Not all that is renewable is sustainable

Last week, MPR reported that New Era Wind LLC has informed the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission that it will end its effort to build a 78 megawatt wind farm in Goodhue County.

Midwest Energy News spoke to people close to the project to get their perspective on “what, if any, legacy or lessons the case leaves behind.” (“In Minnesota, looking for lessons from Goodhue wind fight”, 9/20/2013, Dan Haugen). It is an interesting read for those who are new to the story, or want to review the facts and controversies surrounding the project, which was first proposed in 2008.

For an a lesson in how this other large renewable energy developments can fail the sustainability test on economic grounds, look back to Institute for Local Self-Reliance researcher John Farrell’s May 10, 2011 article in Grist, “Want local communities to support wind? Put them in charge.” An excerpt:

In a recent study by the ever-methodical Europeans, they found that opponents to new wind and solar power have two key desires: “people want to avoid environmental and personal harm” and they also want to “share in the economic benefits of their local renewable energy resources.” It’s not that people are made physically ill by new renewable energy projects. Rather, they are sick and tired of seeing the economic benefits of their local wind and sun leaving their community.

Such opposition is perfectly rational, since investments in renewable energy can be quite lucrative (private developers and their equity partners routinely seek 10 percent return on investment or higher). And the economic benefits of local ownership far outweigh the economic colonialism of absentee owners profiting from local renewable energy resources.

Of course, NIMBY-ism only sometimes manifests itself as an economic argument, and there’s a good reason for that, too. In the project development process, there are precious few opportunities for public comment, and almost all of them represent up-or-down votes on project progress. None offer an opportunity to change the structure of the development to allow for greater local buy-in or economic returns. And no project will be halted simply because it isn’t locally owned. Projects can and have been stopped on the basis of health and environmental impacts. Enter Wind Turbine Syndrome.

This project also failed the sustainability test in terms of ecological soundness, as Belle Creek Township resident Thomas Gale explains in his letter to the Minnesota PUC detailing how the developer responded to recommendations from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.