Mountaintop Industrial Wind Power Is Not Green
I have been advocating for wind power for decades. I never thought I would see the day when I would be opposing wind power development. However, the current frantic rush to install industrial wind on every viable mountaintop is both shortsighted and ecologically damaging. All one has to do is look at the impact of the Kibby TransCanada industrial wind operation in the remote Boundary Mountains of western Maine. This is nothing more than industrial wind mountaintop removal. It is being driven by dollars and cents, not ecological sense. To call mountaintop wind operations “farms” is nothing more than PR. Farms suggest a positive relationship with the land. The industrial wind operations are nothing less than massive electrical generating facilities that destroy the quality of place and pose serious health problems for both humans and wildlife.
When John Baldacci announced the formation of the Governor’s Task Force on Wind Power, I thought, “good idea John”. Never in my wildest dreams did I think this task force would submitted to the legislature an Expedited Wind Permitting Law which fast tracks industrial wind development in an area covering two thirds of the state. This bill was passed by the legislature in fifteen days with little to no public involvement or debate. The fact is that the Expedited Wind Law was to a large extent written by the wind developers whose primary interest is green money not green energy.
This law gives the go ahead for potentially 360 miles of industrial wind turbines on Maine mountaintops. This would result in the building of thousands of miles of additional power lines and roads. It would require the clearcutting of over 50,000 acres of carbon sequestering forestlands. Literally the tops of the mountains are blown-up in order to establish a bedrock base for the massive concrete pads need to support 400 to 500 foot turbines.
In addition to the destruction of habitat, these massive wind machines, which individually moving at over 180 miles an hour sweep an acre of space, broadcast high volume sounds which have literally driven people in Maine from their homes. It is not only audible sounds which cause a problem to people and wildlife, but probably more damaging are low frequency sound waves that are emitted from these industrial power plants. It is well documented that the low frequency sounds and shadow flicker, which can travel miles from the turbines, pose serious health risks. The neurological health problems have been labeled as Wind Turbine Syndrome (WTS). People experiencing WTS can exhibit elevated heart rates, memory problems, visual blurring, nausea, sleep disturbance, and chronic headaches.
The proposal by Independence Wind for the Highland Mountains is a perfect example of how the new Expedited Wind Law will open the doors for wind developers to destroy the essence of a rural community by turning the mountains of Maine into something more analogous to Portland Jetport. The Highland Mts are right next to the Bigelow Preserve. This development would undermine the wildness character of hundreds of miles of the Appalachian Trail. The whole Bigelow Range would be confronted with, upfront in your face, a string of 49 turbines with their noise, shadow flicker, and flashing red lights. The Kibby industrial wind facility to the north and west of the Highland Mts. has already reduced the value of remote real estate and destroyed the tranquility of many camp owners who now view “Portland Jetport ever night”. If you like to hike, hunt, or fish, do you honestly think your experience is going to be enhanced by the high decibel sounds, the shadow flicker, and flashing red lights of turbines? North Carolina has put a moratorium on mountaintop turbines because they recognized that turbines would degrade the mountains, which define their state and are a major economic driver in the form of tourism and outdoor recreation. What has Maine done? It has passed an Expedited Law that will fast track industrial wind mountaintop removal.
In defiance of the Migratory Bird Protection Act, turbines routinely kill birds and bats The Highland Mts area is home to many Bald Eagles, the rare Bicknell Thrush, and the threatened Canada Lynx. While we certainly know that turbines kill bats and birds and that a string of turbines is going to destroy habitat, little research has been done on the impacts of low frequency sound on wildlife. We know it causes WTS in humans, but what does it do to wildlife – does it impact reproduction, fertility rates, feeding behavior etc? It would be prudent to find the answers before rather than regret the outcome later.
Some environmentalists have been drawn into believing that if you are not for covering the mountains of Maine with wind turbines, then you are acting against the unfolding disaster of climate change. This is a false dichotomy. Global warming is a catastrophic crisis, but the solution is not to destroy the pristine character of the Maine Mountains. The industrial wind mountaintop frenzy sweeping across Maine is not tied to shutting down an oil or coal power plant. It is simply feeding our gluttonous consumption of more and more energy. It makes no sense to destroy our mountaintops to feed this appetite.
There are better alternatives – the first being CONSERVATION. It is no secret that if the federal subsidies (as much as 60% of cost) being poured into industrial wind were invested instead into efficiency and conservation projects, the reductions in carbon emissions would dwarf those potentially created by mountaintop industrial wind. It would also create thousands of more jobs for local communities. If these funds were used for forest restoration the reductions per dollar expended would be even greater.
Maine, a state with one of the highest renewable energy portfolios, already produces more than enough energy. In fact, we export energy. It has been estimated that Maine and the rest of New England will have excess capacity for the next fifteen to twenty years. It is clear that the right choice for Maine is offshore. This is where the best winds are, where turbines can be placed out of sight, and, in general, where the least amount of environmental damage will occur. Norway is already pursuing offshore with great success. In addition, residential and community based wind projects hold a lot of promise. At a local or community scale turbines are much smaller, emit a lot less sound, have reduced shadow flicker, do not require flashing red lights, are less damaging to migratory birds, and, if placed properly, will not destroy fragile habitat.
