Over almost 40 years since my founding the Conway School of Landscape Design, there has been a welcomed increase in citizen and organizational environmental awareness. Collective intention and resolve to make a difference is thankfully increasing. We need to applaud the many local efforts, including businesses such as Berkshire East, for attempting to do their part to help with the energy and C02 climate change issues. We all need to be doing more!
In several ways, Berkshire East could be a logical place for a turbine. It is, in a way, a disturbed industrial zone with structures, technology, lights, cleared land and available power lines. However, the surrounding contextual landscape is much more natural.
I write to help wrap my mind around this complex subject so that we can learn from our local turbine example and engage in a civil dialogue as additional turbines are proposed at Berkshire East and in Heath, Ashfield, Savoy and other towns.
As a context for my remarks, I make the following observations. I find wind machines interesting, certainly, as contrasted to the more common transmission line towers and structures. Turbines are sculptural, they move, they make an invisible resource (wind) visible. Their color is often pleasant, sky-reflective and is changing daily or seasonally. At minimum, I do not harbor an automatic predisposed bias against wind turbines.
A good portion of my professional career as a landscape planner/landscape architect has been focused on understanding and describing the visual qualities of the New England landscape, including recent visual assessment work for National Grid. This is only to suggest that the visual impacts of wind turbines are of interest and that I have an uncommon position and experience from which to speak.
Professionally I have come to two convictions: 1) that landscape and community character is a legitimate and cherished product of our landscape and 2) that character is fragile, with a small disruption often having disproportional consequences.
Every local “community plan” focuses upon protecting that community’s character among its prime goals. There is an unshakable, widespread belief and knowledge that community character has a lot to do with regional recognition, with tourism and business, with home and property values and with the quality of life.
Evaluating visual impacts
Conceptually, we can say there are two prime means to examine and assess any feature, element or structure such as a wind turbine. We can assess it by itself or in the element in its context. Just as it is possible to be out of context wearing a tuxedo to a casual lawn party or placing a beautiful art nouveau teapot in an 18th-century period dining room, it is easily possible for a wind turbine to be “out of context.” The specific siting of wind turbines is necessarily of significant interest and impacts can and will vary. The area of visibility and the number of people predictably affected can vary.
The Mohawk Trail is a state scenic resource!
The Mohawk Trail Scenic Byway is one of five state designated scenic byways in Franklin County and is federally recognized. Receiving its designation in1953, it was one of the earliest scenic byways in New England. A Scenic Byway management plan was completed in 2002 for the western section from Williamstown to Greenfield.
Among many action recommendations in that plan is to “review and consider updating local telecommunications bylaws that include siting and design guidelines to minimize the impact of cellular and telecommunications infrastructures on the Byway’s scenic character.”
This early and long-recognized unique landscape has seen numerous local community and regional planning efforts to protect this designated scenic resource. Signs, commercial activity, building locations, particular uses, lighting, among many other features, have all been zoned and otherwise regulated for decades. Conway School graduate students prepared the first Mohawk Trail management plan in 1973.
The turbine’s impact on the Rte. 2 scenic corridor
I drove Rte. 2 recently and charted the visibility of the Berkshire East turbine.
To my surprise, it repeatedly was in my view for approximately 50 percent (guessing) of some nine miles from the Zoar Road bridge on the west to the area near the Shelburne falls highway department parking lot on the east. In addition to being visible, it seemed to be prominently visible from the most scenic of the several viewing stations along the Route. It is also visible to most of Charlemont, is visibly prominent from Whitcomb Summit six miles west and many other elevated hiking locations in our region.
Living in Ashfield for 26 years, Ihave regularly driven our out-of-town guests to a single Ashfield destination, the junction of Hawley and Tatro roads, to proudly share the view of “Little Switzerland.” It now features the Berkshire turbine both day and night at 4.7 miles distant. This trip is now a less likely destination.
Ridgelines are the strongest light to dark contrast in our New England landscape and for many the most scenic aspect. They are the unavoidable regular focus of our viewing. However, if we attempt to remember and recall any particular ridgeline such as those along Rte. 2, most are not easily memorable. They share a common predictable and harmonious wooded character.
The Berkshire East turbine is, however, now most memorable. The vivid memory of the turbine follows the driver even into non-turbine viewing locations. It follows me home and is with me at this moment! It is, in harsher terms, the large-scale imposition of jarring contrasting technology in an otherwise contiguous natural and harmonious landscape. It can and must be described as “out of context.”
When remembering my previous (before turbine) Rte. 2 experience, my eyes would alternately have focused on the contrasting ridge lines, on the sky, on light reflections on the Deerfield river, historic farms, buildings, stone walls, sycamore and oak trees and open fields. As a landscape painter, these have been prized subjects.
What has been true for me was that the previous landscape was not totally legible or measurable … a delightful quality. It held mystery, and I could not tell exactly where I was or how large the landscape really was. It thus became and, until recently has remained, as large as my imagination would allow. I can obviously still literally see those more subtle natural or historic features, but less vividly and coherently because of the more powerful ridgeline attraction. The turbine has dramatically diminished the Rte. 2 landscape for me by adding a means to visually measure that landscape and limit its perceived size. This is with the smaller 284-ft.-tall turbine – some 100 feet lower than originally proposed.
