Firebird Journal

Survival and Renewal in the Anthropocene

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Climate Change: Coming to a Forest Near You (“Grassroots” NIMBYism vs. the environment.)

"IDIOT BRIGADE" (sign protesting a high-speed rail project in Nothern California) - Stephen Woods, 2011 - Courtesy Flickr CC

We hike and canoe where they want to build this. No thanks. — “Mainer,” commenting on a proposed transmission corridor bringing hydroelectric power from Quebec to New England.


Who says oil companies aren’t environmentally friendly? Why, just 15 years ago Bill Koch, a scion of the famous oil magnate family, gave “about $5 million” to the purportedly grassroots organization, Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, so it could fight the development of a wind-power farm off Cape Cod that would provide much of the area’s electricity. Most of the money went to advertising campaigns and lobbying at the Massachusetts statehouse. Oh, and coincidentally, the Cape’s electricity was, and still is, generated by an oil-fired power plant.

At the time, a survey showed that 81% of Massachusetts and 61% of Cape Cod’s residents supported the clean-energy project, while 14% statewide were opposed. But the Alliance — whose current CEO makes $214,000 per year — was not alone in its opposition. Others included Senator Ted Kennedy, who would see the proposed, “visually-offensive” windmills from his family compound on Martha’s Vineyard, John Kerry, Mitt Romney and other local property owners. Robert Kennedy, Jr., entered the fray with an article in the New York Times stating that he supported wind power — just not that project. Ultimately, a series of lawsuits, mostly financed by the Alliance, squelched the project.

“Grassroots” NIMBYism, one; clean energy, zero.

To be fair, a local First Nation tribe, initially ambivalent, ultimately came out against the project, and Nantucket Sound is beautiful and likely deserves special federal protection. But we need to tap new, clean energy sources and build out our grid on a massive scale if we stand a chance of fending off climate chaos. Where can those installations go?

Not in Maine, it turns out.

There, in November 2021, 59% of voters approved a ballot measure to stop the New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC) project that was slated to bring hydroelectric power from river-rich Quebec to the New England grid, which includes populous Massachusetts. Fair enough. Citizens should definitely have a say in their state’s infrastructure development.

The problem is, the thoroughly permitted $1 billion NECEC was already mostly completed before the ballot measure passed. Canadian hydropower links were in place, work had begun on a $330M grid connection facility in Maine, and the powerline transmission corridor had been cut through second-growth forest.

Additionally, Quebec’s dams were built in the 1920s, so there would be no new flooding, an environmental issue with hydropower; Quebec already provides electricity to other border states; the project would create jobs and bring internet connectivity to rural Maine, while providing tax revenues and significantly reducing electrical bills in some of the most impoverished areas of New England; and, of course, it would deeply cut New England’s greenhouse emissions.

Never mind. Long after NECEC was under construction, some grassroots groups — among them, to my dismay, the local chapter of the Sierra Club — decided it wasn’t right for Maine and started collecting signatures for the ballot initiative.

Their rational is that Maine would be better off developing its own clean-energy sources. Their proposed solution? Rooftop solar installations.

Now, I’m a BIG fan of solar electrical generation — where it works. But there is simply no way that rooftop solar panels can provide enough electricity to heat houses in a gray, snowy and freezing New England winter. If they are to move away from oil and gas heating — and charge electric vehicles, run machinery and so on — residents will need steady, cheap, abundant electricity. (Arguments could be made for super-insulating buildings, but retrofitting the existing building stock — including thickening existing walls — would likely prove prohibitive, especially in heavily populated areas such as Boston.)

Finally, stopping the NECEC project doesn’t just affect main. It affects the far more populous state of Massachusetts, depriving it of a major green energy source that putting solar panels all over Maine could not come close to matching.

Of course, passing a ballot measure takes more than gathering signatures. It takes advertising money. Not surprisingly, the anti-NECEC publicity campaign was funded, to the tune of $27M, by competing power companies that operate gas-fired and nuclear plants in the area. The ad campaign relied on standard complaints and fears, including Mainers losing their autonomy to a “foreign country” (Canada), even though one of the “local” power companies is owned by a Spanish consortium.

So, it seems that we can’t build alternative energy projects off coastal areas because they are aesthetically offensive to property owners; can’t build transmission lines through forests, even if they are second growth; can’t build on tribal lands; can’t build in or near wildlife sanctuaries; and can’t change infrastructure anyplace where people live. What’s left?

Unless an unlikely court decision reverses the Maine ballot initiative, NECEC is done, and investors for similar projects could be spooked for decades. But hikers in the area are jubilant — for now, until climate change decimates Maine’s forests. 

Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.

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Books by Philip S. Wenz

Your Ecological House is a homeowner and designer’s guide to creating a “home ecosystem,” an integrated habitat that conserves and produces energy, reduces waste and produces food and other goods.

This upcoming book discussed three possible futures — ” bad,” “good,” and “likely” — for the planet and humanity in the Anthropocene.

Read the Synopsis.