(This letter responds to the letter to from the wind industry in last week’s Valley Reporter that critiqued Luce’s recent presentation on wind energy at Skinner Barn.)
I agree wholeheartedly that is it vital to “help inform all Vermonters to the pros and cons of wind energy.” This is precisely the undertaking begun at Skinner Barn. Also, I am a strong advocate of renewable energy and was a successful advocate of wind energy in New Mexico. I also agree wholeheartedly with the “daunting challenges” we face on the energy front and the obligations we have to move forward responsibly.
I disagree just as wholeheartedly, however, with your assertion that my “dismissal of wind power as a viable option for addressing (Vermont’s) energy needs … is inappropriate.” It is only after several years of careful consideration of Vermont’s available resources, carbon footprint impact and impact on her character and environment that I concluded that industrial wind facilities are not a good option for Vermont. What is inappropriate is the pursuit of wind energy projects in a wind poor state, where, unlike Midwest states, essentially all of the available wind resources are concentrated in areas that possess fragile, invaluable ecosystems and where we will sacrifice the wilderness, ecology and viewscapes for what turn out to be de minimis impact on our carbon footprint. What is also inappropriate is current process for industrial wind facility permitting that lacks Act 250 review and is largely immune from local decision making.
Your letter stated, “Your image of wind turbines running the length of the Long Trail … was unworthy of a technical presentation. Credible numbers … would have wind supply 20 percent of Vermont’s energy, requiring as little as 30 miles of ridgeline.”
SMALL ELECTRIC LOAD
In my presentation, I stated carefully that the figure of 150 miles of ridgeline referred to the amount that would be required to produce 100 percent of Vermont’s load. Far from being unworthy, you seem to agree with the numbers since your figure of 30 miles is consistent with your 20 percent wind energy number. I discussed the larger figure, though, for several well-founded reasons. First, I presented this figure to give people a clear sense of the massive scale of the devastation to wilderness that will ultimately be required to produce any significant amount of wind energy on ridgelines in the Northeast. Vermont actually has a very small electricity load to begin with. What would actually be required to produce a significant fraction of the Northeast’s power supply from wind energy in the Northeast is actually thousands of miles of ridgeline. Your figures do not give people an accurate feel for what is truly at stake.
NO STATUTORY LIMIT
Second, while it is true that some politicians and advocacy groups are currently talking about 20 percent, this limit has no teeth. There is no statutory limit in Vermont on wind power, communities have little or no power to stop projects, and wind permitting is not governed by Act 250. Also, the appetite of corporate interests in developing wind facilities is enormous. There is therefore no basis for believing that current state decreed renewable goals, combined with corporate financial pressure, will not push well beyond the 20 percent figure. Once precedent is set and certain regions of Vermont essentially become sacrifice zones, then we will likely have more and more. VPIRG, incidentally, has already publicly discussed 28 percent, and the Legislature has instructed the PSB to examine much larger targets.
20% IN VERMONT
But let’s take a look at what just 20 percent in Vermont would entail. Vermont’s average (continuous) load is about 700 megawatts, and the Legislature has currently established the goal of meeting 20 percent of that need with renewables, or 140 MW. If that goal is met with wind, three times that amount, or 420 MW of wind generation capacity, is required because turbines have a 33 percent “capacity factor” at best (possibly significantly less in Vermont).
It turns out that this would require at least nine major projects and hence the devastation of nine entire “mountain systems.” This can best be seen by looking at what is actually in the works in Vermont: Sheffield (40 MW, PSB approved), Deerfield (48 MW, PSB approved), Georgia Mountain (15 MW, PSB approved), Lowell (63 MW, in process), Ira (80 MW, on hold for now), Grandpa’s Knob (40 MW, plans to file in 2010), Waitsfield (60 MW, in scoping process), Londonderry (48 MW, in scoping process), and Little Equinox (24 MW, prospectus out).
These add up to 418 MW, just shy of 20 percent of our electricity load. In total, these projects actually turn out to require approximately 39 miles of ridgeline, plus at least 31 miles of new roads (that are known). This is closer to 40 miles of ridgeline and 70 miles of new road systems – well above your estimate. All of this, just to produce 20 percent of our electricity load and to lighten our carbon footprint by a mere 1 percent. Remember, virtually all of Vermont’s carbon emissions presently originate from combustion of heating and transportation fuels, not electricity.
IMPACT TO TOPOGRAPHY
The impact to topography of these projects will also be much greater than those involved with logging roads, and the visual impact of just these projects will dramatically degrade the unspoiled character of Vermont.
Finally, the open letter stated, without supporting data, that the projections of cost-competitive photovoltaic power by 2015 are a “very big stretch.” These projections are based on the best data available. But even if these projections prove optimistic, this still does not justify devastating Vermont’s mountains with industrial wind power facilities. Almost all of the emission reductions are going to have to come from wind generation in places like the Midwest or offshore and/or from other sources (probably solar), and also conservation and efficiency. We should therefore be focusing on these measures and not pursuing inappropriate and ineffective options which will devastate the last of our remaining wilderness in Vermont and divide our communities.
Ben Luce, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of physics, sustainability studies at Lyndon State College.
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