Industrial wind developments are often described as “green,” “clean,” “sustainable” and “renewable.” This implies that they can eliminate enough fossil fuel use to influence the world’s climate, and that they are otherwise harmless. In this case, the use of these great concepts is misleading.
Relative to the rest of humanity, tiny, rural Vermont has a nearly imperceptible carbon footprint. Most of this is from the gas and oil used in transportation and home heating. Only about 5 percent of our carbon footprint is from the use of electricity, which is what industrial wind developments produce. Industrial wind developments can only reduce that number, possibly, by a small fraction. This is partly because our wind resource is fairly poor. The grid also requires constancy. The intermittent pulses generated when wind blows have to be balanced by steady energy sources like those from carbon-emitting gas plants. Moreover, Vermont can’t count most of this wind energy toward its arbitrary self-sufficiency goals because it is, or will be, sold out of state as “renewable” credits. This arrangement essentially allows other states to keep polluting. Even before tabulating all the environmental costs of industrial wind developments, this represents a weak blow against carbon.
The symbolic “greening” attributed to industrial wind developments requires actual de-greening. Modern turbines are colossal. In low-wind sites they are even larger than average: Roughly 500 feet tall with a blade-sweep diameter considerably greater than a football field is long. After the bedrock at their mountaintop locations is leveled with explosives, the massive foundations are formed with vast amounts of carbon-costly steel and cement. Thousands of truckloads of gravel are brought in from miles around for foundations and enormous roads, which traverse and fragment the forested landscape. The roads need to be large to accommodate the out-sized turbine components and assembly cranes.
This infrastructure eliminates cool, sponge-like, sediment-holding, carbon-sequestering and chemical-free forest. It becomes an open, largely unvegetated source of local warming for the ground, air and headwater streams. The impervious, manmade substrate increases runoff, erosion and sedimentation rates. In border areas plants are controlled with herbicides.
Industrial wind developments require the development of relatively pristine, high-altitude mountains. A few values of these mountains are: Refuge for wildlife that shy from humans; “native” sanctuaries from the exotic, ecosystem-changing plants common in valleys and along roads; places where pure, cold-water ecosystems (streams) begin; sites of critical habitats like stands of bear-nourishing beech trees; and great places for people to hunt and hike. Just above, where turbine blades spin, are flyways for birds and bats. Once degraded or destroyed, these ecosystems and animals are unlikely to be renewed.
This symbolic gesture alters our world-famous viewscape. Rural beauty, or the general lack of development, is a characteristic that survives chiefly in our mountains. Perhaps it’s best exemplified by undulating ridgelines and the stunning skylines they create. While cherished by many Vermonters, these qualities also provide the foundation of our largely beauty-based economy. If lost, these values won’t be sustained.
This token greening harms individuals and the social fabric. Turbines broadcast audible noise and far-reaching, inaudible and health-degrading infrasound. Vermont towns typically have widely dispersed populations. When industrial wind developments are crammed into them, there invariably will be “close” people who will lose property value and possibly their health. Naturally, they tend to fight industrial wind developments. Conversely, those living safely on the other side of town, and often tempted by the wind-industry with something that’s actually green, may be more inclined to downplay this threat they don’t share. This terrible dynamic can cause unfortunate social climate change. Once damaged, these priceless commodities lives and communities may not be renewable.
The desire to protect wildlife and our shared habitat is the most noble of goals. But we have to look beyond mere words. Unfortunately, industrial wind developments hurt the local environment while doing nothing for the world’s. If we want to make a much more significant difference we could drive less, insulate more, and embrace domestic solar. Even better, we could protect our unspoiled mountains from development. This would reduce our carbon footprint while preserving Vermont’s wonderful environment of rich natural habitats, physical beauty, and typically close-knit communities.
This commentary is by Skip Lisle, a member of the Grafton Selectboard and a wildlife biologist.
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