There’s not a more important economic imperative for the U.S. than the transition to renewable energy. Ominously, anti-development forces — commonly known as NIMBYs — threaten to make this transition much harder. And much of that NIMBY energy is coming from the political left.
Consider the recent blockage of a solar power plant near Las Vegas. The Battle Born Solar Project, set on a rock formation called Mormon Mesa, would have been the nation’s largest. It would have provided a tenth of the state’s generating capacity, enough to power more than 800,000 homes. And since Nevada mostly uses power generated from natural gas, the project would have made a significant dent in greenhouse emissions.
But a coalition of environmental groups and tourism businesses, calling themselves “Save Our Mesa,” organized to successfully block the project. The businesses argued that the solar plant would hurt activities linked to all-terrain vehicles and skydiving. The environmentalists in the group claimed that it was about land conservation.
This is a pretty massive case of misplaced priorities. Land conservation is well and good, but climate change is bearing down on the U.S. Wildfires in California, heat domes in Portland, hurricanes in Louisiana and New York, droughts in the Great Plains, and flooding on the Mississippi show that nowhere is safe from the effects. It’s imperative that the country — and the world —switch to green energy sources as fast as possible.
In this context, scrapping the nation’s largest solar plant in the name of conservation — and of gas-powered ATVs — is an untenable position. Save Our Mesa reeks of pure, unadulterated NIMBYism. Nor does it seem specific to Mormon Mesa — on its website, the group criticizes solar panels in general, claiming that they lower humidity, create dust issues, etc.
This is sadly typical of a strain of so-called environmentalism that has turned on renewable energy projects. Some activists have been opposing wind turbines for years, claiming they scar the natural beauty of the countryside and kill birds. When the turbines are offshore, groups sometimes oppose them due to unknown but possibly deleterious effects on the ocean. Meanwhile, the BattleBorn Solar Project is hardly the first to come under attack from environmentalists — for years, activist groups have opposed to building solar in the desert, in order to protect local animal and plant life.
The electric vehicle revolution, meanwhile, is facing its own sort of pushback from the political left. Warnings that child labor is sometimes employed in overseas cobalt mines have turned some against the technology of lithium-ion batteries.
Concerns over open space, protected species and child labor are legitimate, and companies who deploy green energy technologies should minimize these downsides. But using these issues as an excuse to scuttle the transition to green energy only exacerbates the problems they’re concerned about. Climate change has the potential to devastate the natural habitats of animals and plants all over the worldAnd it will impoverish countries to the point where child labor becomes commonplace again. The harms from climate change are vastly more terrifying than the objections of even the most earnest NIMBY leftist.
That said, the cynic in me suspects that the complaints about projects like the Battle Born Solar Project are not entirely about the issues they claim to be about. Since the 1970s, Americans have latched on to NIMBYism as a general way of life. Environmental laws provided residents of sleepy suburbs with a powerful tool to block any changes to their sleepy suburbs. Between that and a general trendtoward leftist politics in the West, it’s little wonder that any group trying to stop development, whether conservative or liberal, would resort to environmental arguments.
But this is unacceptable. Leaders at the state and national level must step in; just as with housing, only government has the power to overcome the local voters who insist that nothing be built in their backyards.
Fortunately, there are signs of movement in this direction. California, traditionally one of the states most wedded to policy stasis, is showing some encouraging signs of finally getting tough with NIMBYs on zoning for denser development. That approach needs to be applied to renewable energy too, forcing cities to accept solar and wind plants and strongly incentivizing a shift to electric vehiclesAs the West burns and the East floods, there’s no time to waste.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.