I highly recommend that you check out the “Task Force on Wind Power in Maine” Web site if you want to see an important aspect of Maine’s future. Wind power appears to be Maine’s next big, extractive industry. With goals of 2,000 megawatts of power by 2015 and 3,000 by 2020, that means a lot of wind towers, many where we live.
Let’s think about 2,000 MW for a moment. The Kibby project calls for 33 towers to produce 132 MW, or roughly 4 MW per tower. At 3 towers per mile these wind power goals would mean hundreds of miles of towers strung across Maine’s ridges and if mountain ridges are a dominant feature of our skyline consider replacing that image with wind towers, which could be a nearly omnipresent part of our landscape. To get a better idea check out the Web site’s map of possible sites and connect those dots. Think about transmission lines, too, and connect those dots, too.
Also bear in mind as we go through this that no project has delivered all the goods it has called for and so to reach these goals there will need to be many more towers than simple mathematics might predict. For example Mars Hill developers originally promised 50 MW but at present that facility is delivering around 15 mw for a variety of technical reasons that are inherent in wind energy. Europe has thousands of towers and this experience is the norm.
The wind initiative seems to reflect a desire for a full court press on this form of alternative energy. The task force aims for the 2,000 MW implementation in the next seven years through a process of expedited permitting that will try to prevent the encumbering public hearings that we saw last winter. The expedited approval zones apply to fully a third of the state, including our neighborhood and much of the unorganized townships. Furthermore, the task force hopes to change the permitting rules to make arguments based on cultural issues, viewscapes, and even wildlife issues harder to raise.
The task force bases its enthusiasm on a marriage of concern about global warming, energy security, and the desire for an evolving wind industry in Maine. I want to focus on the first prop of this argument, since it is has the greatest persuasion for most of us and is used as a trump card in most debates. And to put this in context we have to zoom up and away and consider the global forces at work, since the world’s carbon economies surely function as one.
It turns out that last year saw a carbon milestone: China’s carbon emissions passed those of the United States and are continuing to grow at a rate of about 10 percent per year. That is almost the equivalent of adding a Germany or United Kingdom’s emissions PER YEAR to the atmosphere. These increases in admissions threaten to dwarf the reductions in emissions that have been called for by Kyoto treaty.
However, lest we unduly blame the Chinese for our climate woes we should remember that we are their biggest trading partners so many of those annual megatons of carbon have our name on them through our appetite for Chinese goods.
More wrinkles to the plot. This rate of carbon growth was not figured into the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report and is not part of the Kyoto projections and remedies so we are probably in much worse shape than originally forecast. The IPCC warned of crisis by mid century absent a radical restructuring of our approach to energy. They specifically called for a 50-80 percent net drop in carbon emissions compared to 2000 levels, but these numbers are already obsolete and here is why.
Many experts and the IPCC have cited a CO2 level of 500 ppm as the point at which there will be a massive melt of the world’s major ice sheets. If we are at something like 380 ppm and gaining by 2 ppm/year that would give us 40-50 years before the ice sheets ‘tip.’ Judging by the already accelerating rate of ice sheet melt and climate warming that 500 ppm figure is too high a threshold and numbers in the 400-450 range may be more appropriate and not far from our current level. We must also factor in the positive feed forward loops such as increased rates of heating as ice and snow fields melt, again already under way.
What does this have to do with Maine? Everything. First and foremost we must get rid of this feel-good-but-profoundly-misleading notion that these wind towers will somehow save the planet or Maine life as we know it.
These and similar measures are far too little, too late to have a major impact on climate change. As attractive as they are we must see wind projects for what they are: business propositions in no way different from hydro electric dams or coal mines. Environmental groups have signed on for their own reasons that have little to do, I fear, with the realities of climate change. That TransCanada is now looking for tax breaks on their projects tells a big story.
In reality, confronting climate change really means radically scaling back our life styles. Development, energy rich as it is, is a global zero sum game, and if the people of the developing world, India and China foremost, have a right to seek the life styles that we already have, then that has huge implications for how we live, and that is the conversation we need to have.
22 May 2008