At approximately 1,454 ft. elevation, its blade tip elevation is at 1,738 ft. This makes the turbine the nighest feature for more than 100 square miles – three miles to the hill on the west and north, 10 miles or more south and east. The proposed 1.5 and 2 MW or larger machines at 400-500 ft. in height would obviously be that much more visually consequential. The claim that the Berkshire East turbine will, by complicated legal arrangement, reduce the cost of the annual Berkshire East electric bill is true and is no small fact to help keep a regional recreational business and destination open. That it dramatically reduces any C02 emissions, as is suggested on the Berkshire East Web site, is at minimum very questionable. (See *1 below.)
I have to wonder how many West County and Charlemont people are having the reactions of Chuck Maier and Ellen Landauer:
“My name is Chuck Maier. I am a resident of Charlemont, Massachusetts. My house looks out at the new Berkshire East wind turbine. I hate it! It does ruin the landscape! What is far worse is the red flashing light on it. It ruins the night sky. No more starry, starry nights or full moons.”
“While thankfully, Chuck and I live about two miles away from the Berkshire East turbine, it certainly has impacted the quality of life in a negative way, diminishing the peace of mind we so value living here. The turbine feels invasive, imposing and disturbing to me in a way that nothing else in this town has ever felt,” says Ellen Landauer.
Is there a better means to achieve shared energy and climate goals?
Despite laudable and understandable motives, I wish there had been an alternate (non-turbine) means for Berkshire East to reduce accelerating energy costs. I wish that there could have been a simple subsidy using existing and undersubscribed renewable energy resources available in the region. When full accounting is done, I can envision a less costly solution than the existing wind turbine.
The trade offs and losses to the larger community and landscape from any turbine installation simply must be weighed against real and factually proven non-inflated benefits. The issue of C02 emissions, noise- related health, property value impacts and other issues unfortunately must be the subject of another essay.
Briefly however, recent research reveals many independently verified international studies that show that wind power will not only make no appreciable differences in C02 reduction, despite industry and government claims and as cited by Berkshire East, but also wind may be exacerbating the CO2 problem. We in Franklin County are paying in every way possible manner – environmentally, in taxes, in health, wildlife, land values and in visual impairment to our precious landscape.
The real cost and pay off or the Berkshire East turbine will, I predict, be far longer that the articulated seven years. Accounting must, to be fair, also include the subsidy of the taxpayer funded 40-50 percent of the $3 million in costs and account for the substantial carbon debt needed to actually manufacture and install the turbine. It must account for the maximum 20-30 percent efficiency of wind turbines as internationally averaged. This efficiency may even prove to be less in this marginal Western MA wind setting. We will need to review complete performance data from the machine. Full accounting for the carbon and financial debt pay off will, I predict, more closely approach the full 20-year life of the turbine (some use 15 years as life span).
Berkshire East owners’ motives are understandable and empathetically shared. Their elected solution (a turbine) may prove to be flawed and underperforming in relation to their desires and predictions. If true, this will be a substantial loss and cost for all who endure its presence.
The single, moderate-sized Berkshire East turbine has changed – for many very negatively changed – both day and night relation to a recognized, designated and previously protected regional landscape. The area of impact is, to some eyes, enormous and only slowly being revealed.
The turbine has been exempted from much of the long-held scrutiny and review within this precious scenic zone. That landscape, for many, has a diminished stature because of a highly visible piece of dominating technology that is, for many, out of context.
The cruel hoax is it may not have been necessary and it will not perform to optimistic and inflated expectations for C02 reduction.
If there is any validity to my evolving convictions, do we need more and larger turbines as are already being proposed for our communities?
Walt Cudnohufsky is an Ashfield landscape architect and land/community planner.
* Speaking Truth to Wind Power, Michael J. Trebilcock, Professor Law and Economics, University of Toronto. Citizens Against Lake Erie Wind Turbines (CALEWT) website.
1) Industrial Wind Turbines Have Minimal Impact on Carbon Emissions. “There is no evidence that industrial wind power is likely to have a significant impact on carbon emissions, The European experience is instructive. Denmark, the world’s most wind-intensive nation with more than 6,000 turbines generating 19 percent of its electricity, has yet to close a single fossil fuel plant. 2. The German experience is no different. Germany’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have not been reduced and additional coal and gas-fired plants have been constructed to ensure reliable delivery, especially at times of peak demand. 3. Indeed, recent academic research shows that wind power may actually increase greenhouse gas emissions in some cases, depending on the carbon-intensity of backup generation required because of its intermittent character.”
4. In an Ontario context, wind power cannot be relied on to provide peak-load capacity, and is not needed for base-load where hydro and nuclear generation provide lower-cost, low-carbon electricity. On the negative side of the environmental ledger are adverse impacts of industrial wind turbines on birdlife and other forms of wildlife, farm animals, wetlands and view sheds.
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