Wind power is, predictably, generating more controversy each day it grows.
No surprise there. Now one of America’s fastest-growing forms of new electricity, wind power is no longer a boutique industry.
But as the controversy and drama builds toward some sort of crescendo, here’s one word you often don’t hear: Fascinating.
To me, a veteran journalist who’s been following the wind power industry longer than it’s had a foothold in the Great Lakes region, the national debate evolving over it is fascinating on many levels.
First, there’s the risk assessment of wind power – albeit one of a different kind – and not just because the issue of siting wind turbines is a classic Not-In-My-Backyard, or NIMBY, controversy.
Usually, when people think of risk assessment, they think of nuclear plants, automobiles, factories, and toxic dumps. There’s a risk in everything we do, from mining coal to boarding airplanes. Nearly every environmental debate has a component of risk assessment to it, from the pollution mankind is physically capable of withstanding to what society is psychologically willing to tolerate.
With wind turbines, the risk is not just to avian wildlife, mostly birds and bats. It’s also to our sense of home. That can include anything from how the aesthetics of wind turbines impact property values, good or bad, to the subtle, often overlooked impacts of climate change if we don’t diversify our energy sources.
Wind turbines don’t release carbon dioxide, smog-forming nitrogen oxides, mercury or other air pollutants. But, to vary degrees, they emit a different kind of pollution: noise and light pollution.
There are trade-offs by embracing the wind industry, just as there are by embracing other forms of energy production.
Some of the most recent controversy was covered in a pair of articles that appeared in The Blade on Page A1 on Dec. 23. I wrote about the Obama administration’s national policy in support of the industry’s continued growth, http://www.toledoblade.com/Energy/2013/12/23/New-permits-for-turbines-will-be-good-for-30-years.html, while a newsroom colleague, Vanessa McCray, provided the latest on a local battle brewing in northern Ohio’s Ottawa County, http://www.toledoblade.com/Energy/2013/12/23/Opponents-fail-to-halt-wind-tower-projects.html. That pair of installments was followed by this editorial which articulated The Blade’s position on the issue: http://www.toledoblade.com/Editorials/2013/12/30/Collateral-damage.html
Step back for a minute and think Big Picture. Wind power is a fascinating convergence of unconventional foes engaged in a high-stakes game of political tug-o-war.
The Great Lakes region – especially western Lake Erie – is in the thick of it.
When the fledgling wind power industry began courting Ohio a decade ago, the scuttlebutt was western Lake Erie would remain off limits because it lies in the path of major bird flyways.
Now, one turbine at a time, western Lake Erie is being tested.
It’s not yet being courted by major corporations. But critics fear the door has been opened to that.
To wind-power developers, western Lake Erie is an elusive prize: It has the Great Lakes region’s shallowest water and densest population. It is close to the region’s electrical grid, two factors that could help keep development costs down.
Western Lake Erie would be the most bang-for-your-buck place in the Great Lakes region for offshore wind, should it ever be pursued west of Cleveland. But there’s the continued uncertainty over the birding issue, and – no coincidence here – much of North America’s best wind co-exists with its major bird flyways.
One can’t fault the industry for pushing the envelope. Investors need research that shows corporations how hard they can push into areas that can yield the greatest return on investment. It’s good business to hit that financial sweet spot.
One can’t fault birders for protecting habitat, either. This issue as much about land use as it is about avian wildlife and the air space they have been hard-wired to use for migration over thousands of years.
The Government Accountability Office noted in a major report in 2005 how this controversy is almost entirely about siting and how disastrous killings of raptors in northern California’s Altamont Pass – one of America’s first wind farms, now cited by the GAO and others as a poster child for bad siting – should be used as a guideline for better placement of this generation’s breed of wind turbines. Altamont Pass was developed in a major flyway.
Wind power is fascinating because it pits environmentalists against each other. For as many who stick up for the birds and bats, there are as many who want to see how much closer the industry can push toward the prime spots to help advance renewable energy.
The issue is fascinating because it’s a reminder of how important the seemingly arcane issue of planning is to the general populace. With better planning and land-use, we wouldn’t have as many floods as we have now. Same goes for potential avian-energy production conflicts, whether it’s wind turbines, dams, or other energy sources.
Wind power’s fascinating from a psychological standpoint, too.
Some people look at a wind turbine and get a rush of adrenalin, a sense of patriotism running through their bones because they view it as another step toward energy independence.
Others look at that same turbine and roll their eyes in disgust. They see the giant machine as visual clutter in the countryside, a bigger eyesore for the idyllic rural heartland or scenic mountaintop than tacky billboards.
How many wind turbines does it take before the former set of people start to agree with the latter?
The controversy is, if nothing else, a sign that the wind industry is coming of age. And it’s a fascinating discussion of how far a fledgling industry should push.
For more on the industry viewpoint, see the American Wind Energy Association’s Web site, www.awea.org.
For bird and bat viewpoints, see the National Audubon Society, and its affiliated state chapters, and Bat Conservation International.
For government perspectives, see the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and state agencies that specialize in wildlife and natural resources, such as the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.