By Jay Fidell
Let's take a look at the destructive effect of NIMBY (“Not in My Backyard”) and BANANA (“Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone”) on progress in Hawaii.
On NPR's Marketplace at 6:00 p.m. on Sunday, December 24th, there was an piece about some bluebloods in Germany who were trying to build solar array parks. There were objections to this by neighbors who argued they didn’t want a solar array in their backyards.
Popularity-wise, Germany probably has the most successful renewables program in the world, so this is discouraging. You’d think everyone would pull together and nobody would stand in the way. But even there, in a country well-proud of its renewables development, there are people who cry NIMBY.
I guess that’s the way the world works. As we build more renewables, we’re going to be stepping on more toes in more places and getting more NIMBY complaints. So what’s happening in Germany is a forerunner of what is probably going to happen elsewhere in Europe and in the U.S., to say nothing of Hawaii.
The fact is that renewables take space, their footprints are often larger because they need to capture energy resources from nature over relatively large areas. Watt for watt they would be larger, for example, than a power plant generating the same load. People don’t realize how much space is involved for solar, PV parks and of course windmills with 100 foot blades set wide apart in a field.
The more space they take the more likely is the eventual NIMBY. Is this happening in Hawaii? You bet it is, and sometimes it’s obscured by an overlay of other issues, such as the expression of cultural or environmental concerns. Before we accept those expressions, however, we need to take a closer look.
Hawaii is not growing higher, it’s growing further out. Sure there are condos in Kakaako, but in most places there are single family residences spreading out in every direction, sometimes taking over former agricultural lands, and effectively paving over our state. What happens if renewables are in the way?
I wish it were as simple as who got there first. If the residential neighborhoods were there first, certainly the renewables would be hard pressed to infringe on them. But, and here’s the problem, even if the renewables were there first, the creeping residential neighborhood will likely prevail in the resulting tension. In short, urban sprawl always seems to force other uses to go somewhere else.
This reminds me of the Waimanu Home operated for years and years by the State Department of Health at the top of the Waimanu Home Road in Pearl City. Although when the Waimanu Home was dedicated as a state hospital for the mentally disadvantaged its location was quite remote, as the years went by residential neighborhoods crept up the hill right to its fence.
At some point the Home was closed, so as the neighborhood grew up the hill there was no objection to it. A few years ago, however, world-famous tropical disease researcher Dr. Duane Gubler got permission and funding from the National Institutes of Health to build a world class Bio Safety Laboratory there.
But the neighborhood had become contiguous and NIMBY raised its ugly head. The neighbors spoke out against the lab and Gubler couldn’t build there. Undaunted, he convinced NIH to relocate the lab and funding to Kakaako, where it later died a excruciating death at the hands of UH officials. Frustrated, he left Hawaii and built his world class lab for Duke in Singapore.
As an island state Hawaii has limited land and is ultimately a small place with too many and too little land. NIMBY is a big problem which has had and will continue to have a huge effect on the development of renewables. No surprise that we have a competition among renewables. In the end, some will prevail and others won’t. It’s a process of community selection, based not on science or community benefit but on he who complains loudest about his back yard.
NIMBY and the power politics of blatant self-interest that customarily surround it will play an increasing role in this selection process and thus in the development of our renewables infrastructure. Its effect, sad to say, will not be helpful but will rather constitute an obstruction to that development.
Take geothermal. Nobody wants to be near geothermal. There was a cultural outcry that obstructed geothermal development in the 1990’s, a community resistance that continues to limit geothermal production in Puna even though the Ormat plant there could produce many times more than its present 38MW. I’m not so sure it was all cultural - some of it could be old fashioned NIMBY.
The fact is that nobody wants the noise and steam near them. A plant like that looks like something from Mars and nobody wants it in his or her backyard. Don’t expect geothermal to be anywhere close to a population center, even if that would save the cost of transporting the energy. And if a population center contends for space, don’t expect geothermal to prevail anytime soon.
