, the phenomenon whereby citizens generally favor a facility, such as a secure prison for dangerous felons or an energy-producing windmill, so long as it’s not located in their neighborhood.

Windmills are a great idea, so long as someone else has to look at them. Tevye, in Fiddler on the Roof, expressed a similar sentiment: “God bless the Tsar . . . and keep him far away from us.”

Kessel wrung his hands: “If we don’t do windmills, what are we going to do? . . . The notion that we should do nothing is impossible. . . . If NIMBYism is so bad we can’t build windmills, we’re sunk out here. I’d like to see these windmills up and running next summer.”

A windmill posing prettily on the glossy pages of National Geographic is one thing. Three 80-foot towers–taller than anything on eastern Long Island except perhaps for lighthouses–in your backyard is quite another. Thus the NIMBY dragon raises its head, not merely for landfills, prisons, and nuclear reactors, but for something most people claim to want–at least in the abstract–renewable energy.

Is there a way out of NIMBYism? Elsewhere I have suggested compensating the affected community, so long as it agrees to accept the nuisance. But that doesn’t work in the case of Montauk, where the long finger of the power authority has pointed at them. When a finger points at us, even for no reason, our heartbeat and blood pressure rise. This is what happened at the meeting with Kessel.

The winds will continue to blow over Montauk, unfettered by man-made contraptions. This may well be a situation where NIMBYism makes some sense.

Herbert Inhaber, a risk analyst in Las Vegas, Nevada, is the author of Slaying the NIMBY Dragon and Why Energy Conservation Fails. He can be reached at [email protected]. This article is reprinted with permission from the August 30, 2000 issue of Newsday.