Q&A: Renewable resistance

American Experiment Policy Fellow Isaac Orr interviews renowned author and filmmaker Robert Bryce about the misconceptions surrounding wind and solar energy, their negative impact on poor, rural and minority communities, and how people are fighting back. 

Robert Bryce is an author, journalist, podcaster, film producer and public speaker who has covered the energy industry for 30 years. His articles have appeared in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, National Review, Field & Stream and Austin Chronicle.

Robert is also the author of an upcoming study for Center of the American Experiment entitled, “Not In Our Backyard: Rural America Is Fighting Back Against Large-Scale Renewable Energy Projects.”

Robert, in the American Experiment report that you wrote, you note that renewable energy is politically popular. Polling data show that about 70 percent of Americans want more wind energy and 80 percent want more solar. Who are these people and why would anyone oppose them?

I think there’s a natural affinity for them. I recently interviewed a woman in London and asked her, “Well, why are renewables so popular?” She said, “It’s that word, renewable. Everybody loves that word.” When you add this to the natural affinity people have for wind and solar, they get the feeling that these energy sources are renewable, therefore they’re infinite, and must be good. 

There is also, frankly, very good social marketing of wind and solar. You see it in beer commercials, in pickup truck commercials. There’s this idea, “Oh, it’s spinning out there and it’s great.” Those polling numbers are indicative of the general sentiment about renewables. People just like it. It’s like motherhood and apple pie, who could be opposed?

The problem is that the vast majority of renewable energy infrastructure is going up in rural areas that aren’t benefitting from it.

Would it be fair to say that urbanites and suburbanites like wind and solar because they aren’t around the infrastructure?

That’s the big issue. People like the romantic idea of renewables, they like the concept, but the reality is a whole other thing. The best resources for wind and solar are in flyover country, but you have to move that electricity to the big cities. 

The cities are predominantly run by Democrats, and they want the renewables because climate change is a big part of the party’s platform. But there’s an idea that says “Oh, we’ll just put the infrastructure in rural areas.” 

Well, it’s the rural Republican voters who are going to see decreased land values as well as high voltage transmission lines, big areas covered with solar panels. They’ve looked at this and said, “This is a bad deal for us, and we don’t want it.” We see this from Maine to Hawaii.

What are the main concerns that rural Americans are facing when it comes to renewable development?

The main concern is that their property values will fall. There are numerous studies that validate these concerns, and I cite them in the report for American Experiment. We’ve seen land values near wind turbines go down after they’re installed. That’s one of their main issues, but it’s also tourism, it’s also viewsheds.

Also, small landowners sometimes feel like they’re being pushed around and having to fight against some large corporations who aren’t from the neighborhood, aren’t from the state in many cases, who are saying, “Well, we’re going to put these wind turbines near you, and you don’t have a say.”

I’ve talked to a lot of rural landowners and office holders, and they express the same sentiment: “These big players are coming in to push us around, and we don’t like it.” I heard that definitively in Madison County, Iowa, which in December passed an ordinance effectively banning wind turbines. They got sued by MidAmerican Energy, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s company. There’s a David versus Goliath attitude that’s part of the fight.

You said that from Maine to Hawaii people who are around these projects are fighting back. What are they doing? 

One thing I didn’t understand fully until I wrote the report were the measures that local communities are taking to try and fend off these projects. 

One of the most interesting ways was in Michigan, where a number of local towns developed heliports. They would survey out a little piece of land and then apply for an application for a heliport. Well, that boxed out wind projects for a certain radius because they need to be far enough away from the heliport. 

Local communities and county governments have also passed ordinances limiting the noise a wind turbine can make. That’s a big issue because of the negative effects that noise has on human and animal health. They also pass rules regarding setbacks from property lines. In Madison County, Iowa, the county board of supervisors passed a 1.5-mile setback from a neighboring property line.

How many communities have said, “No, thank you,” at this point?

My count today is 293 since 2015 when I started keeping track of these initiatives. It started as a simple spreadsheet, and we’re going to publish it on American Experiment’s website when the report comes out. I’m proud of it. I’ve maintained it for seven years, and I’ve done it because I care about it. I care about it because I’ve talked to so many people who’ve been hurt. I’ve talked to so many small town mayors, small town councilmen, county commissioners who are offended, they’re mad. 

I’ve also talked to people who’ve been — because of the health issues, because of the sleeplessness, because of the noise — driven out of their homes, including Dave and Rose Enz from Brown County, Wisconsin. 

They abandoned their home and now they’re living largely in an RV. To hear their story, I mean, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to care. This blithe ignorance and dismissal of people like them, it makes me mad. It motivates me. I feel a responsibility to tell their story.

You note that hundreds of communities have now banned or restricted renewable energy development. How much land do you think it would take to implement the green dream? 

Research that goes back for more than a decade, including Vaclav Smil’s book Energy Myths & Realities that he published in 2010, as well as a study out of Harvard in 2018, found the amount of land needed just to meet our existing electricity demand in the United States, which is roughly 4,000 Terawatt-hours a year, would require a land area of roughly twice the size of the state of California. 

