Wind energy is gaining momentum in New England.
New Hampshire’s first commercial wind project will be completed atop Lempster Mountain by the end of this year and another one is being considered in Coos County. The company behind the Lempster wind farm – Iberdrola Renewables – plans to put new wind projects in Deerfield, Vt., and Hoosac, Mass., while other energy companies scout sites on New England ridgelines.
Eric Rosenbloom would prefer the projects never got built.
The 47-year-old Hartland resident is president National Wind Watch, a volunteer organization that opposes large wind farms. Rosenbloom, who works as a typesetter and helps edit several medical journals, became interested in wind around 2003 while living in Kirby, Vt., where a project was being proposed near his home.
He was not opposed to windmills, at the time, and had no interest in becoming an activist. Then he began to research.
“Besides being shocked by the size, I just started learning about the impact of such large structures on a wild ridgeline,” Rosenbloom said recently in the Hartland home where he moved several weeks ago. “The more I researched it, the more I turned against them.”
He joined National Wind Watch after it was founded in 2005 and was later made president. The organization relies on individual donations – which he said are usually less than $50 – and all of the money goes to the expenses of the Web site and distributing DVDs, occasionally some printing.
Rosenbloom sat down recently with the Valley News to talk about why he opposes wind energy, why he thinks wind has become a popular political cause, and whether people like himself stand a chance of stopping it. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation:
Valley News: As you have pointed out, the project in Lempster is 24 megawatts, but on average, can only be expected to generate 8 megawatts and perhaps less. Tell me a little more about that.
Eric Rosenbloom: It’s the nature of the technology. If it’s designed to catch any wind, then it won’t be able to withstand high winds. If it’s designed to only catch high winds, it won’t be active during low winds.
So, it’s just a question of engineering, you design it for the widest range of wind speeds possible. So that’s one thing, wind doesn’t always blow.
The other thing is, even when it’s turning, it doesn’t produce at full capacity until a certain amount of wind speed is reached just because there’s not enough kinetic energy. Most of the energy at first goes into turning the blades, but there’s not enough torque to generate electricity. So the more wind, the more energy is available to turn into electricity. Convert, I guess, is the technical term.
So from about eight miles per hour … up to about 27 or 30 miles per hour, the amount of production is increasing, first slowly and then quickly. It’s an exponential thing.
Most of the time, as winds are in that range, when they’re blowing they rarely gust and certainly not at a steady rate above 30 miles per hour. Most of the time you’re not producing at full capacity. Most of the time, you’re producing at quite a bit less. And so the average works out to about 30 percent. …
VN: Another criticism of wind, especially in New England, is the impact it has on ridgelines.
But these projects have become a lot more popular out in the Midwest, where there really aren’t any ridgelines. Does your opinion change at all with the Midwestern projects?
ER: Not really. Obviously the impacts are smaller, well, different, I would say. There’s actually a big issue with prairie chickens in Kansas. Apparently they’re very sensitive to manmade structures and they have an elaborate mating ritual. There are people looking at how they are affected.
Fish and wildlife services raised the issue of the whooping crane, which has been brought from the brink of extinction up to one breeding colony, that’s something like 400 birds. And their main migration route is right through the central plains, right where everyone says the Saudi Arabia of wind is, and that could seriously affect their recovery. …
VN: Along with that, I’ve also heard that windmills are bad for local bat populations.
ER: That is a very serious problem.
VN: How is it bad for bats?
ER: Nobody really knows what’s going on, but bats seem to be attracted to them. No one knows.
VN: Do they get killed in the (blades)?
ER: The biggest reason for their deaths is pressure. Low pressure behind the blades. The blades are not like a table fan, they actually are like airplane wings, they ride the wind. There’s a whole pressure thing going on behind them. The bats get in that and their lungs explode. Their insides just expand. Blood rushes to everything.
Researchers in Alberta have done autopsies and discovered, that was just a few months ago because people didn’t really know what was killing them. They didn’t show signs of impact. And now it’s been discovered that it’s the pressure vortexes behind the blades.
VN: Assuming that all of these cases have been made before and they are in fact correct, why do you think that wind has become such a popular symbol for alternative energy?
ER: Because it’s big. It looks like you’re doing something big.
VN: So you’re saying it’s a big symbol rather than an actual impact?
ER: Yes. Just telling people, it would be so easy to reduce one’s electricity use 5 percent, even 10 percent.
