RETECH 2010: Municipal Governments Fostering a YIMBY Culture


Image credit: bogenfreund/Flickr

"Not In My Backyard" has been a rallying cry for homeowners upset with the aesthetic implications of renewable energy facilities and a distributed power grid. This attitude, combined with slow state and federal legislatures and now dwindling stimulus money, has made it difficult to make dramatic advances in the nation's renewable energy system.According to one panel at RETECH 2010, however, small changes, bubbling up from the community and municipal levels, are accomplishing what big government can't—one town at a time.

Plasma Gasification in Warrenton, VA

Mayor George Fitch of Warrenton, Virginia, presented his town's push to build a plasma gasification plant atop the city landfill. The dilemma, he said, was finding enough funding to begin the project so that it presented no financial obligation to local governments. By forming a public-private partnership and securing $827,000 in grant money, the town was able to do just that.

By sighting the gasification plant directly on the landfill, Mayor Fitch explained, the town was able to fast track permits and avoid zoning limitations, both offers that attracted their private partner.

The strategy allowed Warrenton to build an innovative new plant that will eliminate an estimated 55,000 tons of greenhouse gasses and produce 15 megawatts of electricity annually.

Towns See How Solar FITs

Image credit: OregonDOT/Flickr

Giving rebates for installing solar panels is a great incentive, but the high costs of installing a photovoltaic system has kept adoption rates relatively low. Lois Barber of the Alliance for Renewable Energy, showed how towns are making it easier for their citizens with a system imported from Germany.

Called a Feed In Tariff (FIT), the system guarantees a certain above-market rate for the energy a home photovoltaic system will produce. All that is produced is sent back to the grid and the cost of the subsidy is absorbed by a small increase—typically a few cents—in the price of electricity.

In Germany, where it has been widely adopted, the FIT guarantee is enough assurance to get a loan to install the system.

Though they are spreading in Europe and Canada, FITs have not gained much traction in state and federal government here in the United States. Municipal governments, however, have had much more success. Towns like Gainesville, Florida, and San Antonio, Texas, have introduced FIT programs that have led to wide-spread adoption and implementation of home-solar systems.

Ms. Barber pointed out that such systems work better on the municipal level because they avoid the legislative gridlock of state and federal government.

Fostering a YIMBY Culture

Such inspiring programs are helping to create what Dr. Ralph Sims, a senior analyst at the International Energy Agency, called a "Yes In My Back Yard" culture. He explained that through innovative regulation, community support, and creative incentives, municipal governments can help foster a movement for "local energy independence" that can trickle up to influence state and federal lawmakers.

Thoughts for the Future

The themes that emerged from this discussion were a bit surprising. Every panelist mentioned the common benefits of renewable energy development in their communities. But goals like reducing reliance on foreign oil, improving local health, combating climate change, and creating green jobs did not, it seems, motivate people to take action. The implication, though it was never stated, was that unless you are in combat, sick, overheating, or without work, these classic objectives are too abstract—too intangible—to motivate people.

More effective, every panelist agreed, were techniques not unique to renewable energy but simple hallmarks of good governance. In each example, community involvement in planning and decision making, demonstrated convenience, obvious simplicity, and a clear possibility to reduce costs had a powerful ability to rally people around new initiatives.

In the end, it seems, municipalities must recognize their power to shape this country's energy future and motivate citizens, not with a grand vision of how good a new plan is for them, but by how much better it will make their everyday lives.

Read more about community action:
Renewable Energy Developers vs. Local Communities
Google Earth Layer Maps Renewable Energy Potential of US Contaminated Land
10 Steps to Renewable Energy Future: A TreeHugger Review

Tags: Alternative Energy

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