September 9, 2005

Paper tiger vs. hard facts

To the editor:

The Bennington Banner (editorial, Sept. 8) appears to think that those who oppose industrial wind power plants on the ridgelines prefer nuclear radiation, coal smoke, and mercury poisoning. They have created a paper tiger and missed the real argument.

Most opponents would readily accept the need for large wind turbines if in fact they reduced the use of nuclear and fossil fuels. Their argument, based on the experience of Denmark and Germany and research elsewhere, is that they don't -- certainly not to any degree that justifies industrializing the ridgelines.

The Banner cites Searsburg as supplying electricity for 2,000 homes. Actually, Searsburg produces an annual average (11,000 MWh) equivalent to that used by less than 1,500 Vermont homes (average 7.5 MWh/year). According to a study sponsored by the Department of Energy, however, almost 40% of the time the turbines are not producing any power at all. That study also reveals that power drawn from the grid by the turbines themselves is not metered and the actual net production is unknown. The bottom line is that it would take an awful lot of turbines to make even a dent in our need for more reliable sources.

To equal the electricity we use from Vermont Yankee (almost 2 million MWh/yr) would require 700 MW of wind turbines, or about 390 of the 1.8-MW 400-feet-high models now being proposed. That probably exceeds even the Banner's opinion of how much more development we should tolerate.

That figure is based on the industry's own self-projections. Based on the actual experience of Searsburg, more than 1,100 MW of wind turbines would be needed.

But because of the cubic relation of energy output to wind speed, two-thirds of the time the turbines would be producing at a rate below their already low average. More than a third of the time, as we have learned at Searsburg, they would not be producing at all. That is, fossil-fueled plants and Vermont Yankee would still be needed to provide electricity when we need it.

To point this out is not to prefer nuclear and fossil fuels, as the Banner implies. Most of us would love to see renewables instead. But we have come to realize that wind power will not significantly reduce our need for "dirty" power any more than taking a walk in the morning will reduce the amount of gas I use to drive to the grocery store in the afternoon.