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Cudnohufsky: The devastation of ridgeline turbine installations in New England

As a landscape architect, I am concerned about and cherish deeply our expansive and natural New England landscape. My concern for our highly visible and long protected ridges in particular, was increased in 2009 when Blue Sky Wind Developers made a presentation to Ashfield, Mass., citizens. They were requesting to locate up to twelve 400-foot-tall industrial wind turbines on Ridge Hill above Ashfield Lake.

During the presentation, a slide was shown and claim made that the roads when complete will be 12- to 15-foot wide gravel paths winding gently through a replanted native forest. They were characterized to be perfect walking trails.

I was compelled to challenge that assumption and assertion publicly, already then having a good sense of the size and nature of equipment needed to install and maintain large turbines and also knowing a good deal about road design. I suggested to my fellow citizens that the area of devastation would be many magnitudes larger than our presenters stated.

I did not know the half of it! Since then more ridgeline turbine installations have happened locally, Hoosac Wind and Brodie Mountain in Massachusetts; Lempster, Groton and Coos County in New Hampshire; and Sheffield, Georgia and Lowell Mountain in Vermont. The reality of the devastation has opened my eyes, generated horror and much sadness.

Lowell Mountain News website identifies these roads correctly, “An interstate highway on a mountain ridgeline.”

For reference I begin with the familiar Interstate Route 91. The lane width is 12 feet, inside and outside shoulders another 12 feet making a total paved of 36 feet (in each direction). This 36 feet is exactly the tread width required for the crane used to erect the turbines. For safety 40-plus feet of road bed is required.

When the drainage swales, cut and fill embankments down to and up from the road are added, the clear cut width will range from 100 feet to well over 200 feet. This is because of the more rugged and steep ridge top terrain all specifically avoided by Route 91.

The average width of the constructed Lowell Mountain turbine clearing and cut has been calculated averaging at least 120 feet. Some vertical bedrock cuts and fills at Lowell exceed 45 feet and their residual exposed blast rock will not host vegetative growth for decades, if ever! Essentially these sensitive areas have been turned into giant rock quarrying operations. Do know that the shallow depth to bedrock landscapes such as Lowell Mountain, Hoosac and Brodie are exceedingly fragile, erosion prone and support unique and often rare vegetation.

The exposed rock runoff which has a coefficient of nearly 100 percent (think city street), the frequent stream and wetland crossings all add up to uncontrolled runoff that make the ever more frequent devastating storms, such as Irene of August 2011, an increasing certainty.

All trees, but native woodland trees in particular, with necessarily shallow and widely dispersed roots, cannot tolerate cut or fill. Most will die if grading takes place on their roots. The clear cut will increase over time with substantial incremental tree death well beyond the 120-200 feet.

The interstate (Route 91) design criteria are stringent, with a 6 percent maximum slope, broad curves and gentle transition grades. Up to 10 percent slopes and occasional short lengths of 16 percent slopes are allowed on turbine roads, but the limiting design criterion are otherwise surprisingly similar.

The absurdity of adding the equivalent of a roughly calculated 1,000 miles of additional New England interstate system on New England’s precious ridges is unconscionable. The reality is the current 2020 onshore wind energy goals for Massachusetts and the five New England states is exactly that, approximately 1,000 miles.

Additionally sobering are the additional clearing for access roads to the ridges, and the necessary clearing for new transmission lines, in total equal to or exceeding the cost and area of disturbance of the ridgeline turbines themselves.

Next, these 2020 goals are about to be dramatically increased fortuitously with no additional ridges to accommodate them. These goals will necessarily mutilate the visible New England landscape and change it to a dramatically industrial persona. I find it difficult to apply the term “sustainable” knowing this scale of consequence on a fragile esteemed and highly visible resource. This is especially true when I learn of the predictable small amount and proven shortfall of energy that must be expected from these barely function machines.

Why do so many of our longstanding environmental organizations, governmental and planning agencies embrace industrial wind? Why when it so antithetical to their conservation and community building efforts, do they not see these clearly devastating impacts? Why do many other organizations become complicit by remaining silent on this planned devastation when they could be exhibiting true conservation leadership?

Naomi Klein gives us the answer, in The Nation article “Time for Big Green to Go Fossil Free,” May 2, 2013. The answer is not a surprise. It is the money!

I express a loud no to ridgeline interstate highways in New England! Please join me!

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Walter Cudnohufsky, a landscape architect and land planner, and landscape artist. He has served on the Ashfield (Mass.) Planning Board and Wind Advisory Committee.