Wind Power: Not in My Backyard!

By: Ryan M. Yonk, Ph.D. and Jordan Lofthouse

The Kennedys, America’s most famous political family, are fervent supporters of wind power and other renewable energy sources, but they seem to have caught a bad case of Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY). The Kennedys are some of the loudest voices against Cape Wind, a proposed wind farm off the shore of their Cape Cod luxury mansions. Despite the Kennedys’ love of wind power, their love for their property value is stronger, and their hypocrisy is palpable. Cape Cod’s elite aren’t the only ones who suffer from NIMBY — it’s an issue across the whole country.

Wind energy is one of the fastest growing sectors of renewable energy, thanks to tens of billions in subsidies from taxpayers. Proponents of wind energy often extol its environmental benefits in their justification of publicly funding it. Given all the hype, however, it’s oddly difficult to find people who want giant wind turbines installed near their neighborhoods. People easily find an excuse to block wind installations because there is always a better place to put them — some place away from their own property. Many people only support wind energy as long as they don’t have to deal with the unpleasant consequences.

If NIMBY is so hard to overcome, couldn’t we just build more wind farms in remote locations that are not near people’s backyards? Unfortunately, while turbines in windy Wyoming could produce 50 percent more energy than the same turbines in more populated areas such as New York, the need for more transmission infrastructure makes increased generation in such remote areas very costly.

The highest concentrations of onshore wind are far from the nation’s major cities. We have no efficient way to ship the electricity to the population centers of the country. The current grid is designed to supply power at the local and regional level and, unfortunately, the most abundant sources of wind are located far away from high-demand areas.

Upgrading the grid to deal with massive wind installations in the interior of the country is not practical. We simply can’t afford it, and it would be a logistical nightmare. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory concluded that a transmission overhaul would cost a minimum of $60 billion to reach the government’s goal of 20 percent wind power by 2030. Not only would the costs of new transmission infrastructure be expensive, we would have to worry about large-scale coordination on the grid.

The electric grid is owned by hundreds of different companies and state governments that are mostly unconnected. State governments and utility companies that exercise authority over the grid have little incentive to participate in a large-scale coordination that wouldn’t necessarily benefit them. Without a viable long distance transmission scheme, large-scale wind production will remain unrealistic and unreliable.

The future of wind power near Cape Cod is uncertain. Extensive legal battles have halted construction, and in 2014, two electricity companies have ended their contracts to buy power from Cape Wind. As government officials continue to subsidize and mandate wind power, we can expect to see more controversial cases of NIMBY across the country. The cure for NIMBY is to stop publicly subsidizing wind power and let people who actually want wind turbines to pay for it on their own land.

Ryan M. Yonk, Ph.D., an assistant professor of research at Utah State University, is vice president and executive director of research at Strata, a public policy research center in Logan, Utah. Lofthouse is a policy analyst at Strata.

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