Friday, June 03, 2011

Wind energy development for the challenged

In June, the New England Wind Forum, a "Wind Powering America Project" of the U.S. Department of Energy Wind and Water Power Program, interviewed a few people involved in wind energy development in the region about the challenges faced by the industry.

Patrick Quinlan, former associate director of the Wind Energy Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, describes the overarching issue as the collision of global benefits versus local impacts, a question of eschewing wind energy for its intrusive alteration of the landscape or accept it for the generalized societal benefits. Among the examples of this conflict from different state government departments to local governments to involved residents is this: "From opponents we hear concerns for birds and bats interactions, while we hear from proponents about the benefits of reduced mercury pollution and acidification of habitats."

While this sounds like a balanced approach seeking to reconcile global benefits and local impacts, one side relies on anproven premise: that there are in fact global, or even merely statewide, benefits to building giant wind turbines in as yet undisturbed landscapes. There is no argument that the impacts of such development are significant — not only to the landscape, but also to the animals, including humans, living in it. But the benefits at best remain theoretical. In reality, after decades of experience, the effects of such a diffuse, intermittent, and variable source of energy as wind on the larger pattern of energy use remain doubtful.

Treating wind as if it has a proven record of having something to offer necessarily leads to dishonest processes of reconciliation. The game is rigged from the start.

Sue Jones, president of Community Energy Partners and lead facilitator for the Maine Wind Working Group, is similarly trapped in a fantasy, as revealed by her statement, "Experience from Europe and elsewhere tells us that it will take 10-14 years of education and experience living with wind turbines before it becomes generally acceptable." In fact, the opposite is true. Regions with more experience of industrial wind know the problems, especially as the towers and facilities continue to metastasize. Denmark, for example, now has very strict rules that, along with fierce local opposition, have effectively ended onshore development.

It would seem that she is actually hoping to get as much wind erected as possible before, as in Denmark, it becomes truly impossible. Although she speaks about educating people, her plans rely on their general inexperience and keeping them ignorant.

Only Kenneth Payne, administrator of the State of Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources, approaches reality in dealing with wind energy development: "Right now the image of 'wind energy' is loaded with symbolic value. Call to mind the image of a wind turbine in an advertisement in a periodical — does that image speak to how people actually live in our region? The transition from symbolic value to practical value is critical." And it is the practical value that is still a matter of debate.

On the matter of impacts, Dave Lamont, director for regulated utility planning at the Vermont Department of Public Service, is candid:
Regarding "how" to deploy wind energy, impacts of siting are the most critical issues. These siting issues most often boil down to visual impacts, noise impacts, and habitat impacts. Because of their size and the fact that in New England wind resources are found mostly on ridgelines, turbines are generally located in visually prominent places. This creates aesthetic issues for those in the surrounding area. While there are some areas with exposures that allow the turbines to be only partially visible from most locations, many sites have strong visibility from many locations. There are limited mitigation measures available — painting the turbines a color that blends in or selecting a lighting system that is radar activated. These measures help but don't hide the turbines.

The second critical issue is noise impacts. This seems to be an evolving issue for which there is a shortage of good information. While the higher-pitched sounds are muffled by distance and the rustling of the wind, it seems that low pitch and frequency noises from the larger rotating parts are also present. There can be some mitigation with insulation, but is that sufficient?

Finally, habitat seems to be a critical issue for ridge-top wind projects. Higher elevations contain a more fragile ecosystem, where it is possible that access roads may traverse through bear habitat, and turbines may extend into migration routes. Due to the limited history of development in these high-elevation areas, much less is known about the impacts of construction here. This makes those in charge of managing this habitat more cautious about approving projects with such potential impacts.
But missing still is any questioning that these impacts can be balanced in analysis by meaningful benefits.

Dave Ljunquist, associate director of project development at the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, gets back to bashing objectors as solely emotional without experience or facts. He asserts that resistance is based on what people "have heard or what they are afraid might be the case", i.e., experience and facts. Promoters like himself, on the other hand, defy experience and facts to assert only meaningless numbers and personally denigrate those who raise well founded questions. Like Sue Jones, he also supports "public education programs to familiarize the general population with the realities of wind turbine projects", by which he means more aggressive public relations programs, since the realities of wind turbine projects are precisely what drive opposition.

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