Hawaii protests show why wind energy can't save us from climate change
by Robert Bryce, The Hill, November 13, 2019
Since mid-October, some 128 people on the island of Oahu have been arrested while protesting a wind energy project being built near the small village of Kahuku. The project is planned to include eight turbines standing 568 feet high. Many of the arrests occurred after protesters blocked trucks carrying equipment to the site. The protests continued on Nov. 1, when about 30 anti-wind protesters occupied the office of Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell for three hours.
Of the many land-use conflicts that have erupted during the past decade over proposed renewable-energy projects, the protests at Kahuku are remarkable both for their duration and the number of people who have been arrested. To be sure, anti-wind protests such as the one at Kahuku don’t get the type of media coverage that is given to protests involving oil pipelines. In 2014, when about 400 people were arrested outside the White House for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, the story was covered by Reuters, Washington Post, CNN, Politico and others. Opposition to “clean” energy doesn’t fit the dominant narrative and therefore doesn’t get the media attention given to anti-hydrocarbon protests.
Despite the lack of coverage, the protests at Kahuku are important for several reasons. First, the protests are happening in Hawaii, a state that has pledged to generate 100 percent of its electricity by 2045. Second, they are the latest example of the raging land-use conflicts over renewable-energy projects that are happening from Oahu to Iowa and Norway to Germany. Finally, the conflicts are a harbinger of more clashes to come if governments attempt to install the colossal quantities of wind turbines and solar panels that would be needed to fuel the global economy.
Indeed, despite the growing resistance to Big Wind projects, many climate scientists and activists still insist that renewables are the answer. For example, the journal BioScience recently published a study signed by more than 11,000 scientists who warned about the “climate emergency.” The study said that to secure a “sustainable future, we must change how we live.” It also advocated population control, leaving “fossil fuels in the ground” and replacing them with “low-carbon renewables.”
But leaving those fuels in the ground will be difficult when so many people in so many places don’t want to live near projects that capture energy that’s above the ground. The refusal of all-renewable advocates to consider the cartoonish land requirements of their schemes and how those plans are affecting ordinary people in rural areas is perhaps the single biggest disconnect in the current energy debate. How cartoonish? Last year, two Harvard researchers found that meeting current U.S. electricity needs with wind would require covering a land area twice the size of California with wind turbines. That’s beyond Looney Tunes.
Last week, I talked to Choon James, a Kahuku resident who was arrested last month while protesting the wind project. The people of Kahuku have “said over and over that we don’t want these turbines,” she said. “I’m all for green energy. But environmental justice has to be a priority.”
Over the past decade, I’ve talked to dozens of rural landowners and politicians in towns and villages across the country who are fighting wind projects. By my count, since 2015, 248 government entities from Maine to California have restricted or rejected wind projects.
Iowa gets about 34 percent of its electricity from wind. But last month, Madison County imposed a one-year moratorium on wind-energy development. The 2-1 vote by the board of supervisors followed months of rancorous debate over a permit that county officials granted to MidAmerican Energy, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, which aims to put a 52-turbine wind project in the county.
The rancor is due, in part, to concerns about the noise produced by wind turbines, which produce both audible and inaudible sound. Numerous studies have found that turbine noise can cause sleeplessness, headaches and other health problems. In August, the Madison County Board of Health approved a resolution which said there is “potential for negative” health effects associated with wind turbines and that “current setbacks are inadequate to protect the public health.” The board recommended that all future wind turbines in the county be located 1.5 miles from homes.
Last month, the Norwegian government announced it was scrapping plans for a national roll out of wind projects because of fierce local opposition. That decision came after sustained protests against the construction of a 60-megawatt wind project on Frøya Island. According to Reuters, Norwegian police were forced to intervene “after protesters pitched tents at the site and parked cars along a road built to transport turbine parts in a bid to block construction.”
Meanwhile, in Germany, according to a recent article by Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky, wind turbines have become so unpopular that their construction “has all but ground to a halt.” He reports that “people hate the way the wind towers change landscapes. There’s even a German word for it, Verspargelung, roughly translated as pollution with giant asparagus sticks.” Germany has been lauded for its plans to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 95 percent by 2050 while also closing its nuclear plants. But with the wind industry becalmed and rural opposition rising, those plans are looking increasingly far-fetched.
The evidence from Kahuku, Iowa, Germany and Norway shows that increasing numbers of people in rural areas don’t want to live in the shadow of giant wind turbines. And yet, the dominant climate strategy being put forward by promoters of the Green New Deal, as well as plans promoted by most of the Democratic presidential candidates, calls for massive increases in renewables. Those schemes seldom, if ever, acknowledge the need for nuclear energy in decarbonization efforts and they completely ignore the fact that we will need hydrocarbons for many years to come.
Put short, the proponents of all-renewable schemes are promoting the myth that there’s plenty of vacant land out there in flyover country that’s ready and waiting to be covered with renewable energy stuff. The truth is quite different and that truth is colliding with the facts — and the people — on the ground.
Mike and Tanya Lamb are among the Iowans who oppose more wind development. Noise from turbines recently built near their home in Adair County — the closest turbine is less than 2,000 feet away — is disturbing their sleep. “There’s no peace and quiet at our home anymore,” Mike Lamb told me. People think “green energy is great. But if you have to live by wind turbines, it’s not so great. It’s pure hell, is what it is.”
Robert Bryce is the producer of a new documentary, “Juice: How Electricity Explains the World.” His sixth book, “A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations,” will be published in March. Follow him on Twitter @pwrhungry.