Green Energy Faces A New Foe: Angry Neighbors

Last Updated Apr 8, 2010 7:05 PM EDT

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) has always been something of an in-joke in the renewable energy community. Sure, politicians in both parties talk up the necessity of "clean coal" technology that can capture greenhouse gases as they exit coal and gas plant smokestacks. But the technology is a huge technical challenge, and it's not cheap, either.

Clean coal projects have moved ahead despite the ridicule that has been heaped on them. Their reward: yet another challenge. This time it's called NIMBYism, for "Not In My Back Yard" thank you very much. Vattenfall, one of the largest energy companies around is running into local opposition to CCS in Germany, according to the New York Times:

The protests began last year. Residents are concerned that CO2, which causes suffocation at high concentrations, will leak from rock formations, despite assurances from geologists that escape is practically impossible. And there are other worries -- about stored CO2 turning groundwater acidic and forcing real estate prices to plunge...

The unrest and delays confronting Vattenfall are not unique to the Brandenburg region. Similar protests strangled a project in Germany's west, and a Dutch town is feuding with its government and Royal Dutch Shell PLC over CO2 storage. European industry and governments, which have almost never seen protests over similar natural gas storage, now realize they are far ahead of society and are scrambling to allay the fears of a confused and angry public.

Vattenfall executives interviewed in the story seem bemused by the opposition, which they clearly didn't expect. Perhaps they should have, though; people who never imagined that they would have a problem with a particular technology often change their mind when it gets uncomfortably close. In this case, the imaginations of the locals for what lies under their feet has proven too much for them to bear.

And beyond just human nature, there's also mounting evidence that every sector of renewable energy is having NIMBYism problems. The industry, which began with a starry-eyed enthusiasm for its own products, didn't put much thought into how politics could make their work more difficult.

Here's a short list of NIMBY concerns that have damaged or slowed cleantech companies, off the top of my head:

That's not even counting similar problems of the sort BrightSource Energy had when conservationists in California decided that it would be a bad idea to have a solar plant in the otherwise empty Mojave Desert. Between empty natural landscapes and occupied areas, renewable energy companies are finding that there are problems just about anywhere they can build.

Of course, NIMBYism is a two way street, at least in its affect on the entire energy industry. Just north of me in Richmond, Calif., local residents have fought tooth and nail against a Chevron refinery upgrade -- nevermind that Richmond, Calif. might not exist without said refinery. Elsewhere in the nation, coal companies are finding that local environmentalists can be a deadly enemy.

Is NIMBYism on the rise? Some think it is, although the movement may just be a temporary problem as the energy industry goes through a shift. Whether it's permanent or not, a healthy opposition may result in a more cautious and responsible industry down the road, albeit with a new problem created by the constant planning headaches: higher energy prices.