Backlash against big wind: Booing Sierra Clubbers in Pennsylvania

In 2015, more than 60 governmental entities in 22 states moved to reject or restrict wind-energy developments with a total capacity of some 3,100 megawatts. During the first six months of 2016, more than 40 governmental entities in 18 states have rejected or moved to restrict the installation of wind energy facilities having a total capacity of more than 2,400 megawatts. 

If you need another example of the growing backlash against the encroachment of the wind industry, consider this: residents of Penn Forest Township, Pennsylvania, are booing the Sierra Clubbers. 

On June 23, residents of Penn Forest Township, which sits near the heart of the Pocono Mountains, turned out for a zoning hearing on a 37-turbine wind project proposed to be built on land owned by the Bethlehem Authority, the financial arm of the City of Bethlehem’s water system.  The next day, Nicole Radzievich, a reporter for the Morning Call , (based in Allentown) published an article on the hearing, held at a local fire station, which she reported was “packed to capacity with mainly critics.” 

Radzievich added that “nearly 300 opponents” of the proposed wind project “hurled boos” at Pennsylvania Sierra Club’s Donald Miles for supporting the wind project, “and applauded verbal jabs against the wind energy company, Iberdrola Renewables.”

Of course, the backlash in Penn Forest Township and dozens of other towns, counties, and villages against the encroachment of wind energy doesn’t fit the popular-media narrative. Wind energy, we are constantly told, is “green” or “clean.” That same narrative, which is endlessly pushed by the Green/Left claims that we’ll have to install forests of wind turbines all across the countryside (and we’ll have to put thousands of them offshore, too) if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. 

Those may be the claims, but the opposition in Penn Forest Township provides a vivid example of how the land-grabbing subsidy-fueled energy sprawl of the wind industry is being met by a burgeoning backlash that can be seen from Maine to California and New York to Loch Ness. Over the past 18 months, according to published media stories, more than 100 governmental entities in about two dozen US states have moved to reject or restrict the development of wind-energy projects. (To see a spreadsheet with a listing of the entities, click here.) 

In 2015, more than 60 governmental entities in 22 states moved to reject or restrict wind-energy developments with a total capacity of some 3,100 megawatts. During the first six months of 2016, more than 40 governmental entities in 18 states have rejected or moved to restrict the installation of wind energy facilities having a total capacity of more than 2,400 megawatts. 

Among the recent rejections: last month the Lehighton Water Authority rejected Iberdrola's proposal to build three wind turbines on its property. Those turbines were to be part of the same 100-megawatt wind project Iberdrola wants to build on the Bethlehem Authority’s land.  (As I reported a few weeks ago,  Spain-based Iberdrola, which has a seat on the board of the American Wind Energy Association, has received some $2.2 billion in state and federal subsidies.) 

The backlash against the wind industry is not being covered by the New York Times or other national media outlets. But reporters like Radzievich who work for newspapers and TV stations in small towns are covering the rural backlash against Big Wind.

And that coverage -- of zoning hearings, city council meetings, and court rulings – shows how policies being pushed by, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, and other Big Green groups are in direct conflict with the interests of rural residents who don’t want their neighborhoods filled with 500 foot-high wind turbines. 

Hank Orlandini, and his wife, Heather, live in Albrightsville, in a house that would be less than half a mile from Iberdrola’s proposed wind project. He was at the June 23 zoning hearing. During a phone interview, I asked him about the statements made by the Sierra Club representative at the hearing. Orlandini chuckled and replied “We booed him out of the place.” He went on about the Sierra Club, saying, “They claim to represent the environment, but to me they represent big wind, big government, and big business.”

Wealthy urbanites and climate-change activists may like the idea of wind turbines, but a growing number of rural residents like the Orlandinis don’t. They don’t want the noise, property-value depreciation, and visual blight that accompanies modern wind-energy projects. Here are few more examples of the backlash: 

•    Last July, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in favor of an ordinance banning large wind turbines in the county’s unincorporated areas.  During a hearing on the measure, Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said “Wind turbines create visual blight.” In addition, he said the skyscraper-sized turbines would “contradict the county’s rural dark skies ordinance which aims to protect dark skies in areas like Antelope Valley and the Santa Monica Mountains.”  

•    In January, two members of the Vermont State Senate (both Democrats) introduced a bill that would ban wind projects in that state.  State Senator John Rodgers, the author of the bill, told me he’s trying to save his state’s tourism industry. He said “Destroying the natural environment in the name of climate change is moronic.” 

•    In New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pushing a 50-percent renewable mandate, a 200-megawatt project called Lighthouse Wind, is being formally opposed by three New York counties -- Erie, Orleans, and Niagara  -- as well as the towns of Yates and Somerset. 

•    In April, a wind project near Scotland’s famous Loch Ness was rejected by local authorities because of its potential impact on tourism. After the ruling, Jim Treasurer of the Friends of the Great Glen, which had worked to halt all wind-energy development within a 22-mile radius of the loch, told a reporter for The Press and Journal, (a newspaper based in Aberdeen) that the Scottish Highlands had “reached saturation point” with wind energy projects. “It’s perverse to call these developments ‘green’ when they could destroy the core attraction of the lifeline Highland visitor economy.” 

