Ms. Grace Hawkins’ letter to the editor (Let there be wind! 12/27) is another example in a series of letters that have appeared in this newspaper over the past few years extoling the benefits of large-scale wind power. Like many other correspondents and commentators, recently including our Governor, Ms. Hawkins has equated the buildup of industrial wind with a reduction in our dependence on oil. Ms. Hawkins is entitled to her opinion, but she is not entitled to her own set of facts. Her overly-simplistic assessment of the benefit of industrial wind is simply not achievable, at least not at the scale that anyone has dared to talk about it in Vermont.
To understand the scale of the problem, you have to understand how and where we get our power. Vermont is part of the ISO-New England (ISO-NE) power grid. As part of a regional grid, we are not self-sufficient when it comes to electricity generation – some of what we generate here in Vermont is sold to other users in the grid, and Vermont in turn buys some of what it uses from other producers in the same grid. In other words, we are both feeding into and drawing from a “pool” of electricity generated from multiple resources in multiple locales. Pooled power has several advantages, including scale, redundancy and excess capacity. This means, for example, that the lights in Vermont don’t go out when VT Yankee is shut down for refueling. Thus, if you want to talk about eliminating oil as a generation source, you have to look at its usage across the entire grid. According to published figures from 2010, ISO-NE received 12% of its power from oil/gas (the term for the conversion and burning process for generating electricity from oil), or 15,541 GWh. By comparison, ISO-NE received 6% (7,686 GWh) of its power from renewable sources, but of that amount, only 491 GWh (6.4% of the total renewable share) came from wind.
This last figure does not reflect the Sheffield project which just came online or the Lowell project which is still being constructed, but using the figures from 2010 one can still get a reasonable sense of the replacement challenge. Setting aside the very important matter of base load reliability for a moment, replacing the oil/gas generated power in ISO-NE would require an increase in wind generation by a factor of more than 3200%; i.e. we would need 32 times more wind generating capacity within the grid to get rid of the oil/gas resource. If we assume all partners in ISO-NE are going to take a proportional share of that responsibility, we could be looking at another 25-30 wind projects in Vermont to meet our fair share. Are Ms. Hawkins and her ilk prepared to support industrialization of the environment on such a scale? Of course, no one is making any such proposal but short of that achievement in some manner it is disingenuous to claim that industrial wind will free us from the need to burn oil to produce electricity.
Nothing that I have said here should be construed as a lack of concern on my part for the need to reduce fossil fuel electricity production, for all of the reasons that anyone might cite. I’m just frustrated by the blithe arguments that others make to support what is clearly not going to fix the problem, namely wind generation on Vermont ridgelines.
It always cracks me up when a correspondent from Burlington lectures us poor folk in the Northeast Kingdom on the merits of industrial wind. I’ll tell you what – in all seriousness – every time I go to Burlington the wind is blowing there. How about we build a couple of these wind farms on Lake Champlain where Ms. Hawkins can admire them? Or how about a “farm” on the Worcester Range outside Montpelier, in the viewshed of that staunch environmentalist, State Representative Tony Klein of East Montpelier? I’ve heard the arguments for why these are not good sites for wind farms, but if we’re ever going to reach the scale of wind generation needed to eliminate oil/gas generation, we’ll have to be creative and use less-ideal sites. If the folks in Chittenden County and Montpelier want me to listen to them on industrial wind, then please, step up to the plate and say “In My Backyard.” Otherwise, stop lecturing us on how great industrial wind is, how much we need it, and how necessary it is to “solve” the oil problem on the backs of our precious ridgelines.
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