October 8, 2005

Environmentalists falter in gale of wind power propaganda

To the Editor, Vermont Guardian: Shay Totten ("Political winds: Vermont falters in a gale of opposition to wind power," Oct. 7) reports that wind power could easily produce the base, or average, load of electricity used in Vermont, which he gives as 600 MW. His calculation of how many turbines that would require is, however, quite wrong.

He apparently considered only a turbine's nameplate, or rated, capacity, which is very different from its actual output. For example, the existing 6-MW Searsburg facility generated power at an average rate of only 1.25 MW last year. Despite industry claims otherwise, output less than 25% of capacity remains typical for modern wind turbines. Totten's figure has therefore to be multipled by four.

Current proposals in Vermont involve 330-ft-high 1.5-MW turbines from GE and 410-ft-high 1.8-MW turbines from Vestas, so we would require 1,600 of the GE or 1,333 of the Vestas turbines to provide our average load. On a ridgeline oriented exactly perpendicular to the prevailing wind, a turbine needs 3 rotor diameters of clearance in each direction. For the GE, that's 37 acres or 7.5 turbines to a mile, and 1,600 of them would require -- at the very least -- almost 60,000 acres. For the Vestas, it's 60 acres, 6 to a mile, and 80,000 acres for 1,333 of them. Both would use well over 200 miles of ridgeline. If they are expected to perform at all well when the wind is not exactly perpendicular to the line, they need even more space. And that does not account for new and widened roads, substations, and power lines.

But roughly a third of the time they aren't producing power at all, and another third of the time they're producing below their average. Periods of high production may come suddenly and fall away again just as suddenly. Base load would still have to come from other sources almost all of the time. Even at the rare moments when rising wind corresponds to rising demand, backup sources still have to be ramped up as "spinning standby" because the wind may drop out at any moment. This is critical: Wind does not significantly displace other sources of electricity.

Apart from these technical issues, it is amusing that Rob Charlebois of Catamount Energy characterizes the diverse concern of Vermont citizens as "very vocal and well-funded." This is from a company imposing wind facilities around the world, in an article that doesn't seek out a single dissenting view to his and other developers' complaints. Totten only mentions two groups in passing to dismiss their concerns as "mainly aesthetic," as if fighting to preserve rural landscapes, wild habitats, and bird flyways from chains of 400-ft-high steel-and-composite strobe-lit and grinding giants that provide negligible benefit is somehow distastefully effete.

Totten also seems to be unaware that opposition to this industrial sprawl is not unique to Vermont but nationwide and worldwide, from Washington to Maryland, Kansas to Wisconsin, the Basque country of Spain to Zapotecas land in Chiapas, from Norway to New Zealand. It is not "schizophrenic," as Charlebois says, to hold an environmental ethic and oppose this obviously impractical, destructive, and wasteful scheme. Any environmental ethic worth the name requires such opposition.

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