The ramifications of the growing backlash against the wind business are obvious. Under the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration expects domestic wind capacity to nearly triple by 2030. The most powerful Democrats in Washington, as well as Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee for the White House, are pushing a climate agenda that hinges on widespread deployment of wind energy. That same agenda is being pushed by the biggest and richest environmental groups in the US.

Indeed, climate change was the rationale being pushed by the Sierra Club’s Mills at the Penn Forest zoning hearing on June 23. If all rural residents reject wind energy projects, Mills claimed, “climate disruption is guaranteed for our grandchildren."

Furthermore, the backlash is growing at the same time that nearly every wind-energy company is racing to get as many projects permitted and launched before the end of this year as possible. They’re in a hurry because the wind industry’s lucrative subsidy, the $23 per-megawatt-hour production tax credit, will be reduced by 20 percent next year and in ensuing years until it expires in 2019.  Several wind-industry executives have recently admitted  that any reduction in the subsidy gravy train could result in little or no new wind capacity being built after this year. A few weeks ago, Patrick Woodson, chairman of E.On North America, a subsidiary of German energy company E.On, told Recharge News that “It’s going to be enormously challenging to build projects, beyond this [six-month] window.”  (According to Good Jobs First, E.On has collected some $785 million in state and federal subsidies.)

Another obvious point needs to be made: the backlash against the wind industry is occurring without any help from the Big Green groups, who, instead of protecting rural landscapes and viewsheds from the sprawl of wind energy, are, instead, solely focused on demonizing the oil and gas industry and the process of hydraulic fracturing. 

According to a report by the National Center for Policy Analysis, about 470 communities in 24 states have banned fracking or practices associated with the process.  Nearly half of those communities are in one state, New York.  But those bans have come about over the course of several years. Furthermore, they have been actively coordinated by national environmental groups with multi-million-dollar annual budgets who raise money by continually attacking hydrocarbons and nuclear energy. 

For instance, Food & Water Watch, which has an annual budget of about $13 million, actively promotes bans on hydraulic fracturing.  With 17 offices in states across the country,  it organizes “for bans on the state level, working in partnership with local and statewide organizations.”  The Natural Resources Defense Council, which has an annual budget of about $84 million, does similar work.  It has a Community Fracking Defense Campaign, that uses a policy and legal team to “craft effective local laws on fracking, defending those laws in court when challenged, and working at all levels to preserve and protect community rights and local control.”   

By contrast, the rural organizations fighting wind projects are invariably run by volunteers working on shoestring budgets. For instance, last December, the Partnership for the Preservation of the Downeast Lakes Watershed,  a tiny group which had been fighting a $100 million 40-megawatt project known as Bowers Wind, won a major victory when the Maine Judicial Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the state’s Board of Environmental Protection, which had previously rejected the project.  

Gary Campbell, the president of PPDLW, told me that his group got no help from national environmental groups even though the wind project -- which was being pushed by the now-bankrupt alt-energy outfit, SunEdison  -- was to be built adjacent to some of Maine’s most scenic lakes. “Every time we approached Maine Audubon, they slammed the door in our face,” Campbell told me. Campbell’s group fought the project for six years with no paid staff and no attorneys. Their total spending: about $15,000. Why did he fight so hard? The wind industry, Campbell said is “destroying the tourism economy of Maine.”

What does the wind lobby have to say about the rural backlash? A few months ago, I put that question, and several others, to the American Wind Energy Association, which spends more than $20 million per year promoting wind energy.  I emailed Tom Ward, the group’s deputy director of strategic communications, as well as the association’s CEO, Tom Kiernan. Both Ward and Kiernan refused to answer any questions. 

Perhaps that’s not surprising. If the wind lobby acknowledges the widespread rural opposition to the landscape-destroying energy sprawl that fuels their business, it could put a major dent in the industry’s social marketing efforts. 

While the wind lobby can attempt to ignore the opposition, it will have to contend with anti-wind groups like Save Our Allegheny Ridges, which is headed by a firebrand named Laura Jackson, who lives in Everett, Pennsylvania.  In an email, Jackson told me that the site of Iberdrola’s proposed wind project is “a healthy forest with rare plants and animals in a beautiful area of the Poconos…it is a spectacular area.” Jackson also said that shortly after locals heard about the Iberdrola wind project, Jackson’s group helped create a local chapter of SOAR in Penn Forest Township. Local residents then launched a private Facebook page which now has about 1,100 members.  

Orlandini, who works in the service department of a Ford dealership in Lansdale, is one of those members. Over the past few months, he has studied Iberdrola and the wind industry. Does he think wind energy is “green”? Orlandini quickly replied, “It’s not green energy. It’s all about money so a company can build turbines and be subsidized by our government.”

The next zoning hearing on the Iberdrola wind project will be held on July 14 at Penn Forest Township’s Volunteer Fire Company #1, in Jim Thorpe, at 7 pm.

Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His latest book is "Power Hungry: The Myths of "Green" Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future."


JUL 16 2016
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