Monday, February 13, 2006

Letter to state rep about wind power

My state representative, Lucy Leriche, got back to me about my concern about her vote at the Northeast Kingdom Caucus meeting last week in favor of industrial development of our ridgelines. She clarified her position, which seems to be "trust the Public Service Board." I wrote back to her and clarified mine.

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As for the deliberation process, you must be aware that there have indeed been efforts to subject wind power facilities (which uniquely target the most protected features of our landscape) to Act 250 review rather than Section 248 review, or at least to incorporate the Act 250 processes into the PSB process. As I have read it, Section 248 recommends consideration of much of what Act 250 requires, but it does not require it, and all input, from, for example, the Agency of Natural Resources and particularly the people who actually have to live with the intrusive machines, can be dismissed for the "greater good" of the state.

As for interfering, is that not our duty as citizens? Are you suggesting that the wind power lobby does not "interfere"? When I first heard about the interest in building wind turbines on Kirby Mountain (where we moved from last fall), I thought that would be great. I had seen the pretty pictures and read about how great wind energy was. On the other hand, I had also seen wind facilities in Spain, and only an insane person could call them attractive. As I lay on my hammock looking up towards the Kirby ridge, I comforted myself that the knoll our property was on would probably shield us from having the turbines dominate our back yard.

Nonetheless, I looked into them. It very quickly became clear that there was a lot of hype, a lot of promises of how much power wind turbines will provide, but there were no data at all showing any real benefit. And while dodging that obvious lack (by totting up theoretical tons of CO2 and other emissions avoided, though not showing actual data proving any such effect) there was an also obvious downplaying and outright dismissal of negative effects, such as habitat fragmentation and degradation, disruption and killing of birds and bats, erosion, noise, visual intrusion, etc.

I was ready to weigh the impacts against the benefits. I am a science editor and a writer. I can tell when language is being used to hide the truth or to misdirect. I can tell when there is no basis for a statement. Industrial wind power is not an argument over aesthetics. Wind turbines are machines that are supposed to make a tangible contribution to our electrical energy. Yet no promoter in the world is able to point to such a contribution.

At this point, I am usually asked, why, then, do so many utilities and politicians support it?

My perception is that it is a vicious circle. Politicians and utilities are under pressure to provide more energy and provide it cleanly. Environmentalists (some) endorse wind power as a solution. Big business sees an opportunity to reap subsidized profits and presents itself as green. Everybody is happy and so it goes on, because nobody is allowed to ask: Where is the evidence that wind power actually makes a significant contribution?

The result is the wanton destruction of the world's last rural and wild places. As long as they have wind, their value is only as an energy source. It is no different than mountain top removal for coal or the drive to extract oil from under the Arctic wilderness, except in this case a lot of so-called environmentalists are on board.

Even the promoters of wind acknowledge that it will not be a significant part of our energy mix. Even the most ambitious don't see wind power producing more than 10% of Vermont's electricity or 5% of the nation's. (And that's different from actually providing electricity, and different again from actually displacing the use of other fuels.) An associate of mine has asked if we are in such desperate straits that we are forced to develop Vermont's ridgelines. Ridgeline development should be the very last resort, when we have done everything else and are still desperate for the least intermittent trickle of electricity.

Wind power's theoretical contribution would be swiftly outpaced by growing demand or alternatively could be easily obviated by conservation and efficiency.

Forgive me for going on so long. You wrote that you have faith that if anti-wind concerns are substantiated the board will respond appropriately. Notice that the benefit of the doubt is already in favor of the wind developer, who is not held to such rigor concerning his claims of benefit (as he might under Act 250). To wash our hands of the matter as if the PSB were utterly impartial and independent of political pressure seems to me highly irresponsible. Unless, of course, one's faith is that they will indeed support the construction of wind power facilities on our ridgelines.

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