NOT IN MY BACKYARD

by Sally Herrin

Not in my backyard. This expression signifies opposition by stakeholders to local habitation for something valuable, even necessary, but deemed unpleasant, threatening, even dangerous. Many residential neighborhoods, for example, resist certain new neighbors as undesirable: group homes for people living with mental disabilities, halfway houses for addicts, teens and ex-convicts fresh from prison and, back in the day, hospices for gay men suffering from AIDS. Build it, yes, these citizens say, just not in my backyard. This reaction is so widespread and so reliable among human beings, it even has an acronym: NIMBY.

At one extreme, NIMBY creates stratified societies like the caste system in India and deeply segregated cities in much of the U.S. Yes, the blacks and the Mexicans and the poor have to live somewhere, but… I greatly suspect this reflex is very old. At its root is ‘stranger’ fear and, superstitious or not, the fear of contagion. Easier to empathize with folks who resist not just personal economic loss (If you build that recycling center here, my property value will decline), but serious threats to health and quality of life from new neighbors like large hog confinements and chicken processing plants.

According to the July 8, 2017, New York Times, “The pushback against renewable energy has been years in the making.”

In 2012-13, the largest investor-owned U.S. electric companies—through their mouthpiece, “The Edison Institute”—declared that the power industry was in danger of “being sucked into… a ‘utility death spiral.’” As consumers increasingly opt off the grid, the utilities foresee, the costs of running conventional coal, oil, gas or nuclear power plants will be shared among an ever-smaller customer base. “That could cause rates to spike, chasing even more customers away... [As more people] fully exit… from the grid,” the group said, the industry faces “irreparable damages to revenues and growth.”

Utility lobbyists argue that credits for rooftop solar panels lead to higher rates for other customers. Solar production allows some homeowners to “avoid paying for use of the grid, even though they use it almost constantly to buy or sell electricity,” was one talking point prepared by lobbyists and circulated among Republican state legislators in Indiana. (Note: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory released a study in 2017 concluding effects of rooftop solar credits on electricity rates for non-solar customers would be “negligible for the vast majority of states and utilities” for any foreseeable future.)

Not all concerns about solar energy installations are so self-serving. In Lincoln, Nebraska, some Capitol Beach residents are concerned about proposed solar arrays—built by a group of homeowners—and the effect on the lake’s relict saline wetlands, which are certainly both precious and rare. According to the Lincoln Journal Star, May 29, 2017, the proposed 300-panel installation at Capitol Beach, set on an unbuildable lot near I-80 owned by the neighborhood association, would generate 100KW. Though about 70 LES customers own small solar systems, Capitol Beach would be the first ‘community solar’ project in Lincoln. On July 7, the LJS reported that the Lower Platte South NRD, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other regulators had reviewed the plan and concluded the installation would not create environmental problems related to flooding or habitat for endangered Salt Creek tiger beetles. Still, staff from Nebraska Game and Parks Commission recommends the panels be moved to the north to avoid the Category 1 wetlands.

While Nebraska is about 5th among the 50 states in wind energy potential, we rank just 18th in development. A half century of failed export-oriented farm policy has driven two thirds of U.S. agricultural producers out of business, and current trade rules are killing what’s left of crop and livestock operators with cheap imported competition. In the first years of this century, a Nebraska wind task force identified barriers to wind energy development, with a view to bolstering the Nebraska economy which is heavily based on agriculture. Progressive ag groups like American Corn Growers Foundation and Nebraska Farmers Union have worked to promote wind development in rural communities to improve the rural economy, and I was privileged to be part of these efforts. So I personally find it very tough to stomach NIMBY arguments against wind energy production.

In 2015, the Lancaster County Board passed restrictions to “prohibit wind turbines from generating more than 40 decibels of noise during the day—about what’s generated by a household refrigerator—as measured at nearby residences… Currently, 50 decibels is recognized as a standard noise limit by several Nebraska counties,” according to the Omaha World-Herald. Wind energy advocates say opponents use ‘fear mongering’ about possible health effects of ‘swishing’ noise and blinking lights, even of ‘flicker’ from blades at dawn and dusk.

State Senator Ken Haar offered evidence to the board, maps showing that a 40-decibel standard rules out commercial wind farms in Lancaster County. Setbacks required from residences would cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in potential tax revenue lost and land lease payments as well. It is in the interest of everyone to move to clean, renewable energy, according to climate activist John Atkeison. “It’s disappointing because these restrictions are simply not necessary to protect safety and health,” said Jeffrey Wagner, who sought to build a wind farm near Hallam, Nebraska.

“There are plenty of areas across Nebraska where these industrial wind farms can be located without being an intrusion,” said Lincoln attorney Mark Hunzeker, representing the aggrieved neighbors. And there it is. Not in my [client’s] backyard.

I get it. People don’t want their pretty landscapes ‘spoiled’—people who work hard and pay good money for a nice acreage they can call home. People enjoy the delights of living “in the country,” as exurban development is often described, and are willing to pay extra and tolerate long commutes to do so. That such a lifestyle has a greater carbon footprint than many others is an ‘externality,’ a cost not covered by the immediate beneficiaries, but which does indeed get paid for by the rest of us.

Without doubt the greatest pushback against renewable energy has been the decades-long campaign by the petroleum industry against ethanol. Sadly, many on the left have bought Big Oil’s lies and anti-corn propaganda, though the ethanol industry has rescued the U.S. rural economy until very recently and is just about all that stands between this country and a farm crisis like no one living has yet seen. I am reminded of the scene in “Doctor Zhivago” where the doctor’s moral gap is exposed—he is willing to sacrifice the woman he loves for his principles. “Are you so fastidious?” the government official asks.

We have no more time. Climate change is here, in case you haven’t been outside lately. Lincoln just released a promising first draft environmental action plan, and of energy brought to market, LES will reach 50 percent renewables this year, and OPPD is on track to hit 40 percent in 2019. Nebraska is first nationally in Wind for Schools. But Nebraska is the only state in the nation which increased the use of coal over the past decade, and the rural electric associations and NPPD are much to blame. Are Nebraskans so fastidious that we cannot embrace solar, wind and biofuels because there are trade-offs? I for one would rather drive a car fueled by ethanol than an electric car that runs on burning coal.

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