Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Whose Back Yard Should Have It?

Dave Bonta, of Via Negativa has posted an open letter to President Obama from nature writer Chris Bolgiano concerning wind power in Appalachia. Dave has asked readers to pass along the link, (which I just did). Like many people around here, Chris and Dave are concerned about habitat destruction and loss of rare species, and they point out, correctly, that wind turbines and their access roads have negative environmental impact.

Here in West Virginia, we get a good close look at surface coal mines (Imagine calling something "mountain top removal" to improve public relations.), natural gas drilling, and under-inspected fly ash containment ponds, as well as the sort of rural poverty that causes communities to welcome these things for the jobs and money they bring in. I keep files of news clippings on these subjects, but I usually get too depressed by the issues to post them. There's no energy without cost, and weighing those costs is a series of grim tradeoffs.

Chris makes a case for community-scale, rather than industrial-scale, wind power, and I can agree wholeheartedly there. I hope someday to afford my own small windmill, along with some solar panels for our ridge top home. I'm sure most of my neighbors would desire these things too if they were not so pricey. Who wouldn't want to save on electric bills? She's also spot-on concerning the marginal nature of wind power on Appalachia's high ridges--it wouldn't be profitable to build unsubsidized wind farms here.

Still, most natural resource extraction is government subsidized in some way. Chris observes Industrial wind power has a place, and T. Boone Pickens knows exactly where that is: On the plains, where winds are incessant. Other potentially low impact sites are mid-western crop fields, eastern strip mines, and off-shore waters, much closer to the coastal cities that need the power. Unfortunately, the people that live in those places don't find the wind farms "low impact." (Except perhaps on those strip mines where everyone has moved away because there is no more safe drinking water.)

I would like to pass along this Associated Press article from last summer (August 16, 2008) by Helen O'Neill: Windmills split town and families. She describes the coming of wind turbines to New York's Tug Hill Plateau, west of the Adirondacks, far west of the Appalachians, and includes quotes from people who are glad for the windmills and the money they've brought in, as well as people who are heartbroken about what has happened to their homes.

...[F]or all the benefits of clean, renewable energy, the windmills come with a price--and not just the visual impact.

"Is it worth destroying families, pitting neighbor against neighbor, father against son?" asks John Yancey, whose family have farmed Tug Hill for generations. "Is it worth destroying a whole way of life?"

Similar questions are being asked across the state and the country as more and more small towns grapple with big money and big wind....The Maple Ridge project produces enough electricity to power about 100,000 homes. Other wind projects are going up all over the state. Pickens is talking about building a $10 billion wind project -- the world's largest -- in the Texas panhandle. Everyone, it seems, is talking about wind.

Yancey understands its seduction. An electrician, he knows as much about the turbines as anyone. He helped build and install the ones on Tug Hill. He can rattle off statistics about the bus-sized nacelle at the top of the tower which houses the generator and the sophisticated computer system that allows the blades to yaw into the wind. He talks about the 1.65 mw Vestas with authority and respect.

Turbines have their place, Yancey says, just not where people live.

Here are some more links from my e-scrapbook on wind power.

  • Coal River Wind hopes to trade a wind farm along Coal River Mountain for "mountain top removal" by Massey Energy. It's not to late to sign the petition, so click on over.
  • U.S. becomes top wind producer, solar next February 2, 2009--Reuters, via Scientific American. It seems we're Number One already.
  • Greenbrier County's Windmill War (2006). Greenbrier County's projected wind farm has, since this article, moved a little closer to reality, but is still not a done deal.
  • Windmills and Mountaintop Removal: (from West Virginia Highlands Voice, November 10, 2006) Instead of debating the false choice of coal versus wind energy, we would all be better off spending our energy forcing the coal and wind industries to bear all the costs of their operations, including the costs to society. It would be more productive--and more fun--then sniping at each other.
  • Citizens for Responsible Wind Power Their mission statement: The mission of Citizens for Responsible Wind Power is to ensure that industrial wind power complexes do not adversely affect citizens, local communities, and the public. This includes adverse effects or impacts on the local economy, cultural resources, scenic viewsheds, wildlife habitat, public lands, and sensitive natural environments that may result from siting, construction, and operation of such facilities.
  • Wind Farm No Threat to Cape Cod, Report Says--Project Is Deemed Safe for Environment by Derek Kravitz, Washington Post, January 17, 2009. Many people from Martha's Vineyard oppose this offshore wind project, and, despite the Interior Department's approval, it may not go through. (I find the farmers of Tug Hill plateau a lot more sympathetic than the folks on Martha's Vineyard, but perhaps that's just some reverse class-ism on my part. Of course, the Kennedys use more electricity than the Tug Hill Amish farmers....)

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