In the oil crisis in the ’70s, I think I read the nation reduced its energy use by a third, so it’s not that hard. I don’t remember suffering. Just a lot of public information ads saying to turn off your lights. Turn down the thermostat or, as Obama said, put air in your tires.
That kind of thing is not glamorous. Biofuel is not glamorous. Manure fuel, woodchips is not glamorous. There is a newness about (wind power). It’s got great symbolic power.
VN: Conservation is part of National Wind Watch’s message. Are there any other types of alternative energy that the organization promotes?
ER: We do not, because the people opposed to wind energy are so diverse. Getting any further into any other energy issue is just a can of worms.
VN: What about for you, personally?
ER: Personally, I don’t know. I think geothermal, for technologies we have right now, would have possibly great promise on a large scale. It is used a lot for personal homes. George Bush himself uses it. He’s got one of the greenest homes in the country. It’s planted with native shrubs and really well-designed.
VN: Who knew?
ER: Yeah. I think for now, solar power is far too expensive for personal use. But people are working frantically to come up with something affordable. That would be nice. …
Other than that, my feeling is, a hundred years ago, who would have envisioned the technologies we use today? Maybe it’s a cop out, but I think that in even 30 years, we will know what might come.
VN: Was National Wind Watch actively engaged in opposing the Lempster wind project?
ER: No. As an organization, mostly because it’s a spare time, volunteer sort of thing, it’s policy to leave these things to the local groups. And, we also don’t feel that a national group coming into a neighborhood is that effective.
ER: I think it creates more resentment that it’s not local people doing the opposition, doing the speaking, doing the work.
VN: That was one of Kevin Onnela’s big complaints – he’s the landowner in Lempster – that it’s his land and the people that are showing up to the Site Evaluation Committee meetings didn’t even live in the state. I was wondering what your thoughts were on this as a landowner rights issue.
ER: It is, to some extent, but we also have recognition that the landowner has responsibility, not only to the environment on his land, but to his neighbors. Four-hundred-foot-high twirling structures with 300 yards of cement and heavy-duty roads and lights flashing have an impact more than just building a shed. …
It’s of course a debate, but the impacts on neighbors, especially, is something that has to be considered. You just don’t have the right to put in a disco on your yard because it’s yours. …
VN: What do you think when you see these new projects being proposed despite your efforts to get out information in opposition to them?
ER: I get weary, really, I think. One thing is, it’s gratifying to know that, as opposed to four years ago, communities now are able to come up to speed with the issues very quickly and have examples of organizing. The battles remain the same. There is more public recognition that impacts have to be assessed. They’re still just ignored, but at least there’s a tacit recognition that there are impacts. So there’s been some progress.
The political will to move them along is still very, very strong. So, it’s kind of tiring, but especially when I get e-mails from around the country (asking), “What do I do?”
VN: What do you tell them?
ER: Publicize your concerns and talk to neighbors. Stay on top of hearings and know what’s going on so you can have as much input as you can and hope for the best.
Everything is kind of stacked against people opposing them. Especially because communities, except for the landowners who are leasing the land to the wind developers, most other people don’t learn about it until it’s pretty much a done deal. And if it’s learned about early enough, it’s usually stopped.
VN: Iberdrola is a huge corporation that’s built much of its business on wind. I’m wondering what is the financial incentive for them to build a project if it’s not very efficient.
ER: Well, it is highly subsidized, so their investment is not that great. Beyond that, well, part of the subsidy is tax breaks. That’s a very helpful tax break to big energy companies or the investment firms that invest in them. One of the most popular ways to get investment is selling those tax credits.
There was just a story last week in Nature magazine that Lehman Brothers reduced a great deal of their federal taxes by investing in wind, by buying those production tax credits.
So, the subsidies aren’t even going, even if you believe in subsidizing wind energy, the subsidies aren’t even going to wind except in a very sneaky way. The benefits are being felt by investors.
VN: Without the subsidies, would wind be built?
ER: No. Not at all. Federal subsidies pay for about two-thirds of the capital costs. State incentives then add more. So, it’s hard enough for them to come up with that extra 25 to 35 percent.
The other lucrative thing … is carbon credits. That’s a whole other line of business. The energy is really the small part.
The electricity sold is, they don’t get much money for it. Probably break even. But the carbon credits can be very lucrative.
And I think that’s why Iberdrola is so involved around the world because the EU has much more strict requirements so they’re using wind to produce carbon credits for them, for Spain, to meet their EU requirements.
Editor’s note: More information about National Wind Watch can be found on the Internet at http://www.wind-watch.org.
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