Wind power: flawed technology, tough trade-offs [November 2010 / CCT]

The battle over wind energy has reached a whole new level of ferocity now that turbines are being proposed for or built in actual backyards.

For years opponents of industrializing Nantucket Sound argued that the logical and much less controversial place to put wind turbines was on land, since it was already developed. But that turns out to be easier said than done. As a recent AP story headline put it “Wind backers back away; advocates of green energy lose enthusiasm when turbines are proposed nearby.”

Supporters of Cape Wind used to question whether there was any reason at all to object to turbines (would you even see them on the horizon?). The quality-of-life price of land-based turbines is much clearer and impacted backyards are speaking up all over.

Turbines proposed for Wellfleet and Cape Cod Community College have been nixed after vigorous debate. There has been strenuous opposition to wind projects in Bourne and Brewster. Falmouth is about to put in operation a second turbine while abutting citizens complain bitterly about the effects on their lives of the first one.

The turbine struggle in Wellfleet has spawned a vigorous campaign by a group calling themselves Save Our Seashore—the defeated turbine would have gone on town land surrounded by national park– against the whole concept of wind energy.

Wind power continues to have strong support. The headline of a story in September ran “Study: Wind energy can power much of East Coast”. But this optimism  seems oblivious of speedbumps in the attempt to realize such a future.

Falmouth  town officials insist that the noise and other effects of turbines do not violate law. Their noise expert says turbine noise not a health hazard. He says people living close really have no reason to mind it. But if they do mind it, as those Falmouth abutters do– if they are kept up at night, have to close their windows and drown out the sound with AC, or move into the basement, does it make any sense not to believe them? Why would they lie? It certainly wouldn’t do much for their property values to claim that life is unliveable in their houses because of the nearby turbine.

The whole logic of technology is for it to serve people, not make  lives unbearable. But there are always tradeoffs. Not many years ago a lot of people thought that wind was a win-win. Free, non- polluting, the perfect new energy source. A no- brainer. Now we know otherwise. There’s no question this is a flawed technology if you include its effect on people living anywhere nearby. The  question is: When is it for “society” to, as it were, assign these punishing effects to some backyards, to sacrifice the quality of some lives for the greater good?

As a society we have in a sense decided that it’s ok that some not inconsiderable number of fellow Americans suffer day in and day out from jets taking off and landing at nearby airports. Or for thousands to put up with the noise of nearby interstate highways. Given widely publicized mine disasters, we are very aware of the many who spend much of their lives in holes in the ground in behalf of those of us who get our heat and electricity from coal.

The Wind Energy Siting Reform Act, temporarily stalled in state legislature, is not neutral; its purpose is to override local concerns about the actual effect of  wind turbines on lives so that more may be sited. If the human future depends on it, as argue many advocates, citing climate change, well, sure, it’s a tough decision, but it should be  easier  than , say, sacrificing certain backyards for airports or highways. Easier, that is, if you believe that climate change will be as devastating as widely claimed. If you believe that wind power is an indispensable part of a solution.

Meanwhile we hear of larger solar projects quietly and much less controversially going about the same business.


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