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Go solar, not wind, says speaker

SHELBURNE FALLS – Dr. Ben Luce, physicist, sustainable energy researcher and chair of the sustainability studies program at Lyndon State College in Vermont, spoke in Shelburne Falls Saturday, Feb. 11 about “The Science of Industrial Wind in Massachusetts and the Eastern U.S.”

The local committee of concerned West County residents sponsored Luce’s talk, one of several planned.

Luce actively supported industrial wind power development in New Mexico, where he served as co-chair and then director of the New Mexico Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy In that role, he advocated successfully for the New Mexico Renewable Portfolio Standard and specifically advocated for wind from 1998-2006.

Now he cautions that due to the relatively small amount of commercially viable wind resources in New England, combined with potential negative impacts and high cost, that large-scale wind development in New England may not a promising option for future energy needs here.

Luce explained that according to Department of Energy data, onshore wind is capable of providing just five percent of electricity in Massachusetts. To develop even that potential, he said, there would need to be 333 three-megawatt turbines. At five turbines per mile, that means developing 70 miles of mountain ridge, not counting access roads. Given the average of 10 turbines per project, that would mean roughly 33 of our mountain systems would have to be developed, Luce said.

He pointed to a state-funded survey in Vermont about what made Vermont a special place to visit. The answer was “unspoiled, beautiful, mountains.” Then Luce asked what the impact to the economy would be in Vermont and other scenic Northeast regions if wind power were developed in those locations.

He also discussed the issue of noise. According to peer-reviewed scientific literature, he said that the noise generated by wind turbines is “rather unusual,” containing high levels of very low-frequency sound or infrasound. Research about hearing, Luce said, also shows that low-frequency noise, including “infrasonic” noise from wind turbines, can affect the inner ear and may be seriously affecting the health of people in the near vicinity of turbines.

He next pointed out that Gordon van Welie, president and CEO of NE ISO (which runs the Northeast Grid) said that “a conservative goal for 5,500-megawatts of wind power and 3,000-megawatts of hydro power through 2030 would carry transmission costs of between $7 billion and $12 billion” in an August, 2006 Associated Press news story and that 4,000-plus miles of new transmission lines would be needed.

Using information from the U.S. Department of Energy, Luce said that even if all of viable onshore wind power resources in the entire eastern U.S. were developed, it would meet less than 4 percent of current U.S. electricity demand and less in future as electricity use rises. He said that even this much wind development would be unlikely to be realized due to many local siting factors not taken into account in the Dept. of Energy estimates.

Accounting for the fact that electricity only accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use, Luce then estimated that the maximum CO2 reduction by developing eastern U.S. wind (onshore) would likely be less than one percent.

Luce concluded from this that, given the low potential of onshore wind as a resource both locally and regionally, Massachusetts would not be achieving its goal of developing or promoting a significant regional energy source by encouraging onshore wind development. He noted that precisely because eastern wind resources are quite small, and with so many government financial incentives in place, the energy industry will still seek to develop every windy ridgeline possible in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the Northeast.

“The Wind Rush is on,” Luce said, adding that with limited public financial resources, diversion of money into wind power “could likely delay more effective measures by decades.”

Luce said that solar has the best all-around potential and in the next couple of years will likely be as cost-effective as wind power, and may already be if the costs of new transmission lines needed for wind energy are factored in. He also stressed that solar is a fundamentally different resource from wind. It is a much larger and well-distributed resource, “the only serious onshore renewable power resource in the Eastern U.S.,” and can be more flexibly sited on rooftops, in backyards, and etc.

He did suggest that “solar orchards” should be sited carefully and with public support and installed carefully to avoid compacting soils and overly shading vegetation.

“What if some of the billions being invested in wind were invested into weatherization and efficiency and we pursued a true ‘Manhattan Project’ of conservation?” Luce asked. “And what if some of those same billions were also used to help bring solar down in price, locating good sites, empowering the public?”

He suggested that the optimal plan to reduce C02 emissions during the next five years would be to put time and money behind higher-efficiency vehicles, weatherization, energy efficiency, solar hot water, wood and geothermal heating while also planning and starting a gradual photovoltaic transition.

“My position is that offshore and mid-western areas might be okay places for significant wind development, but that we have no real idea yet if offshore wind will be cost-effective, environmentally benign and also immune enough to hurricanes,” Luce said. “There is now some evidence to the contrary on the hurricane question from Carnegie Mellon engineers, just this past week. And in the Midwest, there are still issues with transmission cost, birds, to some extent, and noise, if people are too close. I therefore suspect that distributed solar will prove to be the best source all around. But the case for this is certainly much stronger for the Eastern U.S. at the moment, where wind development has very great impacts to mountaintops and is very resource-limited.”

The next wind forum at Memorial Hall will be Saturday, March 3 at 7 p.m. when Michael McCann, certified real estate appraiser will speak about negative effects from noise living near wind turbines and the affect on property values. For more information, visit shelburnewind.info.