Commentary: NIMBY in my backyard
Here’s a local story with national implications: With an average wind speed of around 12 mph, the city where I live isn’t the windiest place in the country. But on many days — especially during spring and the long, hot summer — a strong, steady flow off the Gulf of Mexico makes Corpus Christi, Texas, a dependable destination for windsurfers and sailors.
The energy in wind is impressive. Thus, the last half-decade has seen significant development of wind farms in the area, including the 168-turbine Penascal complex, 40 miles south of the city, and 196 turbines at the Papalote Creek installation to the north, which produces enough energy to supply 114,000 homes.
In fact, the first visible sign of my city as you approach from the north is an stately phalanx of white, 3-bladed turbines, each 262 feet tall, churning ceaselessly over flat cotton fields.
These turbines are among 7,000 in Texas and they contribute to the state’s generating capacity of more than 12,000 megawatts, the most in the nation.
But wind power hit a snag locally last week when the city council took steps to quash a proposed 175-turbine wind farm on 20,000 acres south of the city, a facility that could supply energy to 100,000 homes. The city’s growth potential is generally to the south, and the council was concerned that a wind farm would have a negative impact on development and property values.
That is, NIMBY — Not in My Backyard.
I don’t have an opinion on whether this particular wind farm is the right farm in the right place at the right time. But the council’s action implies a failure to appreciate a new reality that applies to the nation and world, as well as to south Texas: If the globe has any chance of decent habitability during the next century or so, we’re going to have to put a much higher priority on renewable energy, especially wind and solar.
In Texas, where wind turbines have sprung up like mushrooms, the attitude toward renewable sources of energy reflects our national attitude: Sure, we should be developing renewables, but they’re largely a sideshow, an afterthought that will never play more than a minor role in the satisfaction of our nation’s energy needs, which require coal, natural gas and oil.
We see renewables like we see eating whole grain oats: it’s the “right thing to do.” But mere gestures toward healthy eating won’t do much good if we’re still pigging out regularly on cheeseburgers and fries.
In short, we need to take renewable energy more seriously. We think of it as impractical and inefficient, unable to survive in the free market without government subsidies. Whether that perception was ever accurate or not, it’s called into question by a report last September from the U.S. Department of Energy that argues convincingly that wind power, with rising efficiencies and decreasing costs, is America’s best alternative for “low-cost, zero carbon, zero pollution renewable energy.”
The report points out that the generating capacity of American wind installations currently online is equivalent to 60 large nuclear reactors. The potential capacity is 140 quads, about 10 times the electricity the U.S. currently uses. In the last two decades, wind power technology and efficiency have soared and the cost of wind-produced electricity has plummeted.
The biggest obstacle, however, to saving the earth’s climate might be philosophical rather than economic. Overcoming this obstacle requires the acceptance of limitations on growth and consumption. From the beginning, humans depended on two resources — water and wood — that were highly renewable as long as civilizations didn’t push too hard against their limits.
But the modern world depends on a century’s binge on hydrocarbons, which are both nonrenewable and highly destructive to the environment. Constraining our consumption and growth in ways that permit us to live within our resources will be a real challenge. Are we up to it? That remains to be seen.