Are We Asking the Right Questions About Wind Energy?

by Joseph Gainza

In the late seventies and early eighties I worked at the Vermont State Energy Office. One of my areas of responsibility was to encourage the development of wind energy. In light of the OPEC oil embargo, state energy offices were created to promote, conservation and the development of alternative, including renewable, energy sources. I organized a meeting of Vermont electric utility executives and provided them with material on the potential for harnessing the wind as a power source. People involved in promoting the developing technology were invited and served as a resource for the meeting.

As part of my ongoing responsibilities, I spoke with several people about the potential for wind in Vermont, financing wind projects, and the environmental impacts of placing large wind generators on mountain tops. The office was also promoting small scale and household size wind generation and I would periodically visit home sites to determine whether it made sense for a family to go through the expense of having their site tested. I also talked with farmers in Addison County where the winds off Lake Champlain could provide for much of their electrical needs.

I remember clearly one discussion I had with Professor Hub Vogelman at the University of Vermont. Professor Vogelman was studying the effects of acid rain on Vermont’s mountains. We wanted to know what might happen to a mountain where a large wind generator was placed. What the professor told us was enough to greatly reduce my enthusiasm for big wind generators on mountain ridges.

South of Grandpa's Knob. Most of these mountains have been targeted for big wind turbines

Professor Volgelman theorized that by opening the tree cover of a mountaintop you expose all the trees along the perimeter of the space you create. Those trees which had been protected by the trees that have been removed would begin to die back as the winds dried out the soil and uprooted them. This die-back could be extensive depending on the mountain topography and other factors. What you would get is a much larger clearing of trees than needed for the placement of the generator. The additional destruction of the mountain ridge caused by the maintenance roads to the site(s) would only exacerbate the problem.

This discussion took place in about 1980, long before the development of the huge generators now being placed on mountains. Hub Vogelman was speculating, still, I took his words of caution to heart and have listened with growing concern to the debate about placement of industrial scale wind generators on our Green Mountains.

Several issues come up for me and, in light of the catastrophic potential of global warming, take on a level of urgency. I believe that it is essential we move as rapidly as we can to the production and use of energy sources which provide for our needs while operating within the assimilative and regenerative capacities of the earth’s ecosystem. Fossil fuels and nuclear power do not fit into this framework. So we must develop all the renewable energy sources we can up to the limits imposed by the biological reality of life on earth.

The argument over whether to place utility scale wind generators on our mountaintops, like that over the XL tar sands oil pipeline, proposed to run from Alberta to Texas, fail to take into consideration the questions of “energy for what purpose, to whose benefit and how we can structure our personal and common life to insure that civilization and life itself continue to thrive.” These are big questions loaded with political, moral and ethical implications, so big in fact that it will take a vibrant democracy where all voices are heard and thoroughly considered, including those who speak for the voiceless, the other-than-human members of the earth community, where the best science informs our decisions before we make the needed investments and move ahead. This will obviously take time and time is what we lack; we have postponed serious discussion for so long that the early onslaught of global warming, in the form of frequent and violent storms, is already upon us. But we must start now.

The advance of renewable energy sources has taken place within the same paradigm which has brought us to the brink of an environmental calamity on the scale of the mass extinctions of millions of years ago when up to ninety-five percent of all life on the planet vanished. That paradigm includes the belief that human desires take precedence over the needs of the other creatures with whom we share this planet, and that our well being is independent of the well being of the natural world. No wonder many people either want to deny the issue or see a “liberal” conspiracy in the science which is overwhelming in pointing to human activity as the driver of this impending disaster. But reality has a way of imposing itself as did Irene and many other climate related tragedies to befall people around the globe in 2011.

We must also ask why are we treating dispersed energy sources (wind, solar) the same as concentrated energy sources (fossil fuels, nuclear)? In business, efficiency is a central concept. The more efficiently one can produce a product, the greater the likely profit in selling that product. Electric utilities are not different, although they must adhere to regulations which are intended to protect customers and the public good. Huge wind generators are more efficient in this manner; 24 of them on a mountain ridge will produce more electricity than a few hundred homestead size generators serving individual households or a small number of homes in a rural village. And the larger profits from those ridgeline generators flow into the hands of utility shareholders and some, where applicable, into the coffers of hosting towns.

So whether or not to place 459 foot tall wind generators on our mountain ridges is not only about the choice to move away from fossil fuels, it is also about profit; it is about economic versus environmental health. This is the mindset that has brought us to the edge of our own self-extinction. Are we ready now to have serious discussions about how we are to live together on a finite planet which is the basis for all life as we know it?

Joseph Gainza lives in Marshfield and is a member of Vermont Action for Peace.

Joseph Gainza

Vermont Action for Peace

Box 296

Plainfield, Vermont 05667



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2 comments on “Are We Asking the Right Questions About Wind Energy?

  1. And what if giant wind turbines don’t in fact move us away from fossil fuels?

    That is another question to ask. Even in Denmark and Germany, it can’t be shown that they do.

    So in the balance of cost and benefit, high environmental impacts overwhelmingly outweigh big wind’s low (or even utter lack of) benefit.

  2. Besides the cascading effect of clearing a mountaintop that Gainza describes, it is also important to note that the effect on forest habitat is much greater than the direct clearing. Clearing creates new edges, and the loss of interior forest extends more than 250 feet from those edges. Thus, e.g., a 5-acre circular clearing in fact represents a loss of at least 19 acres of interior forest.

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