At opposite ends of the state, the rush to build wind farms is on. In the Northeast Kingdom, Green Mountain Power is urgently carving up a mountain where it plans to erect 21 450 foot turbines. So urgently, in fact, that the Agency of Natural Resources found it necessary to shut construction down until certain environmental protections were in place. And once that had been accomplished, the utility set about hardnosing some property owners who were allowing people opposed to the wind project to camp on their land. The campers were close enough to the construction site that there was a danger they would be injured by flying debris when rocks were being blasted off the mountain. Green Mountain Power has both offered to buy the landowners out and to sue them. At this writing, it is unclear which way the utility will swing. But it is plainly not inclined to go slow. No doubt because it stands to lose $44 million in federal tax credits if the project is not completed by the end of 2012.
Down on the Massachusetts line, Washington has put a 15-turbine project, some of which will be located on Forest Service land, on the permitting fast track. This came up suddenly, one suspects because President Obama and his team would like to keep their jobs and they are afraid of voters who have lost theirs. So when Congress failed to pass the latest “jobs bill,” the administration conducted a search for things it could do “administratively” to boost job creation. The little Vermont wind project qualified and that tells you something about the Obama administration’s state of desperation.
So, the push for these projects can be traced to a lust for those two old standbys, money and votes. One certainly doesn’t object to Green Mountain Power finding ways to keep its tax payments down since that might result in rates going up less than they otherwise will. And any job growth in Bennington County is a good and welcome thing.
Still … if Green Mountain Power were truly looking for ways to save ratepayers a little money, why build this wind farm in the first place? Like all renewables, wind generated electricity requires what those in the trade call a “feed in tariff.” The civilian locution is subsidy.
Well, nothing is perfect and with every source of energy, there are tradeoffs. With wind, there are several. As critics of wind point out – though you wonder why it is necessary for them to do so – the power is not reliable because the wind does not always blow. So wind farms require backups, commonly gas-fired generating plants. These cost money to build and come with their own infrastructure requirements. Pipelines and such.
The economic case for wind power, then, is fatally shaky. Too expensive and so unreliable that it requires a duplicate plant for backup. So wind advocates point out that it is hydrocarbon-free.
But if you grant the arguments for global warming, these two projects are too small to make a difference and, worse, a serious misallocation of scarce resources.
We already have a reliable source of affordable electricity that is not produced by incinerating hydrocarbons. That would, of course, be the Yankee nuclear plant. If we are building the wind farms to save the planet from a death by slow roasting, then we could deploy our money in more effective ways. Instead of spending millions to blow up boulders, cut down trees, bulldoze roads, pour concrete, and put up new transmission lines, why not use the money to subsidize the purchase, by Vermonters, of electric or hybrid vehicles? Or give tax credits to people for converting from oil heating in their homes to electric or geo-thermal?
Finally, there is another scarce resource – besides the money – being misused in this rush to build inefficient and costly wind farms. Namely, the land on which they are built. Vermont is a finite place with a fixed number of mountains and ridgelines.
The haste and urgency to get the roads cut and the turbines erected suggests something other than an immediate need for more electricity – even expensive electricity – or a long-range commitment to saving the planet. The haste comes, one thinks, from a realization by the proponents of wind in Vermont that they must seize the moment. That they had better get these two built soon because after them … there will never be another.
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