From NIMBY to NOPE: Overcoming the Location Dilemma

There’s an old saying: Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die.

Everyone wants low cost, environmentally friendly energy. But people don’t want to look at transmission towers, pumping stations, power plants, substations, and wind farms. More than that, they don’t want any of these things located anywhere near them. We used to call this situation NIMBY or Not In My Backyard. Today we have gone from NIMBY to NOPE (Not On Planet Earth).

Transportation organizations have the same problem as utility companies. Everyone complains about traffic jams, lack of public transportation, not enough flights, lack of access to ports, and emissions from freight trains. Yet when a project comes along to provide relief, there is an outcry of opposition.

Why are people so sour? Why can’t people simply understand that these things are good for them? The short answer is in the vast majority of cases, these projects have had many unintended consequences–many of them bad. The problem is that in the conception and design of these projects, the focus is on meeting the mission, such as providing sorely lacking transmission capability, increasing throughput at a port, or relieving freeway congestion. Often the proponents don’t focus on the total impact on society. It’s only during the long and arduous permitting stages that objections are raised. Objections come from organized groups, some with political agendas, and others with legitimate concerns. Often, though, the objections are not well prioritized and are often incomplete. By the time the objections become known, the project proponents have already spent a fortune on planning, engineering, and conceptual design.

At this point, careers are at risk. There is so much political and physical capital involved that the stakes are huge. The process then turns into a win-lose situation. The project goes ahead; the folks with the objections lose. The project is delayed or the mission never materializes; the proponents lose big time.

Let’s face it: We need more transmission lines if we are ever going to leverage renewable resources in a big way. There are wind resources in the middle of nowhere that we cannot take advantage of because we can’t ship the power. We need better ways of managing our water resources. We have droughts in one region at the same time as we have floods in other regions. We need more rail lines and better public transit.

We need these projects, yet opposition is often too strong.  How can we overcome this dilemma?
Rethinking the Process

There is no simple answer. There is a better way to rethink the process. Conceptual designs for projects need to have much more information about potential impacts than ever before. These impacts can be environmental, social, demographic, and political as well as technical. The good news is that unlike at any other time in our history, up-to-the-minute information is now widely available over the web.

One of the best sources of information on potential impacts comes from maps. There are maps of nearly everything, from customer satisfaction maps to shifting population maps, income maps to voting habit maps, flood maps to weather history maps. You name it, there’s probably a map for it. The problem in the past has been that access to these maps was difficult. Not so today. With modern web GIS, nearly everyone today can publish a map of their particular field of interest. By using a simple concept called spatial analysis, GIS can take a number of maps and compare them to discover patterns, identify potential issues, make the needed corrections, and do all of this well before a project is heavily invested.
Sharing Maps

Consider this simple example. Suppose an electric company wants to build an extension of an overhead pole line. They check for any potential issues and find none. They dig the holes for the poles. However, in the meantime, the local conservation commission just completed a vegetated wetland survey in the same area. The wetland delineation has increased, now putting the pole locations within the wetlands. AS a result, the electric company has to relocate the poles or replicate the wetlands–and they will probably pay a fine as well. And of course this whole mess ends up in the local newspaper.

Instead, what if both the conservation commission and the electric company published and consumed each other’s web maps? Then as soon as the electric company’s designers attempted to design a new pole location within the wetlands, the GIS would set off alarms well before any holes were dug and the company executives were forced to show their red faces in the local news channel.

GIS isn’t just about making maps. It’s about sharing actionable information, providing analysis, and helping to make better decisions to mitigate those unintended consequences. GIS is about sharing, communicating, and collaborating–like social media, only the media is in the form of a map.

Bringing GIS-based map data in during the conceptual design process helps planners to uncover things they might never had seen or considered in the design. It helps them model consequences. It helps them provide the best project to support the mission, to help society fully understand impacts and benefits, and it significantly increases transparency.

Is it enough to stop NOPE? Nope. But maybe it can get us from NOPE back to NIMBY. At least that will be an improvement.

Bill Meehan

About Bill Meehan

Bill Meehan, P.E. heads the worldwide utility practice for Esri. Author of Empowering Electric and Gas Utilities, Power System Analysis by Digital Computer, and numerous papers and articles, Bill has lectured extensively and taught courses at Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts. Follow Bill on Twitter.
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2 Comments

  1. fahiemad says:

    Thanks for the interesting article, its exactly what we are currently grappling with in South Africa. As a developing country we have plans to expand out current transmission lines AND develop our renewable energy sector more ( Solar and wind at this point, probably biofuels and gas at some point). So we’re trying to do exactly what you have spoken about, our national department of environmental affairs and our State owned Energy producer are coming together to try and identify areas of sensitivity to avoid while facilitating the ability of our energy sector to deliver electricity to all. I will be doing the mapping process creating a Multi criteria decision support tool based on environmental sensitivity.

    • Bill Meehan Bill Meehan says:

      Thanks for your comments. It certainly is a challenge. With GIS and the concept of GeoDesign, it makes things a bit easier, especially if you get people collaborating well in advance of the actual design process. BTW, I’ve been to South Africa several times and I love it. Good luck.

      Bill