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Wind farms a problem, too

I REMEMBER climbing Maine’s Cadillac Mountain, where day first breaks on the U.S. coast, to cover “Sun Day,” celebration of a new era of renewable energy.

Maybe it was prophetic; the assembled politicians and environmentalists never saw the sun that overcast morning. There was some chanting, brief speeches, a dance to the sun, whiffs of marijuana on the breeze; and we all climbed down.

Soon after, President Jimmy Carter was gone, and Ronald Reagan put the solar panels on the Carter White House into permanent storage.

A quarter-century later, Maryland and other states are just getting serious about renewable energy. On Tuesday, the legislature will hear House Bill 1308, which would make utilities supply 7.5 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2014 (up from about zilch now).

You might assume environmentalists would be unanimously supportive. And
indeed, from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, concerned about air pollution’s huge impact on the bay, to the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, working to reduce global warming, there’s backing for HB 1308.

But many in Maryland’s environmental community are genuinely torn about this issue.

On the one hand, this is what they’ve been hollering for for decades – a beginning to the end of reliance on foreign oil, as well as an antidote to dirty air, to destructive mining and drilling, to concerns about radioactive waste.

And yet, “clean” energy may be exacting more of an environmental price than necessary.

I spoke with Dan Boone, one of Maryland’s finest naturalists, and a Sierra Club member who compellingly articulates the concerns (The club takes no official position on HB 1308).

The immediate issue is wind turbines, the overwhelming source of renewable power in the near future (an estimated 77 percent of renewable potential energy in the Mid-Atlantic).

It will take more than 2,000 turbines, each up to 450 feet tall, giant blades visible for miles, to make 7.5 percent of Maryland’s electricity by 2030. For the entire Mid-Atlantic, it will take more than 12,000.

Generally located in clusters of dozens, or even hundreds, these so-called “wind farms,” Boone says, “are actually major industrial facilities.”

And they are largely exempt from any regulations that would minimize their environmental impacts, he notes. Two wind facilities visible from Maryland in Pennsylvania and West Virginia “have bulldozed the forests from huge tracts of mountain ridges,” Boone says.

The one in West Virginia has also killed an estimated 3,000 bats and 1,000 birds in the past year – they fly into the turbine blades.

The Maryland bill creates a technical committee to deal with siting and other environmental impacts; but Boone notes it remains advisory only, applies only to facilities built in Maryland and exempts any that file applications to build by 2006.

Not addressed by anyone, he says, “is the scenic impact of all these wind turbines along high mountain ridges.”

Expansive federal subsidies for wind energy are encouraging building “willy-nilly, without much regard for where the best wind potential is,” Boone argues..

“Only 5 percent of the nation’s wind potential is east of the Mississippi,” Boone says. “So you have to ask, what are we sacrificing from our region’s natural resources for a small fraction of that?”

And what if the hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to industrial-strength wind power were spent instead on using less energy – insulation, super-efficient appliances and lighting – at the business and homeowner level?

“The real 800-pound gorilla,” Boone says, “is demand for electricity that grows 2.1 percent every year in Maryland, far faster than population grows.”

Consider a recent Department of Energy study. It shows that nationwide, moving to 10 percent renewable energy would still see coal burning increase substantially – because of rapidly growing electrical demand.

Boone says while wind power is an improvement, once again we’re going the route of heavily subsidizing major energy facilities, just as we’ve done with coal, oil and nuclear. “So how are we fundamentally going to change our wasteful ways?” he asks.

Tom Horton, Columnist