Kate Mackenzie Getting over the nimby-ism hurdle

How bad is Not In My Backyard-ism for renewable energy projects?

Wind turbines have long been subject to criticism for ruining beautiful landscapes or creating noise. And local opposition looks like a growing problem for fledgling carbon capture and storage projects, too.

First, wind. Yesterday my colleague Fiona Harvey wrote about the dismal outlook for offshore wind, both in the UK and elsewhere. Few countries, she said, are championing offshore wind as it’s simply too expensive to be viable, and the big projects in the US and China are mainly onshore. A few commenters pointed out big wind projects in the US, and indeed Reuters has written about these today. But although it’s headlined ‘Offshore wind could be next wave for US’ the story shows how US offshore aspirations are just as vulnerable to local opposition. It leads with Cape Wind, a 420MW project proposed for five miles off the Cape Cod coast on the Nantucket Sound. But the project,  proposed in 2001, still needs approval from the Department of the Interior  and more than $1bn in funding. Its chief executive says he thinks the money wil be found, but the story notes that a nimby group has sprung up to protest the project, and that Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy also opposes it.

“Coastal real estate is expensive,” said Kevin Book, energy analyst at ClearView Energy Partners, of Washington. “It’s going to be very tough to get stakeholders on board when you’re crossing coastal real estate with something unsightly.”

Another project mentioned, Deepwater Wind, has some financial backing but plans to build a farm 15 miles  off Rhode Island, where it will hardly be visible from the shore.

Meanwhile carbon capture and storage projects are increasingly seeing opposition.  Locals in Barendrecht, near Rotterdam, are opposing a plan by Shell to store CO2 from its Pernis refinery under their town.  Now Vattenfall’s Schwarze Pumpe project in northern Germany has run into nimby-ism. The Guardian reports the plant, which was heralded as being the first project to demonstrate capture, transport and storage of carbon dioxide emissions, is releasing the gas into the air as it awaits a permit:

“It was supposed to begin injecting by March or April of this year but we don’t have a permit. This is a result of the local public having questions about the safety of the project,” said Staffan Gortz, head of carbon capture and storage communication at Vattenfall. He said he did not expect to get a permit before next spring: “People are very, very sceptical.”

Most worrying for backers of renewable installations is that a few local disputes will turn the tide against any future projects. From the Guardian:

Stuart Haszeldine, a CCS expert at the University of Edinburgh, warned of the danger of opposition towards CCS snowballing into a “bandwagon of negativity” if too many early projects were rejected. “Once you’ve screwed up one or two of them, people are going to think ‘if they rejected this in Barendrecht, there must be a reason’,” he said.

CCS already faces challenges that make wind power look trivial: it is effectively a way of making power plants less efficient and even with carbon pricing, is expected to take around 20 years to become economically viable. The technological challenges are also huge: while its components have been demonstrated to work, a complete CCS project at scale is yet to be built. And fears of noxious gas rising from the ground will be much harder to overcome than opposition on aesthetic grounds.