The term of art in land use planning circles to describe implacable community opposition is BANANA - Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone.
Put those unsightly offshore wind turbines, that scary nuclear waste disposal site, those gigantic solar mirrors, those ugly power lines somewhere else, opponents cry. Trouble is, there is no such place. Somewhere else is inevitably going to be near someone else who will demand that the project go somewhere else.
Social scientists published an article in Science magazine recently that they say points to an answer to the conundrum. First, however, a bit of context.
Community opposition to big energy projects is the BANANA peel on which building a new energy economy could slip. The issue has played out for years in Massachusetts, where the Cape Wind project has divided people near and far who usually see eye to eye on reducing carbon emissions and ratcheting down dependence on dirty energy sources.
Cape Wind conceivably could be relocated to a more welcoming community. Or, the project could be canceled. Neither option would solve the underlying problem, however.
To understand why, consider the decades-long battles over locating a final resting place for the high-level radioactive waste generated in commercial nuclear power plants. Radioactive waste is with us and will remain with us, even if all nuclear power plants closed overnight. It must go somewhere, even if the would-be neighbors want it somewhere else.
The Obama administration, for reasons perhaps having to do with the preferences of one Harry Reid, wants to pull the plug on Yucca Mountain, a lonely high desert massif some 85 miles away from Las Vegas that an act of Congress in 1987 designated as the nation's sole repository for high-level nuclear waste.
The 1987 legislation is widely known in the Silver State as the "screw Nevada" bill - enacted on the premise that since no one wants this stuff in their backyard, the expedient thing to do is dump it somewhere else. Which, at the time, was Nevada, a politically weak state that did not have a Senate majority leader in the neighborhood.
The administration has appointed a commission of high-powered political and technical worthies tasked with exploring alternatives to Yucca Mountain - storage at plant sites in hulking dry casks, for example, which a number of utilities already are resorting to as space runs short in the "swimming pools" where they've been keeping spent fuel rods. Another possibility is reprocessing and recycling spent fuel, a pricey proposition with unanswered technical and proliferation questions.
All well and good, wrote 16 social scientists in their Science article, but the commission doesn't include members with the expertise to examine a non-technical but critical question - how to gain public acceptance for the disposal site or sites, wherever they are to be sited?
Eugene Rosa, an environmental policy expert at Washington State University and one of the article's authors, warns that the commission is repeating mistakes made by previous administrations and lawmakers: "One of the reasons why the process and the agencies responsible for nuclear wastes have been unsuccessful in that task is that they have not paid attention to gaining public acceptability and trust," Rosa said in a Science podcast. Like when Congress passed the screw-Nevada bill, for instance.
A key is to ask citizens for their input early and often, and make a real effort to listen, even if the politicians and technical experts mutter to each other that those uneducated citizens are going on about non-issues. The listening, Rosa said, will build trust. There are no guarantees about the end result, but you've improved the odds of heading off implacable opposition. A good case study is how the Swedes cracked the nuclear waste management nut.
Those are lessons that could apply to other energy projects - offshore wind projects, for example, more of which might be popping up off the Eastern Seaboard, where the winds blow hard and the load centers are near.
And, concentrating solar plants, big assemblages of mirrors capturing the Southwest's cornucopia of sunlight for power generation in areas prized for their exotic vistas.
And, transmission lines to send zero-carbon energy from remote solar, wind, and geothermal plants to office towers, factories, gadget-filled homes and, perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, electric car-charging stations in the cities.
Building a new energy economy will mean less dependence on big, chunky energy sources and more dependence on dispersed sources that need more space. Unless we want an energy future that looks like the energy present - carbon-chugging coal plants and more guzzling of oil from the world's worst regimes - zero-carbon energy facilities and the wires delivering their energy will have to go somewhere. Not somewhere else.
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