By Donella Meadows
–May 2, 1991–
There’s an environmental fight brewing in my valley that has all the NIMBYs scrambling. You know — NIMBYs — the Not In My Back Yard folks, often looked upon as selfish obstructionists who try to stop progress by opposing somebody else’s idea of development.
In the current case the “development” is an electric power plant that will burn wood chips. A company from out West is turning the things out with a cooky cutter and setting them down wherever there’s a wood supply. This one is proposed for Weathersfield, Vermont, on the bank of the Connecticut River. (River water will cool the condensers). The proposal comes just as a bi-state movement is starting to create a Connecticut River Greenway. The chosen site is next to a state park and at the foot of Mount Ascutney, the most spectacular wooded slope in the valley.
The NIMBYs want me to get involved.
There’s a limit to how many battles one can fight. I’ve been hurling myself into a big one, the fight for a sane national energy policy. This wood-fired plant is part of that larger picture, of course, but just a tiny blip on the national screen — though a blip I will curse every time I drive past it, if it actually comes to thrust its sheet metal sides up like a wart at the base of the sloping green hills — its smokestack a canker (well lighted at night) above the purling dark river.
I have joined with my neighbors against the construction of inappropriate plants on this river before. Sometimes we have won. But every time one bright industrial idea is banished, two more spring up. Corporate ingenuity, money, power, and insistence on eternal growth mean that NIMBYs have to defend their back yards forever. It can wear one down.
This fight is particularly problematic, because as electricity producers go, wood-fired plants are fairly benign, as are the small hydro projects that NIMBYs are fighting all over New England. These plants are based on abundant and renewable energy sources. Their scale is modest. They don’t emit greenhouse gases. When they are well maintained and regulated, they are environmentally much preferable to nuclear or coal-fired plants.
In fact the reason these plants are appearing everywhere is a result of one of our better energy laws — the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), which requires utilities to buy power from independent producers at fair prices. PURPA brought competition into the electricity market. It set forth a burst of entrepreneurism. As a result renewables such as wind, hydro, and wood have been the fastest-growing producers of electricity — just what should happen as part of a sane national energy policy.
The project may be right, but the PROCESS is all wrong. It has been foisted upon our valley by distant owners who care nothing about our back yards, except for their potential to supply wood and cooling water. Those far-away people chose the site; they chose the technology; they get the profits. They are building this plant because of a flaw in PURPA, which makes new sources profitable even when they are not needed. New England is glutted with electricity right now. And New Englanders, like Americans everywhere, use electricity wastefully. If we adopted the most efficient technologies available, we could shut down three-fourths of the electricity generators we already have going, without any loss of services.
Would you welcome an electricity plant into your back yard, with great wood trucks thundering up to it constantly, to provide a product that few profit by and everyone wastes? You wouldn’t. There’s no reason why you should. That’s why the people who plan these things never put them in their own back yards.
If we had a sane energy policy, we wouldn’t override peoples’ sense of place and pride in their back yards. If we had a sane energy policy, we’d start by using energy as efficiently as possible. Then we’d ask how much we really need and list all the ways of getting it. We’d weigh their costs and benefits, including costs visited upon communities and upon nature.
If we did all that and then decided, as I think we will someday, that wood-powered electricity makes sense here, we’d let the town or region that needs the electricity pick the site, to respect not only technical and economic constraints, but also feelings about rivers and mountains, parks, neighborhoods, and truck routes. We’d listen especially to those who would be most affected by the communal decision. We’d involve them in the decision-making from the beginning, until they and we were all convinced that the decision was necessary, fair, and wise. Then, instead of complaining about their selfishness, we would compensate them and honor them for their loss.
If all that happened, there would be a lot fewer NIMBYs. Until it happens, I’m on their side.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991