Nuclear power and solar power tend to attract different adherents. When similar dynamics and arguments are used in both industries, it's worth noting.
Today's New York Times has a long, front-page article about how the Japanese nuclear industry (working with the government) has been able to prevent widespread opposition to nuclear power plants, with generous payouts.
Tokyo has been able to essentially buy the support, or at least the silent acquiescence, of communities by showering them with generous subsidies, payouts and jobs. In 2009 alone, Tokyo gave $1.15 billion for public works projects to communities that have electric plants, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Experts say the majority of that money goes to communities near nuclear plants.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg, experts say, as the communities also receive a host of subsidies, property and income tax revenues, compensation to individuals and even “anonymous” donations to local treasuries that are widely believed to come from plant operators.
The Times portrays these cash infusions as payoffs that have weakened the spine of rural communities to protect their own interests and made them addicted to the drugs of additional payoffs. They could also be seen as legitimate profit sharing to which communities hosting facilities that provide power for distant regions are entitled.
A similar dynamic is occuring with the Kingdom Community Wind project that Green Mountain Power wants to build in Lowell: the town is slated to receive more than $400,000 a year if the wind farm is built, and neighboring communities will also receive payments. Lowell voters approved the wind project by a 3-1 margin--were potential critics bought off by the payments or were the payments just part of an attractive package of clean power generation?
These are real-life versions of the questions raised in academic studies of willingness-to-pay or willingness-to-accept-compensation. In these studies, people are asked how much they would be willing to pay to avoid some harm, like more polluted air, or how much compensation they would be willing to accept to be exposed to that harm.
One of the more compelling critiques of the whole methodology is Mark Sagoff's essay "At the Shrine of Our Lady Fatima," in his book, The Economy of the Earth. In it, he argues that people as citizens make choices that are different from what they would make as consumers. For example, as a citizen, a person might vote to throw a crooked judge out of office, but as a consumer faced with a speeding ticket, the same person might try to bribe the judge.
"Or why not all political decisions are economic" is the subtitle of Sagoff's essay, and those political decisions that people most often refuse to answer when posed as economic questions are those that affect fundamental values. For example, in the case of Japanese nuclear power, a fundamental value would be the right of fisherman to harvest fish in waters where fish and seaweed were dying from discharges from a reactor in the city of Kashima. Or just the right to safety in one's inland home, regardless of the effects of a tsunami on a coastal facility.
With wind in the Green Mountains, project opponents see attacks on fundamental values of visually undisturbed ridgelines, quiet on one's property, and habitat that is not further disturbed or fractured.
Building on Sagoff's arguments, financially compensating people for compromising their fundamental values confuses people's perspective as citizens with their perspective as consumers.
Yet if corporations are going to profit from using the land in a community, and the community takes on hazards or tangible negative impacts, isn't it the job of community representatives to negotiate payments to the community? Richard Pion, chair of the Lowell Selectboard, was asked at a Public Service Board hearing in February whether the Select Board intended to use the $400,000 annual payments to reduce residents' municipal tax payments to nothing. "That's the job of the Select Board," Pion replied.
These dynamics of payoffs vs. profit sharing come from something else that the nuclear and the wind projects have in common: a relatively small community is asked to energy facilities for a larger number of people who are relatively far away. That's how we in industrial civilization get most of our energy--few of us live near oil wells or refineries, or near Appalachian mountains whose tops are blown off in strip mining, or near uranium mines or nuclear waste dumps.
More decentralized energy production will reduce these conflicts--and the possibilities for small towns to prosper from the payments--and, in the case of electricity, could save rate payers money in the bargain.