Charlene Ellis and Fred Taylor wrote a clear and well-reasoned letter (March 1) urging readers to ignore pseudo-science peddled by opponents of windpower. I completely agree and whole-heartedly support their comments.
However, by way of balance, I note that there are vested interests on both sides of the debate. Where new technologies are concerned, the most respected and independent research may be just as misleading as the pseudo-science. That’s because even brilliant researchers can only answer the questions that they’re smart enough to ask.
It takes experience – often lots of it – to figure out what the right questions are. Experience means data. Sometimes low-level but significant effects can be detected only after a lot of data has been acquired. Think of all the promising and popular drugs that get pulled from the market after years of use, because a serious but hard-to-detect side effect has been revealed. Experience also means time. Steady exposure over a period of years – think smoking – does harm that shorter or intermittent exposure may not. There is no substitute for experience. Neither intuition, fervently held beliefs, nor common sense will do. As Einstein is supposed to have said, “Common sense is that layer of prejudice laid down in the mind prior to the age of 18.”
Wind power seems like it ought to be a perfect solution. So did nuclear energy 40 years ago. We don’t yet have enough experience to know if commercial-scale windpower is as good as we think it ought to be. If we’ve learned anything from our romance with technology over the past century, it should be that anecdotal reports – like a few people complaining of noise or vibrations or headaches – should not be ignored. True, a few complaints are not the same as a scientific study. But on the other hand, a few complaints may neatly frame the right questions, the ones that researchers should be asking.
The hazards of toxic waste dumps, which in hindsight are so obvious, were discovered only when a small group of homeowners in Love Canal got sick. They complained for years before the scientific community paid serious attention to them. Eventually, the right questions got asked, and the link between toxic waste disposal and human health was established. But not before we were saddled with SuperFund-size problems.
Going slow with windpower may well avert just such a crisis. Carefully monitored pilot studies of windfarm installations, conducted over a multi-year span, may be able to save us no end of grief as we harness renewable resources. Perhaps some modest engineering fixes can ameliorate the drawbacks? It’s easy to speculate, for instance, that ways of damping low-level vibrations could be built into the windfarms, if in fact such vibrations cause health problems for susceptible individuals. How much easier to fabricate solutions before the windmills are deployed, than to retrofit thousands of the installed behemoths. And how much better for the people living near them.
Haste makes waste. Let’s look to windpower, but let’s approach it cautiously and prudently. A moratorium is a responsible approach to renewable energy.
Newfane, March 19
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