Should David Always Defeat Goliath?–Individual Rights vs. Collective Good In Developing Sustainable Projects

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Recently there have been several cases of neighbors raising objections, valid or invalid, to green projects. 

There was the Northland Pines case where community members challenged the LEED certification of a local high school.  Recipients of smart meters sued the utilities claiming the smart meters wrongly measured their electricity use.  Neighbors held up the Cape Wind offshore wind energy project for years. Neighbors even object to the placement of solar panels, most famously on Al Gore’s mansion in Tennessee.

Now, a 24 hour solar and biomass large scale renewable energy plant in California has been scrapped due to the objections from neighbors.  According to the New York Times:

Although local residents and regulators had raised issues about the proposed solar farm’s water consumption and other impacts, it was the project’s plan to operate around the clock by burning biomass that proved problematic, according to energy commission records.  

The neighbors were apparently concerned about the added air pollution from trucks hauling biomass.

The question for policy makers, is, of course, how to balance individual rights with the collective need to develop renewable energy sources and allow for green building technologies. 

This is a tough nut to crack, particularly in the United States where individual property rights are a sacred cow that no politician wants to slaughter.   Evidence of this can easily be found in the aftermath of Kelo v. New London, wherein the Supreme Court decided that private property could be taken for economic development.  In the wake of the decision and popular outrage that individual property could be taken and given to another private party, states and municipalities throughout the country passed laws significantly curtailing eminent domain powers.

Policy makers need to take into consideration some or all of the following: 

  1. Weigh the value of the project have towards meeting environmental goals–This may seem like an obvious consideration, but the value of a large scale solar project to the greater community trying to come off foreign power sources should be given greater latitude than a small project that will have limited impact, but causes significant distress in the community. But, large projects usually cause more handwringing than small ones. So…
  2. Consider ways to minimize the impact–Are there ways to do the project differently so that individual concerns are minimized? Could the California renewable plant have used alternative fuel trucks which caused less pollution? But…
  3. Give the community a voice–There may be valid concerns with the project.  If neighbors have a voice in the process, they might raise legitimate issues, and feel empowered as part of the decision making process. But…
  4. But limit the pretextual objections–My husband likes to call needling neighbors BANANAs–Build Absolutely Nothing and Nowhere Anytime.  Do the neighbors object to any projects, no matter how beneficial to the community? If so, there has to be policy in place to air valid concerns and resolve them, without endlessly delaying good projects.

In order to stay the same, things need to change.  We need to reduce our energy usage and convert to renewable sources to retain our standard of living.  Policymakers need to balance the valid claims of individuals with our collective pursuit of new energy sources.

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