September 5, 2006

A Mighty Wind

One of my parents' current obsessive causes seems to have made Wired.Com via an AP story (they live in one of the towns mentioned). I follow their fight with half an ear and one eye - after all, their home is partially my home too. One bit of information I find amusing is that in nearly every story about these proposed wind turbine projects, you can determine the degree of support for the wind project by the amount of information suppressed.

The AP article is to the 'support' side of the line, which is probably to be expected if it is being run in Wired magazine - after all, renewable power = good, right? Well, yes, renewable power is good. The main problem is how you get it.

In particular, the piece of information that is being left out of that story is the size of the damn things. They're roughly twenty stories tall. The plan calls, therefore, for over two dozen twenty-story tall wind towers to be erected. Where they are to be placed, mind you, is on top of a Green Mountain ridge, which has no structure on it taller than a fire watch tower - and no structure which currently breaks the ridgeline. This ridge is overlooking Interstate 91, which means that it is set in the middle of the more populous corridor' along that region of Vermont as you approach the Northeast Kingdom - which does make sense from a power-delivery point of view.

However, consider that. I don't think there's a single building in Vermont that's twenty stories tall. Now imagine you live in a peaceful rural community, in what is still a very, very pretty ridge-bordered valley in Vermont. So pretty, in fact, that numerous high-priced bed & breakfasts and country inns are placed strategically around the area, some along the top of that very ridgeline (although offset several miles south) for the views. You're a Vermonter, a solid, tough, independent type with a distrust of 'flatlanders' - the local sobriquet for those from south of the southern Vermont border and in fact anywhere else - and the town you live in is so poor, it doesn't even have a general store. No industry whatsoever.

Now imagine someone tells you that a company based in one of the richest suburbs of Boston wants to put up two dozen twenty-story tall industrial objects on the highest, most picturesque and visible ridgeline in the country. These turbines will require anticollision lights for aircraft, of course. They will need concrete and steel footings and basemounts the size of small skyscrapers, all built of reinforced concrete and steel on the top of your so-far-relatively unsullied forested-and-field ridge.

Now realize that these turbines will produce maybe enough power for a couple of counties. 15,000 homes? Bupkes. This is not a California desert valley, with guaranteed winds due to daily solar convection, either - this is merely the highest point of a ridge system, with a general airflow pattern - and not a very strong one.

Does the deal look quite so good?

Well, let's have another look: "...supporters in Sheffield, which voted 120-93 in December in favor of the project, still hold out hope." Supporters? What supporters? Ah, well, remember another incredibly important thing about these towns: they are, as towns, incredibly poor. They have little tax base save for their inhabitants. Suddenly, an out-of-state company wants to buy up some land that is likely nearly unsaleable because it is unfarmable and difficult to get to and has no services - and they're probably willing to pay cash on the barrelhead in quantities that, in this town, are simply enormous. In Newton, Massachusetts, they probably wouldn't buy a bathroom redecoration, but whatever.

Now, it is certainly in the interests of the landowners to accept this offer. This is their privilege, and more power to them - I would expect them to support this project. There are of course industries that would benefit - contractors to do forestry work, roadbuild, clear, put up maintenance structures, work on the electrical delivery grid, etc. Sure.

Now, of course, you have the town clerks, who are looking at huge increases (in relative terms) in their towns' tax takes for the first couple of years, at least - in other words, the years they can forsee being in office and 'making a legacy.' Sounds like a godsend.

But what about that farmer in the article who has to wake up every day and look out across that ridge? What about the people who live within twenty miles of that ridgeline who enjoy their relatively unsullied night sky who will have to look at the crazyquilt of anticollision lights and strobes? What about the ornithologists, professional and amateur, who spend months at a time in that part of Vermont watching those particular ridgelines because of those same airmass movements carrying birds, who will now be looking into the face of what are essentially enormous twenty-story tall Cuisinarts?

They're not the ones with the budgets. But their concerns matter too.

For a rendering of the ridge with and without the turbines, see this web page.

Posted by jbz at September 5, 2006 12:25 PM | TrackBack

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