March 17, 2005

Letters of note

A couple recent letters in the the North Adams (Mass.) Transcript are illustrative of the diversion (i.e., evasion) and misrepresentation typically seen in response to critics of industrial wind power.

Christopher Vadnais criticizes an earlier piece by Clark Billings for ignoring the many problems and inefficiencies of oil and coal use. The issue, of course, is not oil and coal but wind power, and Vadnais neglects to show how it would move us away from, much less improve the efficient use of, oil and coal. Particularly as he simply ignores Billings' point that only 3% of our oil goes to electricity production, generating less than 2.5% of it.

(Vadnais does correctly note an error in Billings' piece, in which he confuses grid capacity with actual production or demand.)

There is an assumption among many pro-wind people that to point out the shortcomings of industrial wind power is to ignore the problems of coal burning and nuclear fission. In fact, it is sincere concern about pollution and sustainability that compels one to make sure the expensive and disruptive construction of thousands of giant wind turbines on formerly nonindustrial, even wild, sites will actually be worth it. To find that it's not is not to express satisfaction with things as they are, it is simply to conclude that industrial wind power is not a solution.

To insist in response that at least wind power is a sign that we're doing something is just infantile and absurd.

Simon Zelazo starts with a personal note about how much he enjoys visiting the Searsburg (Vt.) facility and recently "had the pleasure" of visiting the turbine in Hull (Mass.) and experiencing its mesmerizing "whomp, whomp." He describes the sad interruption of his revery by an airplane, apparently meaning thus to dramatize the need for large-scale wind power. Unfortunately, the airplane -- representing one of the biggest sources of man-made greenhouse gases and one that would be totally unaffected by a small alternative source of electricity -- only illustrates the futility of such windmills as the one at Hull or the dozens proposed for the Berkshires.

The rest of the letter echos the usual industry propaganda.

First, that opposition vanishes after a wind plant is installed, handily ignoring the fact that it doesn't -- as the growing reports of ill experience attests -- along with the fact that most people are stuck where they live and tend to try reconciling themselves to the situation. The main opposition group in Denmark is called "Neighbors of Windmills."

Second, that low-frequency noise is not a problem, despite plenty of personal testimony and the lack of any systematic study. The quote from Geoff Leventhall, who has reported on the effects of low-frequency noise for the U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), is found in an anonymous paper by the British Wind Energy Association and is referenced only as "personal communication." Leventhall has apparently not actually studied low-frequency noise from wind turbines, so his "personal communication" is not backed up by any data. In fact, his work for Defra makes it clear that low-frequency noise is a serious annoyance and stress problem that is generally underestimated. He points out that in the U.K. sound regulations are meant to protect only 80-90% of the population but concludes that is inadequate for low-frequency noise.

Third, ice risk. Zelazo claims there has never been injury from ice throw, and that homes are far enough away. That does not address the fact that a large area around each turbine is effectively taken from public use. As Hoosac developer John Zimmerman has written about Searsburg, "When there is heavy rime ice build up on the blades and the machines are running you instinctually want to stay away. ... They roar and sound scarey. One time we found a piece near the base of the turbines that was pretty impressive. Three adults jumping on it couldn't break. It looked to be 5 or 6 inches thick, 3 feet wide and about 5 feet long. Probably weighed several hundred pounds. We couldn't lift it."

Zimmerman has also stated, "Wind turbines don't make good neigbors."


In other news, Bruce Giffin, CEO of the Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative, is excited by the impending connection of a large turbine west of Pittsfield.

He explained that even when the wind is not blowing hard the turbine is able to build torque and store energy, and even when the blades are not moving at all the turbine is still producing electricity.

A remarkable turbine indeed!

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