Are Wind Protestors Full of Hot Air?
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Power corrupts, and wind power corrupts pristine ridgelines. Maybe it doesn't have to. Wind faces fierce opposition in Vermont; this Searsburg operation is the only existing project. I've always assumed that opponents of win... Running against the wind I felt some anxiety when the subject came up at my very first Green Mountain Club (GMC) meeting the other night. My husband and I asked for the GMC membership for Christmas (thanks, Dad!) so we could have family time in the woods while also performing a public service--helping with Long Trail maintenance alongside other members of the club's Brattleboro Section. Not so we could get involved in the second most volatile energy issue in Vermont. (The most volatile is the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant I mentioned in my last blog post .) But here we were, between the potluck and the election of officers, listening to recent statewide GMC board president Rich Windish talk about a proposed 21-turbine project in Vermont's remote Northeast Kingdom. While Rich clarified that the GMC does not have an official position on wind, he also explained that the infrastructure needs of wind turbines are pretty extensive, including access roads that break up wildlife corridors. Stunningly, he compared the way towers are sometimes built on ridgelines to mountaintop removal. Leave no trace, except 21 factories Because this project is being built very close to the Long Trail (Vermont's precursor to the Appalachian Trail), the GMC got legally involved as an intervener in the permitting process to help ensure that the mountaintop-removal type of development did not happen in the Northeast Kingdom. The view from Stratton Mountain inspired the creation of both the Long Trail and the Appalachian Trail in the early 20th century. Whether wind towers mar or enhance such views is a subjective matter. (Some of us find the cell tower at the adjacent ski area much uglier.) Photo: Matt Larson for The Boston Globe The club's involvement has apparently resulted in several environmental safeguards, including mitigation after development as well as decommissioning. Obviously a project of this magnitude will not be able to follow the hikers' "leave no trace" guidelines, but hopefully the GMC's involvement will help them get as close as possible. Even the required lights, which alert pilots to the turbines, will employ a new technology that means they only come on when they are needed. While I'd be pretty excited to ogle turbines from a remote backwoods trail, seeing the lights while I'm trying to enjoy my campfire would not excite me quite so much. Pretty is as pretty does While people do talk mostly about habitat damage and noise (the latter seems not to be an issue once they're built in these very remote locations), it surprises me how much of the opposition to wind in Vermont appears to be about aesthetics . Although I don't hike up mountains just for the views, I do enjoy the vistas quite a lot: they are the payoff for a tough climb, and there is no sensation that compares with enjoying a view you can only see by wearing yourself out. Some people seem to find wind towers ugly; they compare their opposition to wind on ridgelines to their opposition to billboards (which are illegal in Vermont, an extremely effective way of preserving the "visual resource" that helps keep the tourist money flowing). To my way of thinking, though, you can't compare outdoor ads for fireworks and 99-cent fast food with renewable power generation. The costs and benefits don't balance out--and besides, surely I'm not the only person who thinks wind towers add to the landscape rather than detracting from it. It's easy to wrinkle your nose at a huge ridgetop development project when it's not your own state's economy and ecosystems that are being strangled out of existence by global climate change. Of bats and polar bears Rare species like this lady's slipper flourish along the mostly untouched Long Trail. Trucks and roads damage such habitat, no doubt about it. How do we weigh such damage against devastation we can't see in other parts of the world? I would love to link to some charts showing the relative effects of bat deaths on Vermont mountaintops and polar bear deaths in the Artic, but I don't think it's possible to run numbers on such things. However, I think it's safe to say that bats are unlikely to become extinct because of a few wind turbines, but polar bears ( and thousands of other species around the world ) already face extinction, for lack of them. We're attached, though, to the species that populate our everyday world, and we rightly make it our job to protect them. The trouble is that our power consumption habits are killing a lot of species we seem to think are under other people's care. We need to take ownership of the fact that our way of life is endangering other people's . These turbines are projected to meet the power demands of 20,000 households while displacing more than 75,000 tons of CO2 per year, according to the developer. While I think it's important to understand the costs as well as the benefits, just saying no is too easy. Maybe it's time to take a hike, look beyond our own ridgelines, and think a little harder about what we're willing to sacrifice to make up for the way we choose to live. Taking a stand against black-and-white thinking I am very impressed that GMC has accepted the reality that wind is coming to more ridgelines and has gotten deeply involved--without taking a position. This is a hot-button political issue, and I can't think of a group that is less political than the GMC. Members span the political spectrum, and I'm sure they didn't want to wade into the muck, but the other option would have been to allow an inevitable wind project to be built without having a say in how it's done. Instead of looking at the problems wind can cause and standing in opposition, they used the legal tools at hand and got to work to ensure that commonly held resources would be protected. I guess that makes sense, since one of their main activities is using tools (normally saws rather than legal arguments) to keep common resources open to everyone--which in our section usually involves wading in muck. I can't help but feel deep trepidation about the far-reaching effects of the American lifestyle on the natural world. No way of feeding our apparently bottomless hunger for electricity is perfect, it seems. But I'm awfully glad that at least one group has decided to take a stand--not for or against wind power, but against making the perfect the enemy of the good.