Sunday, March 8, 2009

The friction against alternative energy and grid infrastructure

An estimated 50 million people across the US and Canada were affected by the great big blackout of 2003. I remember this because I was scheduled to travel to Canada that day and the blackout caused so many disruptions that eventually I just canceled the trip. I am reminded of this as I read about two events this past week.

The first one I read about was the strong opposition to the planned new high-voltage power line by PSE&G. Eight towns in Morris and Sussex counties of NJ, have formed a coalition to fight this proposal by PSE&G to build the 45-mile, $750 million power line project that cuts through North Jersey.

Construction of this has not even begun and it is estimated to take about 2-1/2 years. PSE&G estimates that the new line needs to be in service by the summer of 2012 to avoid overloaded lines and possible blackouts and brownouts in New Jersey. The power-line project would include installation of towers with heights ranging from 180 to 190 feet, almost twice the height of what exists along the route now. PSE&G says that the new line is imperative and would provide a better and more reliable power system. However the towns are opposing it because of an array of issues regarding health, safety and economic concerns. It seems to me most home owners near the property view the towers as an ugly eyesore.

The second article I read with great interest was that NJ Gov. Jon Corzine's policy push to use alternative, clean energy sources has run into headwinds. Critics of the offshore wind generation project say that it will harm the ocean ecology. Gov. Corzine wants wind farms to supply 1,000 megawatts of electricity. This energy would be enough to power about 375,000 homes. There is a proposal to increase the capacity over time to supply over a million homes with clean wind energy.

The cost barriers for implementing alternative energy sources are already so high. Alternative energy needs extremely high investment infrastructure. Reliable power is paramount as we cannot have blackouts like 2003, which could lead to national security issues. The public who are quick to complain when grid failures occur are however quicker to stall projects that solve the problems. As we modernize our grid, some people will have to live with taller towers in their backyards or unsightly wind-towers. In some cases these offshore wind towers may harm the ocean ecology temporarily. We as a nation are facing challenging times. Opposition to alternative energy sources like off shore wind farms and grid upgrade and reconstruction will only increase the overall cost of these projects.

Local townships and municipalities should understand the immense importance of educating their citizens to support such projects. Instead we see local governments opposing them in fear that some of these projects will lead to destruction of property values and hence tax revenues. To counter this, public utilities should offer greater incentives to the people or townships who are in the path of the power lines. Maybe a 50% reduction on electricity bills for the next 20 years based on current usage would get the public and the townships to reconsider the opposition to the development of a super grid. This incentive limited to those homes within 150 feet of the towers themselves. Also make these incentives transferable to enable an easy sale of the home. I believe that the utilities could easily absorb this cost over 20 years as opposed to years of legal costs of fighting local governments and public.

In the same way, we cannot be delay the installation of offshore wind turbines. In the long run the ecological cost of building these alternative power sources will be far lesser than the threat of global warming that we face.

4 comments:

greenskeptic said...

I totally agree. This is a sad story that once again illustrates the short-sightedness and self-absorption of NIMBY Americans.

Aesthetic concerns didn't seem to matter when the suburban landscape was being littered with shopping malls and box stores and McMansion developments ad infinitum.

We need to wake up to the realities here and make some concessions or just change the way we view these things: a wind turbine can be a beautiful thing. A wind farm can be an aesthetic jewel. Really, they are elegant machines.

I understand the high-tension power line issues and concerns. However, it should be up to the townships and utilities to be open and transparent with their residents about the myths and the realities.

And, yes, some incentives for homeowners would be nice too, especially if they carry with the deed.

Good post, Deepak, and a debate that needs to be more public.

Trevor said...

Difficult challenges certainly. We're not famous for putting the common good above NIMBY.

Do you (or other commentators) see any difference between the community / political opposition to grid improvement projects versus the opposition to micro-energy (local area generation and distribution) projects? Do you expect the latter to be more or less acceptable to communities?

I'm wondering if support for local energy projects could be more easily obtained due to their unambiguous local benefit?

famolari said...

Agree. It is a shame and I hope that townships can come to see our more pressing energy issues.

You may be interested in having a look at NJs Energy Master Plan for more details on what Corzine would like to achieve. http://www.nj.gov/emp/

With the EMP, aggressive renewable subsidies and credits, NJ deserves credit for being one of the more progressive states on the energy issue.

Deepak Das said...

Whether it is local area generation or development of infrastructure, the "NIMBY" will apply in both aspects. There is this perception of deflated property values around utility projects, whether it be lines, poles or local area generation. I think this issue can be resolved quickly with high incentives. In quoting the movie godfather "Utilities have to make an offer that people cannot refuse".