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Farming Vermont for Wind Power

Sometimes it seems like environmentalists have put themselves on such a state of red alert that we can’t see a good thing when it’s right in front of us.

We’re so used to fighting every inappropriate intrusion upon Mother Earth, that even the idea of using wind to provide electrical power can seem like a threat.

Environmentalists should be organizing to support alternative energy sources such as wind farms. But a few environmentalists have decided that because wind power, like any energy source, has some small drawbacks, wind is a bad idea altogether.

It’s a classic case of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. These people are worried about a cobweb on the ceiling, when the entire floor is collapsing underneath us.

It’s true that ridgetop wind would necessarily alter some of our mountain views. Installing turbines on ridges where they are most efficient requires building a road to the turbines, and a few birds will be killed in the rotating blades.

But those impacts are infinitesimal when compared to the chaos of unimpeded climate change — which will surely be our fate unless we widely develop clean energy sources such as wind.

We are living in a new reality of superstorms, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, unstable crop production, and freak weather. That’s just a warm up for an even grimmer future, too — unless we rapidly transition to wind, solar, conservation and other benign technologies and practices. Only by doing that can we keep most remaining fossil fuels in the ground where they belong.

Recently there’s been a loud local chorus of opposition to wind energy. Opponents have focused on the State Senate’s consideration of a proposed three-year moratorium on larger wind and solar projects, along with other developments including my recent column in this space.

Some well intended wind foes, coming from an environmental perspective, say conservation is the way to go. Some think it’s solar, while others look to weatherization and electric or hybrid cars. They say we can do without wind, or at least let’s study it for a few years and give each town veto power over local projects.

We’re told it’s better to wait, wise to spend three years studying the potential impacts of wind. We should turn off our computers overnight, buy LED light bulbs and drive less.

Those are good ideas. We need to do all of them.

But they won’t, alone, get the job done.

It’s not enough for anti-wind environmentalists to say we should practice conservation or drive cars that get better gas mileage. Of course we should do that. But those small steps are insufficient to stem the literally rising tide.

Those of us who favor wind farms — and those who are willing to gamble without wind — have a fundamental disagreement about how much is enough, and how serious the climate issue is.

Some of us are convinced that here in Vermont and everywhere else, we have to adopt every form of clean, non-fossil energy at our disposal.

Others think that the climate threat isn’t that great. Or they appear to believe we’ve got decades to confront it, when virtually all the evidence says we’ve got 20 years at the most.

Along the way, wind foes have promoted several specious myths.

They claim wind turbines costs as much in energy to manufacture as they produce. In fact, the “energy return on investment” is much greater for wind than virtually all other forms of power production.

They claim wind power is causing instability in the regional energy grid and would require more transmission lines. In fact, this isn’t an issue unique to or caused by wind power. We need to address these challenges by improving the grid’s infrastructure, whatever power sources we employ.

As House Majority Leader Willem Jewett, whose district includes Salisbury, Cornwall and Ripton, put it in an email to me, “We need to move quickly toward a carbon-free power system. We need wind, hydro, solar, biomass and conservation.”

Historically speaking, Vermont has gone from producing most of its own power – think the hydro once generated by the falls in Vergennes and even Bristol – to relying on power from somewhere else.

Today when clean, decentralized power production is readily available and we could be grabbing much more energy from the sun and wind, some environmentalists appear to believe we don’t have that much of a responsibility to do so.

Turning their backs to the wind – and because they underestimate the threat of climate change – they seem to think it’s fine for us to keep relying on HydroQuebec, or on the slowly crumbling Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.

If people believe we shouldn’t take more responsibility for producing some of our own energy, then sure, let’s just say no to wind.

But we’re now in a position to again be more responsible about producing some of the energy we consume. And yes, we’ll need to make the small sacrifice required, in the form of white turbines waving on some of our ridgetops.

If we agree that time is running short and that we have an obligation to be part of the solution instead of the problem, then we need wind on some of our ridgelines.

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