Let’s look at wind – it’s noisy; those big blades. It’s a problem if you’re nearby, so don’t try to build a windmill in my back yard. A few years ago, various NIMBY factions on the Waianae Coast didn’t want HECO to put wind on Kahe Ridge, the best place in Oahu. As a result, it’s 2010 and still no wind in Oahu.
Many people in Molokai question the 100MW of wind planned for their backyard. It’s more than cultural – some don’t want to be the energy factory for Oahu. They ask why we should suffer windmills that only serve Oahu. What’s in it for me? The jury’s out on what will happen in Molokai, but you can be sure that the developers, and ultimately we the ratepayers, will have to deal with, and make provision for, those who feel this way. It will cost us.
Although our experience is still limited, the direction seems to be that a developer can resolve these NIMBY concerns with coin of the realm, money. Indeed, right now those developers as well as other wind developers in the state are trying to determine how much they will need to give the local communities around these windmill sites, and for how long, to obtain their cooperation and make them feel better about having windmills in their backyards.
There are at least two problems with this. If we are properly focused on a renewables initiative, we need to understand that renewables have to go somewhere. We can’t keep passing the buck until the renewables are so far at the fringe that we are increasing the cost of transporting the energy or just making them impossible. Somebody has to step up to the plate and accept the renewables in his or her back yard. Self-interest must capitulate to the good of the community. Who will go first? Will it be you, and your neighborhood?
Second, the developers who are paying, and the people who are asking for and expecting big bucks to allow renewables in their back yards are not doing any of us a favor. The recipients don’t own the land, they are merely the neighbors. The only reason the money is promised to them is to buy their acquiescence and avoid their protest. We, the ratepayers, wind up paying that expense. State leadership is effectively encouraging this recipe, when in fact it should be discouraging it. As this gets more widespread, you won’t like what happens.
Ah, and then there’s nuclear energy, even the tiny Toshiba micro reactors would undoubtedly generate big time NIMBY. Obviously, nobody wants to live near a reactor and worry all day about glowing all night. Could we ever find a place in Hawaii that everyone would agree is acceptable for nuclear? I doubt it. Too bad, because this alternative might otherwise be attractive, and cheap.
Ocean energy is not a problem for the people inland but I expect that some beachgoers and fisherman won’t want to share the ocean with an ocean energy facility. If it’s over the horizon people wouldn’t much care, but if it’s visible to get in the view, I expect that some people might nevertheless foment resistance. The long and short of it is that NIMBY is always there ready to raise its head.
All in all, PV seems the best choice for NIMBY because it’s quiet. Although it doesn’t produce like wind at night, there are no blades on it and it doesn’t make any noise. What’s more, we can put hedges or fences around them to obscure any view of them and limit the possibility of community opposition.
In general, NIMBY is a restraint on development of our renewables. We need to incentivize communities to accept renewables, not demand hush money for them. People have to realize how important they are to the future of our state and we all have to cooperate in developing and integrating them equitably and quickly. We need to give them priority and abandon the self interest that stands in the way.
We’ve got to get away from the NIMBY mentality if we hope for a renewable future in these islands. It’s like learning to live together in a confined space – a space where land is increasingly dear and where someone is always encroaching on what you thought was a vacant lot. If we are to succeed, we’ve got to learn to make sacrifices for the good of the community. That’s a big “if.”
No discussion of NIMBY is complete without mention of the BANANA phenomenon – “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone.” This goes way beyond NIMBY - it refers to those who take NIMBY to new levels and use it only as a way to Stop all Progress for its own sake, unconditionally and without any consideration of the greater good. They would not put us in stasis, but rather in reverse.
My theory is that this contingent would constrain state progress because they resent not being part of it or having a part of it or are seeking belated redress for unrelated grievances. Neither justifies acts that would lock us in amber. As a matter of fairness and self-preservation, the community cannot afford to tolerate or accede to any NIMBY claim which has taken on this new dimension, especially when we're talking about energy.