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Clippings: Look for wind turbines in our future

Maybe you are like me, and when you see one of those huge wind generators rising above the landscape you enjoy the beauty of the design and the good feeling of knowing the power it produces is not contributing to global warming or despoiling nature.
Or, maybe you are like me, and when you see one or many of those huge wind generators looming above the landscape you are disquieted by the fear that these industrial hulks are diminishing the pristine views of our Green Mountains and despoiling the natural habitat in which they are raised.
Vermonters are increasingly being called on to wrestle with their contradictory love/hate relationship with wind power. On the one hand, we love the “green” sheen of renewable energy; on the other we can’t deny that these huge machines change the landscape in big ways and come with some environmental baggage. The call for a moratorium on new wind generators in Vermont is growing louder, and the Legislature this session is likely to consider a two-year-breather on new projects.
The topic was brought home to me last week during my vacation with family in Iowa. The Hawkeye State is second only to Texas in the amount of power generated by wind turbines (4,400 megawatts), and 18.8 percent of the power produced in Iowa in 2011 came from wind. By some measures Iowa has the highest density of wind turbines per square mile of any state in the union. By creating a market for wind power through laws enacted more than two decades ago, Iowa has become home to several growing businesses manufacturing components for wind generators.
Driving down I-80 last week me and my family saw several large, white wind generators churning through the frigid prairie winds. They were, in the old sense of the word, awesome. Towering 300 feet or more above the rolling cornfields and mini-malls, their huge blades sweep through a diameter matching the wingspan of a 747 jumbo jet. From a distance the blades seem to be turning at a leisurely, thoughtful pace; up close you can see that the tips of the blades are flying at the clip of a high-speed Veg-o-matic. In a land where there are still a few of the quaint old windmills pumping water on the odd farmstead here and there, these leviathans seem like noble giants heralding the dawn of a new age. Knowing that they are displacing the need for coal- and oil-fired power plants, they inspire hope for the future — maybe human beings won’t completely wreck Mother Earth; maybe there will be a brighter future for my kids and their kids.
At the same time, seeing these foreign giants is jarring. They really are out of character with the surrounding landscape. Iowa is a place of beauty (don’t believe those who call it just a flyover state) and the wind turbines are so different that they stick out in a way that seems foreign. The same imagination that is inspired to hope by the huge turbines can also conjure up images of a dystopian world where heartless machines proliferate across all of God’s creation and tower over us insignificant human beings.
They are so large that they shrink space; landscapes that seemed large and imposing in the past now feel somewhat diminished. This second point would be even more critical in Vermont, where I fear the massive towers, particularly spread over an entire ridgeline, would dim the grandeur of the Green Mountains. On I-90 in New York we saw a wind farm consisting of 11 or 12 turbines along a ridgeline. Up close it dominated the viewshed; as we drove further and further away it wasn’t so disturbing.
Aside from the aesthetics, big wind towers present genuine health and safety concerns. There is the worry about ice flying off the blades and striking people or property — a small but real danger. The churning of the blades is a proven danger to birds, which are killed in greater numbers wherever turbines are in use. And the process of erecting and maintaining wind turbines is really an insult to the natural world. Trees, brush and other habitat are removed, roads to the towers cut up the natural pathways of wild animals. Opponents also say that wind turbines produce noise pollution. Having viewed the turbines from the car I can’t speak for the noise they make, but I do remember visiting a coal-fired power plant and recall it producing noise that couldn’t have been less than 10 times louder than a wind turbine would produce — it was truly deafening.
Another worry I have is that we will make these tradeoffs for wind power — some natural resource destruction in exchange for producing less climate-changing CO2 — without getting the full benefit. Is Vermont really such a great place for generating electricity using wind? It doesn’t have the constant blow that you get on the prairies of Iowa or off the coast of Massachusetts, for instance. And you’ll have to excuse my excessive skepticism, but I’m always wary of promises of a big return from the folks selling a new technology.
I’ve heard time and again about how compact fluorescent light bulbs will make up for their high upfront cost by lasting for years and years, but I keep having to replace the CFLs above my bathroom vanity because three out of four go dark long before the promised expiration. And I love my Prius hybrid car, and it does get 50 mpg — sometimes; but it logged only 39 or 40 mpg on the Iowa trip (mostly because we drove so fast).
Still, we can’t deny that global warming is real. You probably read the news this week that Vermont saw its warmest year ever in 2012. And continued dependence on fossil fuels will continue to produce direct ecological damage like the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago (did you seen the story about the oil leaking from the Alaskan offshore oil rig this week?).
We’ve got to take action to heal our planet. Putting up wind turbines in Vermont is not a cure-all, and we can’t let supporters tell us it is. But it is one of many steps that need to be taken to preserve what we have, and just maybe restore what has been lost.

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