Reflecting on the back page of Northern Sky’s July issue which featured an article about Clean Power Now’s recent trip to Denmark to study wind turbines, I would like to present a contrasting view of how land-based wind power would impact New England and some different conclusions on where energy policy should be taking us.
I have made an effort to understand both sides of the wind power story. I attended a two day conference in Boston representing my local planning board last March that was hosted by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) which specifically dealt with siting. Of the 300 people there, most were associated with private companies that are associated with wind power development. There was an energy there that was reminiscent of the gold-rush days. Many newly-formed wind companies were there as well as representatives from European firms, all hoping to cash in on the boom. Scanning the list of attendees, I couldn’t identify more than a half dozen people professionally associated with land use planning. I also participated in a conference that was held last May attended by persons from 10 states who were opposing wind projects in their states. As far as anyone knew, it was the first such gathering in the country. I heard tale after tale of communities being torn apart by the lure of potential tax dollars versus disruption of quality of life.
Renewable energy is highly desirable, we all agree. The federal and most state governments have responded accordingly by enacting legislation to actively encourage wind projects through a suite of mandates to purchase wind-derived energy and tax incentives for developers. While incentive mechanisms have been in place for years, to date, mostly all that has been done on the thornier issue of siting is talk. Last May, when I asked David Cash, Massachusetts Air Quality Director (the Governor’s point-man on wind power) “Where should the first 100 land based turbines be erected?” He replied: “I don’t know and I don’t think it is the place of state government to make that decision. It is the role of state government, though, to provide clear guidance and clear regulations and rules that will help developers and communities make those choices. At the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, we are in the midst of coordinating an interagency effort to develop that kind of guidance, and we’ve just finished a series of regional working groups of interested stakeholders to get input.”
This “cart before the horse” approach is creating some serious problems. . Unfortunately, there is a very high correlation in the Eastern U.S. between the windiest spots and the highest, least spoiled, most scenic areas of our region. Production Tax Credits and Renewable Energy Credits, which amount to 60% of revenues generated from wind plants, are based on production. The more wind there is, the more power there is generated per dollar invested. Thus, we have unwittingly created a situation where the sites with the most potential for environmental and aesthetic conflicts (which , ironically, are currently economically viable without subsidy) are eligible for the greatest subsidies.
Mainstream environmental groups, such as the AMC, Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy contribute to the situation by vaguely supporting wind power but carefully not specifying where wind “farms” should go for fear of alienating donors in host communities. This subject was raised again and again at the AWEA conference.
The issue of siting has fallen by default in Massachusetts to local communities to grapple with. Small town volunteer boards are left with the task of trying to weigh local priorities against global concerns.
To understand why large environmental groups and state/federal politicians shy away from dealing with siting, it is important get a firm grasp on the scale of the construction and associated impacts that will be required to make a measurable dent in the problem of climate change by harnessing the power of the wind.
Wind turbines are large and getting larger all the time. New England’s only currently operating commercial wind farm was erected in 1997 in Searsburg, VT.. These machines stand 190 feet tall. The units proposed for Florida Mountain in Western Massachusetts will rise 340 above the ground. GE has developed new models that are as much as 545 feet high. To construct them, new permanent roadways capable of handling 100 ton loads, trucks transporting turbine blades 135 feet long, thousands of yards of concrete for foundations, etc., will be needed. An excellent photo gallery at http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~hills/cc/gallery/index.htm documents the construction of a ridgeline facility in Wales last year involving units of this size. A mile of ridgeline can support eight 1.5 MW wind turbines under ideal conditions. The nationwide average “capacity factor” for wind farms is 27%, which is primarily due to the fact that the wind doesn’t always blow. (Capacity factor reflects the amount of power actually produced expressed as a percentage of the theoretical maximum output). Therefore, to replace a single 1000MW conventional power plant capable of operating at a typical 80% capacity factor would thus require 250 miles of ridgeline development. Considering that ridgelines are not uniformly suitable and that access roads are never straight, something on the order of 500 miles of roads in sensitive, high elevation locations would be required.
Access Road Construction at Cefn Croes 2003
For the sake of perspective, consider that on July 27th, New England electricity consumption peaked at a record 26,922 MW.
Whereas the wind itself is renewable, these locations are not. In the case of Massachusetts, the AMC identified 93 miles of ridgeline that have sufficient wind to support commercial wind power development. 53% of these lands were classified as “major public lands”; lands held primarily for the purpose of conservation. Were we to develop all 93 miles we would only manage to accommodate the next 10 years of anticipated growth in electricity demand in the state. In other words, we would need to consume a mile of ridgeline with wind turbines every 3-4 weeks just to keep up with newly created demand.
For a technology that hangs its hat on its green label, I have thus come to the unfortunate conclusion that money, power and politics, rather than true environmental analysis will determine where wind turbines will be erected. Much the same way as prisons and landfills are sited, wind farms will meet the least resistance in poor rural communities. Immediate promise of new tax dollars and “windfall” payments to land owners that happen to own the high ground will tempt economically-stressed communities at the expense of their long-term futures. Take a look at where you see poor rural communities with high-elevation ridgelines and you will see the places that wind developers are currently contemplating projects. These include the Northeast Kingdom, Western Maine, Northwest Massachusetts, the Virginia Highlands, and struggling farm communities in upstate New York.
Is it all worth it? We need to bridle our inherent optimism for emerging technology with lessons learned from the past. Wind Power as at the point now where coal power was at during the industrial revolution when nobody could imagine global warming; where hydro power was at during the TVA era and where nuclear power was at during the “to cheap to meter” days in the 60’s. No source of energy is benign.
I visited Switzerland this past summer and came away with a very different view than Clean Power Now’s perspective of how Europeans manage energy. Travelling 2000 miles almost entirely via public transportation which runs everywhere, is on time, I viewed a landscape that is very carefully and intensively managed by a people who understand how finite a resource it is. Dozens of models of tiny 40+ mpg vehicles can be seen on the roads. In no small part this is due to the fact that gas is twice the price it is here.
All of this has all lead me to the inescapable conclusion that we should prioritize reducing the energy we consume before we create more sources of it. To do this, we must pursue a path that takes us to the point where the retail cost of energy reflects not only the cost of its production but the sum total of its environmental and social costs as well. We, as individuals have trouble handling complex environmental questions and seldom act rationally when it comes to reconciling our own actions with our beliefs about the future of the planet. We do, however, understand money. I place my faith in billions of consumer decisions made every year by millions of people in which the cost of energy becomes a greater factor to make meaningful difference. Imagine what would happen if the next time the President needed $80 billion to further the war in Iraq, we had to pay for it at the pump the next time we filled our tanks? Rather than subsidizing energy production, social policy should orient itself towards accommodating the least affluent members of our society who would be hit the hardest by rising energy prices.