Jeff Danziger’s recent commentary urges Vermonters to support industrial wind power on the basis that Vermont must be willing to accept some of the environmental impacts of our electricity generation. He suggests that if we fail to do so, we are unjustly supporting mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia. Unfortunately, this line of reasoning is not based on an accurate understanding of the onshore wind resources in the eastern U.S., or upon a fair consideration of the possible alternatives.
The fact is our onshore wind resources in the East are simply too small to offset a significant percentage of our traditional energy sources. U.S. government estimates show that even if all the wind resources in the eastern U.S. were developed, no more than about 2 percent of conventional electric power generation could be offset. The eastern U.S. actually has very little onshore wind resource, because most of it is located on high, widely separated and ecologically sensitive ridges in just a few states. As a result, wind in Vermont, or the Northeast in general, can do little to alleviate West Virginia coal mining or the other negative effects of our electricity generation.
Additionally, although wind power might have low emissions in principle, it is debatable that ridgeline wind is truly green, or even remotely so. To capture the small amount of theoretically viable wind on our ridgelines, developers must clear-cut forest, blast away rock formations and build permanent, heavy-duty roads to each turbine base with leveled clearings up to 500 feet in diameter. This significantly impacts wildlife habitats and headwater streams, effectively ruining the lands, landscape and resources on Vermont’s irreplaceable ridgelines.
If wind can’t do the job, what can? In Vermont, our largest renewable energy resource by far is solar energy. Solar is available virtually everywhere, and the amount of economically developable solar potential is many times larger than our wind resource.
In the past, the cost of photovoltaics was too high to be taken seriously. But PV has consistently shown a relentless downward cost trend and is now on track to cost about the same as retail power prices and less than ridgeline wind power prices (which are well above wholesale) by about 2015. Just in the last year, the price of photovoltaic modules decreased by about 40 percent. As this technology becomes more widely adopted, we can expect prices to drop even further.
These facts have led Energize Vermont to become focused on helping communities develop their own solar projects. These can be appropriately sited and provide power for the host community with little or none of the serious impacts of utility-scale wind. It is our vision that power can be generated locally, without placing undue sacrifice on our ridgelines, their neighbors or their wildlife.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that most of our carbon dioxide emissions in Vermont do not come from electricity generation. Roughly 96 percent of our carbon dioxide emissions come from transportation and heating fuel, and this will likely not change substantially even if Vermont Yankee is shut down. As a result, it makes more sense to focus on energy efficiency and efficient methods of transportation. We should focus on taking a big bite out of those emissions, as we simultaneously focus on using cost-effective solar to offset our emissions from electricity. This is a sensible path for Vermont, both economically and environmentally.
Lukas B. Snelling is the director of communications for Energize Vermont, a nonprofit based in Rutland County.