The scale of the land use required for wind is cartoonish. Yet some of the most prominent academic institutions in America — Cal Berkeley, Stanford, Princeton — are producing reports saying, “Oh, we can do this. All we need is just a few hundred thousand square kilometers of land.” Well, these studies don’t consider the approximately 290 communities that have already said, “No, we don’t want this.” There’s no mention, no recognition, no acknowledgement of these land use conflicts that are already limiting the growth of wind.

But isn’t that just a bunch of empty land?

That question is right on point because all of this worldview depends on this vacant-land myth. 

One of the published papers on this looks at South Africa. White settlers would see areas of South Africa that weren’t settled and think, “It’s vacant.” Well, no, actually. Tribal people would migrate through there. 

It also happened in the settlement of the western United States: “Oh, well, that land in Oklahoma, or Kansas, or wherever in the west, they’re not using it. Well, we’re going to use it.” This vacant-land myth that now has been around for a very long time also applies to the renewable business that says, “Oh, well, it’s degraded land, or it’s just farmland, and we’re going to help these farmers and give them more income. Oh, and they’re going to welcome it.” No, it’s absolutely wrong.

Don’t you have to break a few eggs to make a green new omelet?

Yes, you do. I think the land use issue is the most important, obviously. I’ve thought about it, talked about it, written about it a lot. But right behind it is material intensity. Where are you going to get all the ingredients, the cobalt, the copper, the steel, the lithium, the neodymium, the praseodymium, the lanthanum?

The problem with low power density sources like biofuels, like wind, like solar, is that to counteract the low power output you have to build more of them, which means high resource intensity. 

It’s one reason why I’m such a big fan of nuclear. When you have such incredibly dense power, you don’t need as much steel, concrete, copper, all these things, to produce huge amounts of energy because of that incredible power density that you get from splitting the atom.

Aren’t these rural folks just being ungrateful for the economic development and jobs that people are essentially mandating into their backyards?

This is the argument and the common refrain from the wind developers. I recently spoke to a county commissioner in Nebraska, and I asked him about a project that was proposed and rejected. He said a salesperson from Invenergy, a Chicago-based company, was saying, “Oh, you’re going to miss out on all these benefits and all this tax revenue.” 

The county commissioner replied to this guy from Invenergy and said, “Mister, you don’t understand these people, they can’t be bought.” He was saying the local farmers were not going to sell leases on their property because they knew it was going to harm their neighbors. 

Another example of the divide is wealthy urban interests going into lower-income counties. If you look, and particularly in Minnesota, if memory serves, over 90 percent of all wind projects are in counties that have median household incomes below the state average. This is not a coincidence.

Shifting gears just a little bit, you’ve written about policies like greenhouse gas emission reduction in California among black and Latino leaders. What’s happening in Green California to drive this resistance?

This, to me, is maybe the most interesting politics of any place in the country or in the world. The climate push there from policymakers, elected and non-elected, to reduce CO2 emissions are so far-reaching in scope — and many of which were never voted on by the legislature — that you’re seeing the backlash from the Latino and black representatives and leaders.

Now, why does that matter? It’s because California has the highest poverty rate of any state when you factor cost of living. The number of people living in poverty in California is roughly equal to the entire population of Arizona. 

You have a very wealthy elite class in coastal communities in California where the legislators are powerful, and they’re passing legislation and implementing regulatory regimes that are affecting all Californians, effectively taxing their mobility, taxing their transportation fuel, and taxing the homes they live in.

I interviewed Jennifer Hernandez, a lawyer pressing several lawsuits against the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and she said, “This is racist. This is climate redlining, where the wealthy districts, the wealthy regulators are passing regulations that have a regressive effect on California’s Latino community, and we’re not going to stand for it.”

What do you think the future of energy holds for the United States and the world? Are we going to figure out the land use issues for wind and solar? 

I have a three-part answer.

First, in the wake of the Texas blackouts (at our house in Austin we lost power for 45 hours in subfreezing temperatures on Feb. 15 and 16), there should be a lot more scrutiny of wind and solar and what they can’t do. It’s clear in retrospect that there has been far too much attention paid in California and Texas to decarbonizing the grid and not nearly enough on resilience and reliability. 

Second, whatever policy prescriptions come out of Washington, D.C. or state capitals, there’s no denying the fact that energy transitions take decades, not years. In 1985, the U.S. was getting 90 percent of its energy from hydrocarbons. By 2019, despite decades of subsidies and mandates, hydrocarbons still accounted for about 83 percent of the market. Coal may be fading, but oil and natural gas will dominate for many decades to come. 

Third, don’t underestimate the left’s eagerness to spend tax dollars on politically popular energy. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, in her first major speech, did not use the word “nuclear.” Instead, she said: “We have to add hundreds of gigawatts to the grid over the next four years. It’s a huge amount. And there’s so little time.” It’s clear the Biden administration wants to spend billions more on wind and solar, and the renewable energy lobby is going to take every billion it can get. 

Do you think there’s going to be some implosion point with wind and solar? 

There is a lot of momentum behind them. But there is also a growing backlash both to the projects themselves and the siting of high-voltage transmission lines. The California and Texas blackouts within a span of six months should be a wakeup call. That said, there’s the old line about investing from John Maynard Keynes: “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.”