Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Diverting the Wind
Another article in last Sunday's New York Times got me thinking about the compatibility of renewable energy in the communities that host it. The article in question described local opposition to a proposed wind power development in upstate New York, with a past and possible future gubernatorial candidate offering financial support for the fight against wind. I would have normally ended up simply labeling this as NIMBY-ism, but for some reason I started considering what it would take satisfy the concerns of all parties in a situation like this.

Unfortunately, not all areas have equivalent wind resources. Developers need to go where the wind is suitable, blowing reliably and strongly at the elevation of the turbine blades. In some respects, this is analogous to lease-level oil prospecting, in which the mineral rights to underground energy deposits are the prize. But even in the heyday of the US oil industry, not everyone sitting on an oil reservoir wanted to see a derrick in his back yard, any more than everyone living near a prime wind resource wants to see 130 foot blades whirling away 250 feet above the ground.

Perhaps the resolution lies in deconstructing the outcomes of a wind power development and thinking about how to repackage them. After all, the output of a wind turbine is essentially an electricity flow and a rate of avoided emissions. Both can be quantified for a given location. From a public perspective, the same result could be achieved in other ways, via energy conservation projects, rooftop solar panels, or conventional power plants matched up with the requisite emissions credits. And given the growing sophistication of the financial services industry at developing tools and products to manage these kind of non-financial factors, there might even be a business opportunity here, to offer to communities that can't stomach wind power.

Imagine a town that objects to a proposed wind farm. Rather than spending money on PR and lobbying, what if they could find a banker or other provider willing to create a package giving comparable power and environmental benefits at a lower cost than the wind project? It might provide the community with a meaningful basis of negotiating with the developer, rather than just presenting petitions and arguments. Turning this into a financial instrument to be bought and sold avoids having it become an easy out, i.e. allowing opponents to say they will come up with the tradeoffs some other way, but then continuing the status quo. This sort of disciplined recognition of trade-offs is notably absent from the opposition to the Cape Wind project off Nantucket.

Now, I don't want my regular readers thinking I was under the influence when I had this idea. I am still opposed to most manifestations of the NIMBY instinct. In the long run, we will need lots of wind farms and solar arrays and conservation, as well as many new conventional (or nuclear) power plants, if we are going to meet our future electricity needs. But we're a long way from having used up all the good wind prospects, and not every town should be forced to take a wind farm, if they don't want it. Even if the notion above is a bit too wacky to work, I still think that market mechanisms offer the best prospect for growing the generating base while still accommodating those who insist on not living in the shadow of a wind turbine. It at least seems a more promising avenue than turning anti-renewable-power NIMBY-ism into a political campaign strategy.

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