It is time to take a step back from industrial wind power mountaintop removal and to develop an energy policy that is not simply driven by the huge profits to be made from federal subsidies. If we allow this mountaintop wind gold rush to continue, after the rush has played out Mainers will be left with the tailings of a despoiled landscape and the magic of the mountains gone forever.
The False Promise of Mountaintop Industrial Wind
The developers of mountaintop industrial wind are touting many promised benefits – from reduced greenhouse gas emissions, decreased dependence on fossil fuels, to a huge economic renaissance. These are all false promises spun to enhance public acceptance. In recent months as I have studied the economic and ecological impacts of mountaintop industrial wind, I have been amazed at the distortions and misrepresentations of the wind developers which unfortunately have been accepted without question by many in the media. As an environmentalist, I have for decades supported a move away from our addiction to oil to more eco-friendly renewable energy including wind. However, when I hear the developers spin the tragic Gulf oil spill to justify their desire to use our tax dollars to destroy Maine mountaintops with as many as 1800 four hundred foot turbines spread over 360 miles, I am appalled by how this “justification” is so disingenuous. The truth is that only about 1% of our electricity is generated by oil. In Maine almost all of our oil consumption is used for heat and transportation. Generating 2700 MW of mountaintop wind will not reduce our oil consumption or prevent ecological disasters like the spill in the Gulf.
Another favorite tactic of the developers is to promote mountaintop industrial wind as a panacea for climate change. While it may seem counter intuitive, this also is a false promise. There has never been a coal or oil fired power plant closed down due to wind generation. Indeed, in Europe and China where wind power has become a significant source of electric energy, greenhouse gases have actually increased significantly. It is simply not true that mountaintop wind will reduce greenhouse gases. Since wind is intermittent and not reliable, it is necessary to maintain back up power or what is called “spinning reserve” to replace the wind power when the wind is not blowing. This has resulted in the need to build additional carbon emitting power plants. In China this has meant a new coal fired plant coming online each week. When the wind is blowing, it is necessary to reduced power from conventional sources. It is simply not possible to just turn on and off oil and coal power plants in response to constantly changing winds. They can be ramped down, but their efficiency is compromised and the amount of carbon emitted actually increases. This situation is analogous to driving in stop and go traffic – fuel consumption increases and greater amounts of pollution are emitted. If the technology was available to store wind energy, the problem of intermittency could be overcome. Unfortunately, this is decades away.
In the case of mountaintop industrial wind, it is necessary to add to the carbon calculation the loss of carbon sequestering forests due to massive clearcutting on ridgelines and the construction of roads and power lines. If the 1800 turbines were constructed as much as 50,000 acres of carbon sequestering forest would have to be clearcut. In addition, the turbines require electricity to run which does not come from the turbines, but must be generated on site by diesel generators or brought in on separate power lines. Each turbine also requires as much as 200 gallons of oil lubricant which must be changed on a regular basis. One study done in Colorado actually determined that wind power increased carbon emissions by 10%.
Finally, it is particularly disturbing to hear developers tout the economic benefits of mountaintop industrial wind. There is simply no way in a cost- benefit analysis mountaintop industrial wind comes out as a good economic option. The cost of wind generation is 2-3 times more expensive than conventional power – and this does not include the added cost of CMP’s 1.4 billion dollar “bogus upgrade” which is necessary to hook up the industrial wind. Our tax dollars in the form of huge subsidies are the only reason mountaintop wind, with its incredibly low efficiency, is being pursued. It is ironic that our tax dollars are paying for mountaintop wind which will ultimately raise our electric rates. Developers like to tout the benefits of jobs and local/state tax revenues. Yes, it is true that during the mountaintop leveling and construction phase several hundred temporary jobs are created, but after construction is complete about one permanent job for each 12 turbine is created – so 360 miles of destroyed mountaintop would ultimately generate about 150 jobs! While local property taxes may decline, this has not been documented in any place in Maine where wind has been installed. What has been documented is that home values drop from 20 to 40% within a two mile radius of a wind turbine. People do not want to live near industrial wind plants – noise and visual pollution! State and county government may collect some tax dollars, but this will be more than offset by reduced tourism and declining recreational dollars. This is why North Carolina put a moratorium on mountaintop industrial wind. They realized that mountaintop industrial wind would destroy the economic engine fueled by their pristine mountains.
In the end, the only folks who will benefit are the developers who will walk away with millions of our tax dollars. Mountaintop wind can be called nothing less than an economic scam concocted by a few mountain slayers and profiteers.
Anybody who takes the time to seriously study mountaintop wind will come to understand its exorbitant cost and its negative environmental impact. A thorough and objective review of current literature could only lead one to the conclusion that mountaintop industrial wind is a disaster and should be abandoned. It would be far better to target the investment of our 5 billion in tax dollars earmarked for mountaintop toward conservation through efficiency and weatherization. This approach would actually decrease our oil consumption, reduce greenhouse gases, and create thousands of permanent jobs and business opportunities – things that mountaintop wind simply does not come even close to accomplishing.
Jonathan Carter, Director, Forest Ecology Network
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