“Stately, quite pretty even.” That’s how one Iowa farmer described a nearby wind farm to scholars Joshua T. Brinkman and Richard F. Hirsh. A Minnesota farmer: “neat.” In Illinois: a “legacy” for the kids.
Many in Nebraska, however, fear that wind energy expansion will ruin the rural landscape, lower property values and harm regional tourism.
Given this attitude, it’s no surprise that Nebraska ranks fourth among states in wind electricity potential but 18th in actual generation, whereas Iowa leads the nation, getting 37 percent of its electricity from this resource.
As state decision-makers consider their options, they would do well to reflect not only on the well-known "not in my backyard, or NIMBY, phenomenon exemplified by local opponents, but also on what Brinkman and Hirsh call PIMBY -- please in my backyard -- as expressed by the farmers with whom they spoke. To accelerate Nebraska’s, and America’s, energy transition, building on PIMBY, when possible, may be better than fighting NIMBY.
I am not writing to condemn NIMBY. Opponents of development in Nebraska have an inalienable right to express their values as their communities weigh facility siting decisions.
More importantly, some energy facilities, like power plants and refineries, may raise chronic health and acute safety risks for their neighbors. The exposure of Houston residents to volatile organic chemicals and waste products in the wake of Hurricane Harvey is a vivid reminder that NIMBY is often rational.
PIMBY, too, may have a rational component. The American Wind Energy Association reports that landowners receive $222 million annually for the right to farm their wind.
But PIMBY is not mainly about money. It’s also an attitude, a commitment, an identity. It’s about a feeling that you’re part of something bigger and grander than yourself that you can pass on to your children and grandchildren. It’s about defining yourself as forward-looking and modern. It’s a complete rejection of Hollywood’s Beverly Hillbilly stereotype of rural people.
PIMBY has deep roots in American history. Farmers 100 years ago were early adopters of new technologies like automobiles and radios. Today, they are putting drones, artificial intelligence and big data to work at least as quickly as the hipsters whom city dwellers imagine reside at technology’s bleeding edge. Wind farms are just the latest example of this ultra-modern outlook.
Wind farms aren’t the only clean energy technologies to which some rural Americans say “PIMBY”!
“Solar and agriculture,” notes Robin Aldina of the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, “are not competing but complementary industries.”
The transmission lines needed to get power from rural sites where renewable resources are plentiful to metropolitan areas that need it may also fall into this category. Even nuclear power is welcomed in certain places, to the utter disbelief of many urban and suburban NIMBYers.
This disbelief must be suspended if the United States is to get facilities built on the scale required to transition to clean energy in the coming decades. Brinkman stressed in an interview that what will really make PIMBY work is “respect.” Respect for the intelligence of the people who would live near these facilities. Respect for their values, including their love of the land and the environment. Respect for their traditions and desire to preserve their heritage.
On the other hand, if out-of-towners insist that such facilities must be built right here, right now, because that is the only thing that will save the planet, then PIMBY will very quickly metamorphosize into NIMBY. Whether or not federal and state officials succeed in streamlining formal siting processes, residents who live near planned facilities will find informal ways of slowing and stopping projects in which they hold no psychic ownership.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. One person’s NIMBY is another’s PIMBY. Until we take this kind of diversity seriously and show it the respect it deserves, our energy facility siting processes will be “deja vu all over again,” as Yogi Berra famously put it.
The alternative is litigation, protest, delay, exhaustion—until we all go BANANAs: Build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone! And that surely will not save the planet.