Green energy — but not in my back yard!

Odd as it may seem, the main victims of environmental conservation appeals are not nuclear power plants or incinerators, but the hydroelectric power stations, solar energy installations and wind farms much-loved by the Green and ecologically minded.

Published on 6 May 2011 at 07:42
A wind farm in Plouarzel (Brittany, France).

The English have dubbed this phenomenon “the NIMBY syndrome (NIMBY being an acronym for ‘not in my back yard’). The Italian government’s recent about-turn on its plan to re-introduce nuclear power — which took place only a few days ago — is a text book case of NIMBY syndrome. In plain English, the difficulties at Fukushima showed that nuclear power stations remain vulnerable to the risk of serious accidents, prompting a wave of public hostility. Not in my back yard! Build them elsewhere. Everywhere else. Only not here, because we don’t trust them!

The trouble is that NIMBY syndrome not only affects nuclear power plants and incinerators. According to the Nimby Forum, which monitors the extent of the NIMBY syndrome in Italy, 70 percent of appeals lodged to block the construction of power stations concern infrastructure that makes use of hydroelectric, biomass, wind and solar energies — projects that aim to promote the use of renewables, which could reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Nonetheless, these installations are opposed by ad hoc committees, mayors and municipal councils as often, or even more often — there is no denying that we are up to our necks in contradictions — than industrial infrastructure and installations, which have a 20 percent chance of being targeted by an appeal.

Citizens’ electoral lists, which cut across traditional political divisions, are the acclaimed champions of NIMBY and responsible for 60 percent of NIMBY appeals. Their motives are obvious: concern for the public interest, fear, a desire to combat disinformation, a distrust of the political establishment, but also — and most importantly — the quest for popularity in the short term. NIMBY syndrome is an easy vote winner, and some of its exponents can and do hit the jackpot.

The Italian government’s change of course on nuclear energy [in 2010, the excutive decided to reintroduce nuclear power, which had been outlawed by a 1987 referendum, before suspending its decision in March of this year] clearly demonstrates the results that can be obtained by tapping into the mood in the country. However, this is not good news: in fact it is bad news for everyone who was hoping that getting rid of nuclear would promote the development of renewable energy sources. Paradoxical as it may seem, it is now easier to construct a nuclear power station in Italy than it is to build wind farms with an equivalent power generation capacity.

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The reason for this is quite simple: in order to obtain the capacity that would be generated by three or four nuclear power stations, we would have to build thousands of wind turbines at sites all over the country — in Italy today wind power is the only option that can compete with nuclear in quantitative and economic terms. The figures speak for themselves: the four 1600MW nuclear power stations, which were planned by the government would have produced 44 TWh per year, the equivalent of 15 percent of the electricity generated in Italy.

To generate the same quantity of energy with wind power, we would have to construct 12,000 turbines: bear in mind that these are 100-metre high towers, equipped with blades that are 75 metres in diameter, each requiring 1,100 tonnes of concrete steel and aluminium. And even if we only installed half of this number, and sought to make up the shortfall with biomass, solar and energy conservation, we would still have to build 6,000 towers.

That means more than 7 million tonnes of concrete and steel. When you consider that the Empire State Building weighs 275,000 tonnes, we would have to build the equivalent of 25 of these, which would be spread over the 2,400km2 of eligible sites, mainly located in Sicily, Sardinia and Puglia which are the regions with the best potential.

Problems posed by the environmental impact of wind turbines are also a concern for other countries. In Denmark, the installation of 150 metre high turbines in Copenhagen’s North Harbour provoked a furious reaction from the deputy mayor and residents of the local area of Gentofte. In other words, it is certainly possible for us to live using only renewable energy, but this is subject to two caveats: we will have to plan on using much less energy — i.e. a major adjustment and not just the removal of two or three bulbs — or we will have to accept the environmental consequences of wind turbines, solar panels, and biomass power stations etc. In short, we will have to get over our NIMBY syndrome and accept that renewable energies have disadvantages as well as advantages.

If this does not happen, future governments regardless of their political hue will be forced to fight an unending series of battles with mayors, deputy mayors, environmentalists, regional presidents and other local smart alecs to install every one of the thousands of wind turbines, solar panels and biomass power stations that we will need. In a regionalist country like ours and in the absence of a national plan with strict rules on energy production, an arduous process like this could quite simply take thousands of years.

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