Politics & Policy

Foul Winds for Renewable Energy

Environmental regulations and NIMBYism slow the growth of wind and wave power.

Several years ago, Cape Wind Associates proposed the nation’s first offshore windfarm in Nantucket Sound. They sought to build 130 wind turbines several miles off the coast on Horseshoe Shoal. The Sound is an ideal location for offshore wind production. The surrounding land masses and relatively shallow water would protect the installation from storms and make it easier to erect and maintain the 258-foot turbine towers. Upon completion, the wind farm could provide approximately 75-percent of Cape Cod’s electricity, reducing the need to rely on nearby fossil-fuel-fired power plants. As good as it sounds, the project faces strong opposition.

Some local residents and vacation property owners, including the Kennedy family, were outraged at the idea of a wind farm in Nantucket Sound. The prospect of wind turbines dotting the horizon was too much to bear, so they swung into action, launching local p.r. campaigns and filing suit to prevent the Cape Wind project’s completion. Walter Cronkite, who owns a home in nearby Martha’s Vineyard, warned of an “industrial energy complex” despoiling the “publicly owned” Nantucket Sound. Noted environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has stridently condemned fossil fuel energy production, echoed this concern, decrying plans to soil the “wilderness” of the sound for “industrial development.”

Cape Wind’s primary opponent, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, is bankrolled by many wealthy Cape Cod residents and owners of vacation homes, and has spent millions to defeat the campaign — $15 million by one estimate, and $2.4 million in 2003 alone. Though the Alliance has the support of several thousand locals, a few dozen wealthy residents are responsible for the bulk of its financial support. Over three-quarters of the Alliance’s funding came from just 56 individuals in 2003.

Cape Wind opponents have raised substantial funds for their campaign, but it is not clear they really speak for local residents, and they certainly do not represent popular opinion within the state. One recent survey found that a majority of locals support the project, and over 80-percent support it statewide. Still the project faces tough sledding. In 2002, federal regulators predicted it would take 18 months to three years for the project to gain approval, yet, as of late 2007, Cape Wind is still yet to begin operation. If the project is approved next year, as some expect, litigation is almost sure to follow, and could delay construction past 2010.

Cape Wind’s opponents have sought to take advantage of various state and federal regulatory requirements to stall the project. These processes create substantial opportunities for activists and NIMBYs to gum up the works, spurring delays and hoping to scare off investors. Cape Wind’s consultants spent four years on a 3,800-page environmental impact statement, but this was not enough to ensure a go. While the project eventually obtained state approval, the federal government has yet to give the final okay.

If pre-existing regulatory requirements were not enough, Senator Edward Kennedy conspired with other Senators to enact additional legal obstacles to Cape Wind, burdening all proposed offshore wind power projects in the process. Despite his best efforts, Kennedy failed to kill the project outright, but Cape Wind is still not in the clear – and if Cape Wind fails, the prospects for other offshore wind farms could fall with it.

Cape Wind is hardly the only wind power project to face opposition. Even land-based wind farms have sparked opposition. Local activists are against the erection of additional wind turbines in California’s San Gorgonio Pass. In addition to aesthetic concerns, some environmentalists fear wind turbines could harm local bird populations. Feared threats to bird populations were enough to defeat a small wind farm plan in Tennessee.

Local landowners also fought wind turbines on Maine’s Beaver Ridge and in western Maryland. In just the past few months, proposed wind farm projects have been scuttled in Texas and New York. Prospects seem brighter for a proposed wind farm off Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, so long as the proposed project is cut down to size. Activists swear they are not opposed to wind power, as such, just the specific wind projects at issue. For many, wind power is a great idea, so long as it is sited in someone else’s neighborhood.

Wind power is also not the only alternative energy source to face regulatory obstacles and NIMBY opposition. Proposed tidal power projects are having similar experiences with the regulatory process. The Electric Power Research Institute estimates tidal and wave-based energy could provide up to ten percent of the nation’s electricity some day. Yet while there are a handful of such facilities overseas, there are none in the United States – at least not yet. The nation’s first commercial wave-energy project – a small, one megawatt facility in Washington State – should come on line in Washington State in 2009.

One tidal power project that has received significant attention is Verdant Power’s plan for the big Apple. Verdant wants to harness non-polluting tidal power in New York’s East River, but it too faces regulatory hurdles. Verdant executives estimate they have spent at least $7 million over seven years working their way through state and federal regulatory requirements. Even a pilot project designed to test turbine design and develop project parameters required permission from the Federal energy Regulatory Commission, which plans to regulate underwater power generation the same way it regulates large hydroelectric dams. As The Economist reported, “this tiny project faces as big a regulatory burden from federal authorities as a giant conventional power station.”

Water-based projects, whether they draw power from tides or winds, face an array of overlapping, and not always clear, regulatory requirements. Many of these rules were developed with traditional power sources in mind. In some cases, review processes were adopted to facilitate activist opposition. The end result is that a modest wind farm or potential tide-power operation can be just as vulnerable to obstruction and delay as a major coal facility or hydroelectric dam. Such renewable power facilities have environmental impacts of their own, to be sure. Yet, in most instances their impact will be significantly less than the power sources they displace.

Alternative energy advocates often bemoan the lack of a “level playing field” for renewable energy, recommending additional federal subsidies as the solution. Yet renewable energy sources already receive generous financial support from the Department of Energy and other government sources. In practice, such funding does little to bring commercially viable facilities on line.

To promote alternative energy development, there’s no need for more handouts. Instead the government should get out of the way. If the goal is to increase actual alternative energy production, and increase the proportion of renewable energy that supplies electricity to American consumers, the best thing the federal government can do is reduce or remove regulatory obstacles to energy entrepreneurship and innovation. If renewable energies are to capture a sizable share of the energy market, what they need, more than anything else, is regulatory room to compete.

National Review Online Contributing Editor Jonathan H. Adler is professor of law and director of the Center for Business Law & Regulation at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

Jonathan H. Adler — Mr. Adler is an NRO contributing editor and the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. His latest book is Marijuana Federalism: Uncle Sam and Mary Jane.


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