By J.P. Michaud
April 2, 2008
It isn’t the south against the north. It isn’t Christians versus Muslims. It isn’t even the rich versus the poor. It is a civil war arising from the land use conflicts inherent in alternative energy generation initiatives and it thrives on a certain disconnect between urban and rural elements of our society.
While rural communities possess the required land resources, large urban centers have the hunger for the power and the political influence needed to acquire it, along with little empathy for the pastoral quality of life that defines and motivates rural living.
Politicians of almost every stripe are currently stampeding over each other to masquerade as protectors of the environment by promoting and embracing ‘renewable energy’…
For vehicles, that means biofuels, for electricity, it means either wind or solar, regardless of the fact than none of these options can possibly make a meaningful contribution in their present forms. All demand that vast tracts of land be pressed into service in order to produce relatively slender yields of energy. In the rush to promote these alternative energy sources, federal and state governments have provided generous tax breaks and lucrative capital depreciation incentives to big business to encourage development.
In doing so, they have laid the foundation for a civil war that is currently ravaging dozens of rural communities nationwide, albeit without much attention from the national media.
Renewable energy incentives are most attractive to the largest corporations that have the biggest ‘tax appetites’. Forget about grass-roots conservation and ‘bottom up’ local energy reform – developments must be large scale to qualify for any real government support. Unscrupulous developers nationwide are scheming to lock up valuable land leases for energy generation, most notably for large industrial wind turbines. And where to find large acreages of land that can be leased cheaply? The same place residential and commercial developers have looked in the past – farmland.
Farms have always been vulnerable to development because just about any other use will generate more income from the land than agriculture, so grossly has our system of agricultural supports deflated the value of food to American consumers. With the advent of rural urbanization, many prime farm lands fell victim to subdivisions, golf courses and parking lots, all more lucrative enterprises. Now it is renewable energy developers that need land – and lots of it. But they don’t want to buy it, no, they just want to lease it. And you can go on using it just like you did before – well, almost.
Never before has agriculture faced such an insidious threat from heavy industry. The ‘renewable energy’ bandwagon promises new sources of income to farmers and new markets for conventional crops. The euphemism ‘wind farm’ is emblematic of a new corporate strategy to portray renewable energy generation as a form of agriculture, and hence inherently compatible with rural living. However, ‘renewable’ does not mean ‘without environmental impact’ and while some adverse consequences for agriculture are easily recognizable (damage to water tables, destruction of vegetation, soil compaction etc.), more insidious impacts will likely not be recognized or linked to such developments for many years.
Grain farmers are currently rejoicing at the record high prices they receive for corn, wheat and soybeans as a result of the twin boondoggles of ‘biodiesel’ and ‘bioethanol’, neither of which can significantly reduce our dependence on foreign oil or our emissions of greenhouse gases in their current forms. These farmers would be wise to remember that biofuel plants demand huge volumes of fresh water and must be close to their grain supplies to be profitable.
Thus, not only are we putting our food supply into our vehicles instead of our stomachs, we are making fuel compete with food for a rapidly diminishing supply of fresh water. This comes precisely at a time when urban communities across more than half the country are facing perennial droughts and are likely to lobby for reduced water allocations to agriculture which, after all, consumes more of the country’s water than any other human activity.
As mentioned above, significant tracts of rural land in the proximity of urban centers have already been subdivided into small parcels and sold profitably by farmers to urbanites seeking country residences. The appeal of these properties was not their proximity to agriculture and all its negative side-effects (flies, dust, chemical drift, etc.) nor their lack of municipal services, but rather the peace and quite of living in a pastoral environment.
We should not be surprised, then, if country residents rise up in arms against farmers when they lease large tracts of land for wind turbines or seek to build ethanol plants near people’s homes. To surround rural residences with industrial parks destroys the very quality of life that sold those properties, and will certainly diminish their resale value.
Conflicts over land use are as old as America itself, but new conflicts bring new forms of political injustice. Our politicians have loosed upon us a virtual army of scheming, profit-driven developers and allowed them to wrap themselves in the seemingly unimpeachable cloak of ‘green energy’ while they aggressively exploit unsuspecting rural neighborhoods. While actively promoting renewable energy in the media, federal and state authorities invariably take a hands-off approach whenever it comes to implementation of their policies on a local level. Far better to let local governments decide such issues. At least, that is the easiest way for these higher authorities to divest themselves of responsibility and avoid any political backlash from the inevitable NIMBY activists.
