October 30, 2006

Exploitation and destruction: some things to know about industrial wind power

by Eric Rosenbloom

First, by industrial wind, I mean facilities of large wind turbines meant to supply the grid, the "pool" of electricity that must constantly balance supply and demand. "Large" is the first thing that demands attention. The machines proposed for Sheffield and Sutton, for example, are now to be 418 feet high: a 256' tower plus a 162' blade radius (with a vertical sweep area of 1.9 acres!). Several of them have to be lit by strobes day and night for airplane safety. The strobing effect of the lights is increased by reflections off the turning blades.

Not only are the height, turning blades, and lights visually intrusive and incongruous with rural and wild landscapes, the blades, generator gears, motors (that turn the machine into the wind and pitch the blades to maintain a constant rpm), and electrical transformers all make noise. From a ridgeline and especially at night, that noise can travel quite far. The French Academy of Medicine and the U.K. Noise Association both say that large wind turbines should not be closer than a mile from any residence.

Along with the readily audible (and artificial) noise that is many times louder than normal rural noise levels, there is a low-frequency aspect that has driven people from their homes. It doesn't affect everyone, but many people complain of headaches, insomnia, and nausea -- enough that several researchers have noted the resemblance to vibroacoustic disease and are documenting the phenomenon as "wind turbine syndrome."

Even as the wind companies deny that these and other impacts exist, their leases and "forbearance" easements with neighbors forbid the signers from complaining about them (or even telling anyone about the terms of the agreements).

The destruction of wild places and rural quality of life includes the wide strong straight roads necessary to transport the massive parts, the tons of steel and concrete in each platform, the clearcutting of several acres around each machine, and new transmission infrastructure (substations and power lines). It follows an all-too-familiar pattern of heedless exploitation. The only "green" the developers are interested in is that of the easy money.

UPC, the "Massachusetts" company targeting Sheffield and Sutton, is in fact backed by the Italian UPC Group. Enxco, which is still fishing for landowners in New England, is part of the consortium Electricité de France. PPM Energy, which bought Enxco's interests in the Hoosac Mountains of Vermont and Massachusetts, is owned by Scottish Power. Horizon Wind and Noble Environmental Power, both active in New York, are owned, respectively, by Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan. Noble has just teamed up with Enxco's former agent to target sites in Vermont as well. Community Energy, currently targeting Lempster, New Hampshire, is owned by energy giant Iberdrola of Spain. Vermont's own Catamount Energy is an international operation owned by Marubeni Power of Japan and Diamond Castle Holdings, a group of investors whose experience includes Enron's glory days.

The major U.S. manufacturer of industrial wind turbines is GE, who bought the business from Enron. Another war profiteer and nuclear power pusher getting into wind is Halliburton, whose Kellogg Brown & Root division boasts of being a leader in offshore wind construction. One should be not a little dubious about "alternatives" or "solutions" offered by the same people who created the mess in the first place. What excites these companies is not so much the window dressing that hides their main activities, though that is indeed important: Think BP's "beyond petroleum" and GE's "ecomagination." Enron, along with their friend George Bush, set up a web of subsidies, market support, and tax schemes that created and almost completely pays for today's wind industry -- moving ever larger amounts of public money into private bank accounts. Enron even invented "green tags" to sell the electricity twice!

These developers creep into a poor community, make deals with landowners, woo the town board with gifts and promises of cash, flattering them as forward thinkers, and only then make their plans public. Unfortunately for them, the internet has made it possible for the neighbors to quickly learn the facts about industrial wind and -- when they see what a destructive boondoggle it really is -- mount a grass-roots opposition campaign. But even if the developer is driven off, a divided and bankrupted community is left. Damage is done in any case.

Rural America is no different to these companies than indigenous communities or "third-world" countries. Enrich a few of the natives, persuade others of your "progressive" intentions, pay for a school or firetruck, pit the rest against each other, and take what you want. In Australia, the Point Pierce Aboriginal community lost 40,000 years of Dreaming (which is, like Vermont's ridgelines, otherwise protected) to the construction of an industrial wind facility. In Mexico, wind companies -- led by Spain's Iberdrola -- have divided the Zapotecos on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which is the most important bird flyway on this side of the world (I haven't even mentioned the decimation of birds and bats by these machines, with blades moving 150-200 mph at the tips exactly where they fly). Some of the Zapotecos wrote about the wind companies to a Scottish bird protector who lives in Spain, describing "the imposition of neoliberal megacorporations destroying nature and our cultures." That is what is happening right in our own back yard.

Minuscule benefits

The appalling thing is that industrial wind turbines on the grid bring no benefits that can justify this destruction. They generate an average of only a sixth to a third of their rated capacity. They generate at or above that average rate only a third of the time. The output is highly variable, so other sources on the grid must work harder (burning more fuel less cleanly) to balance it. In most places, the times of high wind do not correspond to times of high electricity demand, so much of the already small production is wasted. The evils of coal and nuclear power are undeniable. Unfortunately, wind will never threaten the steady base supply they provide -- no matter how many giant turbines and interconnected high-voltage transmission lines we fill the landscape with. Nor has a single peak supply plant ever been shut down because of wind on the grid.

The people of Denmark have not allowed a new turbine to be erected in years. Construction has also dramatically slowed in Germany. Spain and The Netherlands recently halted subsidies to big wind. Australia is starting to balk at continuing support. Because opposition only grows in their own countries as the useless and wasteful destruction becomes ever more clear, overseas companies have moved into the U.S. market -- they know we'll ignore Europe's mistakes just as much as we ignore their successes.

But even in the industry's own promotional material, wind remains a marginal source. Conservation and efficiency easily surpass it in actually reducing fuel use, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions -- and they don't require industrializing our remaining rural and wild places to enrich a few multinational companies and investors and impoverish (not just financially) the rest of us.

More information is available on the web: my own site at www.aweo.org, the coalition of Vermont groups at www.rosenlake.net/vwv, and the coalition of groups throughout the U.S. and the world at www.wind-watch.org.

In closing, a quick word about NIMBYism: that is, supporting a project in principle but not in your own neighborhood. That defines the developers. Most of their opponents are fighting to protect not only their own back yards but those of their brothers and sisters everywhere.

wind power, wind energy, environment, environmentalism, Vermont, anarchism, anarchosyndicalism, ecoanarchism, animal rights