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. 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 Gov. John Baldacci announced the formation of the Governor’s Task Force on Wind Power, I thought, “Good idea, John.” Never did I think this task force would submit to the legislature an expedited wind permitting law that fast-tracks industrial wind development in an area covering two-thirds of the state. This bill was passed by the legislature in 15 days with little to no public involvement or debate and 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.
In addition to the destruction of habitat, these massive wind machines, which individually turn at over 180 miles an hour, broadcast high volume sounds that 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 the low frequency sound waves. 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. The Highland Mountains are right next to the Bigelow Preserve. This development would undermine the wilderness character of hundreds of miles of the Appalachian Trail. The whole Bigelow Range would be confronted with 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 Mountains has already reduced the value of remote real estate and destroyed the tranquility of many camp owners.
In defiance of the migratory bird protection act, turbines routinely kill birds and bats. The Highland Mountains area is home to many bald eagles, the rare Bicknell’s thrush, and the threatened Canada lynx. We know that a string of turbines can cause WTS in humans, but little research has been done on the impact of low frequency sound on wildlife. 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.
There are better alternatives—the first being conservation. It’s no secret that if the federal subsidies being poured into industrial wind were invested instead in efficiency and conservation projects, the reductions in carbon emissions would dwarf those reductions potentially created by mountaintop industrial wind. It would also create thousands more jobs for local communities.
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 15 to 20 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. Local and 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 habitats.
It is time to take a step back from industrial mountaintop wind power and 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, Mainers will be left with the tailings of a despoiled landscape and the magic of the mountains gone forever.
Jonathan Carter is the director of the Forest Ecology Network (www.forestecologynetwork.org).
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