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NIMBYism Is Democracy

The following is a repost of my National Journal Energy Experts blog

Electricity policy faces enormous challenges—three different federal agencies (EPA, DOE, FERC) and 10 Congressional committees wrestle with oversight over electricity markets, new generation sources, air and water emissions issues, and energy efficiency initiatives. Resolving the current political stalemate requires an acknowledgement that maximizing investment in a decentralized electricity structure has to be a significant part of policy going forward. And we must recognize that while constitutional rights within our Democratic Republic often clash with companies’ need for efficiency, preserving those rights must be our priority.

Not only are capital cost barriers of proposed new nuclear and coal-fired units significant, but so are the associated transmission infrastructure upgrades needed to move the power from new sources to population centers. Trying to build any new type of large infrastructure system designed to accommodate our centralized power system has traditionally run into NIMBY opposition, which lately has been characterized as Not on Planet Earth (NOPE). Population density in the US has increased 105% from 1950 to 2010—from 42.6 people per square mile in 1950 to 87.4 people per square mile in 2010. With more people living per square mile than ever before, Americans’ Fifth Amendment Constitutional right to due process guarantees that large projects will continue to be delayed. Congress’ unwillingness to grant the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ultimate authority over transmission siting leaves permitting at the state level, where property owners will continue to hold sway over project developers. Meanwhile, the plummeting cost of solar photovoltaics, advances in micro-wind turbines, and continued permitting successes of geothermal are providing more opportunities for distributed renewable energy generation. It’s more efficient to site millions of rooftop solar systems than permit just a handful of new coal/nuclear stations with hundreds of miles of needed transmission.

Some advocate eliminating our citizens’ constitutional rights in order to prioritize the development of energy projects. This is a terrible idea. For example, John Hofmeister, a former President of Shell Oil, wants to replace Congressional and Executive Branch authority with a federal reserve-type system of 14-year-term bureaucrats to make energy infrastructure and siting decisions. Replacing existing democratic institutions shouldn’t be taken lightly. Proponents of un-democratizing our institutions point to China as a model of energy infrastructure development. No doubt that US energy companies love China as a favorable environment to do business. When China built the Three Gorges Dam project and 1.13 million people were in the way, the Chinese government simply snapped its fingers and moved them. Lacking access to due process, private property and voting rights, Chinese citizens have no say whatsoever in the types of energy developments in their community. Thank God we live in a country that―so far― guarantees the rights of all citizens to exhaust their legal due process rights.

FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff promoted the idea of replacing centralized, baseload generation with small-scale, distributed renewable energy in an April 2009 interview: “We may not need any [nuclear or coal plants], ever…I think baseload capacity is going to become an anachronism. Baseload capacity really used to only mean in an economic dispatch, which you dispatch first, what would be the cheapest thing to do. Well, ultimately wind’s going to be the cheapest thing to do, so you’ll dispatch that first. People talk about, ‘Oh, we need baseload.’ It’s like people saying we need more computing power, we need mainframes. We don’t need mainframes, we have distributed computing…So if you can shape your renewables, you don’t need fossil fuel or nuclear plants to run all the time. And, in fact, most plants running all the time in your system are an impediment because they’re very inflexible. You can’t ramp up and ramp down a nuclear plant. And if you have instead the ability to ramp up and ramp down loads in ways that can shape the entire system, then the old concept of baseload becomes an anachronism.”

America’s top energy regulator is right. The sooner we understand that the massive infrastructure needed to expand our centralized system cannot be built, the quicker we lay the foundation for the sustainable era of renewable energy.

Tyson Slocum is Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on twitter @tysonslocum