The problem is that local governments have neither the resources nor the expertise to make informed decisions when choosing sites for large-scale energy developments and cannot always be relied on to act in the best interests of their community. County commissions are subject to very little oversight and are far more vulnerable to corruption, nepotism and conflicts of interest than higher forms of government. Consequently, they are easily coerced by developers offering relatively insignificant incentives to a minority of the community and often end up supporting projects before they have any real grasp of their long-term implications. Developers typically secure this level of support long in advance of any public forum that would ostensibly consider input from informed citizens representing broader community interests, especially those of landholders who stand to be negatively affected without receiving any benefit or compensation from the development.
Wind energy developments are typically preceded by years of covert scouting, signing of confidential leasing agreements, bribing of local politicians with payments in lieu of taxes, etc. etc. Rural neighbors typically have only weeks to respond to a notice of a conditional use permit or rezoning application. Newspapers and local media are quickly brought on board to announce the impending development as ‘news’ and provide free promotion in the form of feature stories and guest editorials. As the community at large becomes aware of a project, it is promoted in such a blitz of advertising that the average person is inclined to accept it as a ‘done deal’ in which further discussion is pointless. Or at least that is the hope of the developer.
Developers will tout the economic benefits of their project to the community, invariably exaggerating the number of jobs they will create and the amount of money they will spend. They seek to hypnotize impressionable locals with visions of a free lunch. But to embrace industrial development of any kind is to forgo alternative forms of development, including those that might be more profitable in the future, or more conducive to a peaceful and healthy society. It also entails an inevitable cost in terms of conservation of natural resources. Existing businesses may be lost, especially those linked to tourism, recreation, or residential services. Disgruntled professionals with transferable skills many seek employment elsewhere, taking a significant portion of the existing tax base with them. But developers never talk costs – only benefits.
Any form of energy generation needs a conduit to carry its product from source to market – power lines. Distributed forms of energy generation like wind and solar require more extensive networks of power lines than more centralized forms of generation, thus easements are sought by developers for the quickest and cheapest route to link up with an existing high voltage line. This is the currently the driving force behind site selection for these developments – cost effectiveness for the developer to maximize profits rather than environmental or socioeconomic consideration to minimize impact on the rural population. Developers will purchase what easements they can and later use eminent domain to fill in the gaps once they establish themselves as a utility company under state law.
More and more rural residents get blind-sided as the developers, usually acting in the interests are large foreign corporations, soon gain control of more land in the community than any local resident – all without actually purchasing a single acre.
The impending socio-economic fallout from these conflicts is chilling to consider. Local newspaper headlines are telling: “County wind turbine debate pits neighbors, families against each other”. People feel outraged and disenfranchised by the undemocratic nature of the development process and are left to vent their animosity on those they see as immediately responsible – their neighbors who supported the development, often without grasping its full implications. But it is the corporate opportunists and the self-serving politicians that enable them who are those truly deserving of our resentment and contempt. Their ambush development tactics are creating multiple, small-scale civil wars all across rural America.
We may be facing a new form of class warfare – true rural conservationists versus phony environmentalists – industrial wolves in sheep’s clothing and the political posers that license and subsidize them. Civil conflicts wrought by aggressive wind energy developments are currently raging in more that 20 different states and have spawned multiple websites. Although local in scale, these are social conflicts of the worst kind – those that can tear the fabric of communities apart. And these conflicts are not due to anything inherent in the technology, but rather inherent to the unscrupulous tactics of its implementation.
The only real winners are the developers who consciously employ a ‘divide-and-conquer’ approach to achieve their ends and then leave town with their profits.
The local consequences are not that different from the effects of sectarian violence – communities are left with broken friendships, mistrust of neighbors, political animosities, and a compromised future. Such will be the legacy of the civil war over renewable energy that, like all civil wars, was born out of leadership failures and politicians that turned a blind eye to the civil injustice created by their policies.
Published April 2, 2008 by J.P. Michaud