Wind is Not the Energy Solution for Vermont

Jul 09, 2010 No Comments by

Commentary in Sunday Times Argus/Rutland Herald — not on-line. p. D7
May 9, 2010

Wind is not the energy solution for Vermont
By Annette Smith

Wind industry boosters of late have been talking about the need to send a clear message to developers that there is “consistency” in our regulatory process to encourage building wind turbines on Vermont’s mountains. Vermonters are sending a clear message. But wind developers – and legislators – are not listening.

I spent the last year learning about what is involved in constructing 400+ foot tall steel structures on top of rugged mountains, and meeting with the people who live in areas where wind projects are proposed or have been approved in Vermont.

While many Vermonters feel good about the idea of seeing sleek, beautiful wind turbines, the reality is anything but pretty.

Conversations about the reasons why wind turbines are not getting built on top of our state’s mountains are still being avoided by wind developers who believe they are going to save the planet (while making a lot of money), and legislators who refuse to hold hearings on appropriate siting and setbacks even after doctors with concerns about health problems made the request.

Vermonters who are being asked to live near big electricity-generating machines are doing what citizens do when they are confronted with projects in their communities: research to understand the issues, and ask questions. Many wind supporters become wind opponents when they learn about this complex subject, and the impacts turbines create. Here is what they are finding out:

Will wind turbines on Vermont’s mountains save the planet?
Credible studies support the statement that wind energy is an expensive way to create low-value electricity that has minimal impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I am still looking for credible studies that prove wind turbines are reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If we have a smart grid, if we all drive electric vehicles that can store wind power in batteries overnight, if, if, if, then yes, maybe wind power will combat climate change. But not right now.

Will wind turbines enable the replacement of Vermont Yankee’s power?
Wind energy is intermittent power that cannot replace baseload power such as Vermont Yankee. In New England, wind energy cannot replace coal power because coal plants in the region cannot cycle up or down. Wind energy can replace natural gas power, but it is also likely to replace other renewables such as hydro and biomass. A recent study predicts that if more wind power is added to the grid, it will require more expensive natural gas peaking plants. Another study found it is not as simple as “one megawatt of wind will replace one megawatt of fossil fuel.” The ratio is more like 10 to 1. The CEO of ISO-New England says adding about 8,500 megawatts of wind energy in New England and from Canada would require about $10 billion in new transmission infrastructure. It’s complicated.

Is the permitting process the problem or is it the type of projects seeking permits?
Compare building wind turbines on flat farmland to building on a mountain in Vermont. Turbine parts weigh hundreds of thousands of pounds – no big deal to truck them onto a field, but to get those same parts up on top of mountains requires tree clearing and blasting for road building, literally thousands of trucks hauling loads of rock and concrete to the tops of the mountains. Road building fragments and destroys habitat, the worst things you can do for wildlife. Mountains contain headwaters, streams that feed our rivers and recharge our groundwater. Vermont’s mountains are rich in natural resources. ANR Secretary Jonathan Wood said, “Wind farms contain a multiple number of issues that require permitting. You’ve got to realize you’re talking about a large-scale development in remote areas with high elevation. It would be similar to a ski area, which is a difficult permitting process.”

Siting industrial operations on ridgelines is the problem – not the regulatory process that is designed to ensure that our mountains are not degraded.

What are the impacts from an operating utility-scale wind turbine?
Once constructed, the turbines’ blinking strobe lights change the night sky from the extraordinary dark sky most rural Vermonters enjoy to an industrialized airport-like scene. Wind turbines of the size being proposed throughout Vermont create noise and sleeplessness, which cause related health problems and drive some people from their homes. If you are unlucky enough to have wind turbines sited within a mile or two of your home, you could find yourself in a situation similar to the people of Mars Hill, Freedom, or Vinalhaven, Maine, where neighbors were assured there would be no noise problems and now, after-the-fact, there appears to be no resolution to the noise problem except to buy people out (with the accompanying gag order).

Are wind developers working well with the “host” communities?
Unfortunately, the answer is “no.” Communities find out about projects after the planning has begun. Developers do not see residents as partners, but as obstacles to overcome or targets to persuade. Communities get divided as people take sides. Compensating neighbors impacted by noise, shadow flicker, or reduced property values is not even part of the discussion. The community is a problem to solve, and developers steel themselves to take abuse that is viewed as a necessary part of the process.

As they get educated, many informed Vermonters oppose these projects. Wind developers may not like the message they are hearing, but that message has been clear and consistent. From East Haven, Sheffield and Lowell to Milton, Ira, Londonderry, Manchester, Deerfield, and towns surrounding those areas targeted for wind energy development, Vermonters who live nearby are saying “no.” They cannot reconcile wind industry spin that these particular wind turbines are necessary to save the planet with the environmental destruction, landscape changes, and human health risks associated with the current technology. (Coming next: Eden, Woodbury, Waitsfield.)

Looking for solutions? After more than twenty years living off-grid with solar, I can say with certainty that solar works in Vermont. It feels good to be independent. And it’s a lot more pleasant than tilting at windmills.

Annette Smith is executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment Inc.

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