David Hatch is a GOVERNING contributor.
On a rugged ridgeline in northeast Vermont, wind power’s once-rosy reputation as a harmless alternative to fossil fuel is under assault. Evoking the civil disobedience long aimed at nuclear reactors, oil and gas extraction and mountaintop removal in coal country, activists have held four protests since November 2011 in an effort to halt construction of twenty-one industrial-sized wind turbines on Lowell Mountain in the state’s majestic Northeast Kingdom. Seventeen protesters have been arrested at the site, including a local newspaper publisher last December and the half-dozen detained during the most recent clash in August. Their key complaint: construction of a wind farm along a three-mile ridgeline in such a pristine setting would endanger the environment and wildlife and destroy the region’s natural splendor.
Wind energy is a tale of dueling narratives. Supporters see tremendous potential for this clean, unlimited domestic resource that accounts for roughly three percent of the nation’s electrical grid and is on track to hit a federal goal of 20 percent -- nuclear’s threshold today -- by 2030. Wind is particularly popular in the nation’s gusty mid-section, from North Dakota to Texas, and in the 29 states (plus the District of Columbia) with mandatory benchmarks for renewable electricity, and the eight states with voluntary goals. South Dakota and Iowa are at or near the 20 percent goal. As wind energy rapidly expands, however, its reputation as a harmless alternative to fossil fuel is increasingly under attack. Complaints range from jet-engine-type noise that keeps residents awake to sharp blades that slice eagles and bats to decreased property values, ruined sightlines and the threat of turbines toppled by storms.
Caught in the crosscurrents are state and local governments that have embraced wind, with strong Obama administration backing, as a centerpiece of their long-term energy goals. “All of us have been caught by surprise to some degree to some of the opposition to wind power,” says Kenneth Kimmell, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. The resistance is forcing him and other state regulators to pay closer attention to where wind farms are located and how they impact surroundings. “I do think that some of our experiences are guiding us to be a little more cautious about where wind turbines are sited,” Kimmell says. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick backs statewide legislation that would set minimum public safety standards for wind farms.
Rick Nicholson, group vice president at IDC Energy Insights, an analysis firm, thinks grassroots opposition may slow projects in some localities, particularly those with dense populations, but is unlikely to pose a serious threat overall. That’s due to states’ heavy reliance on wind in their renewable energy portfolios, he says. While critics raise valid complaints about wind, their grievances are not unique to this energy source, he adds. “It’s just another version of the ‘not-in-my-backyard syndrome’.”
Wind power is most controversial in the Northeast, especially where turbines are close to residential areas. Massachusetts is among the states grappling with how to handle a small but vocal citizen backlash. An independent panel of experts convened by the DEP concluded that wind turbines do not cause adverse health effects, though it did recommend that wind farms limit shadow flicker, an annoyance caused by rotating blades. In response to noise complaints, the department conducted tests in Falmouth and determined that a turbine was too loud and should not operate at night. The state is conducting a similar sound check in the town of Fairhaven. Meanwhile, the controversial Cape Wind project, which would create America’s first offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound, has received regulatory approval from Massachusetts and Washington but remains stalled due to strong local opposition.
While surveys indicate that most Vermonters support wind power, Steve Wright, a former commissioner at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, added heft to the anti-wind movement with a 2011 New York Times op-ed that described the Lowell Mountain project as “desecration” that would “reduce parts of the mountaintops to rubble.” The Michigan farming community of Riga Township reportedly passed a wind power ordinance last year that’s so restrictive it effectively blocks turbines from being erected.
The lingering public perception of gentle Dutch-style windmills in the countryside does not match wind’s stark reality, critics say. Turbines are industrial machines that can exceed the height of the Statue of Liberty, and they’re increasingly financed by subsidiaries of Big Energy giants such as BP and Florida Power & Light. Lisa Linowes, executive director of Windaction.org, a Lyman, New Hampshire-based opposition group, argues that wind projects in rural areas can require dozens of miles of roads on mountains and are built far from where energy is needed. “This energy is high cost, it’s highly destructive within the environment it’s being built on and it’s generating at a time of day and time of year when we largely don’t need it,” she says.
There would be no incentive to build wind farms atop mountains, she contends, without the federal production tax credit, which lowers costs for wind energy companies in an effort to make their fuel more competitive. “Wind energy by itself is not a particularly smart form of electricity generation,” she argues. Her organization is one of dozens across the nation that opposes wind power.
Peter Kelley, a spokesman with the American Wind Energy Association, which represents the industry, points out that other energy producers also benefit from federal incentives, and that the tax relief for wind power “leaves more money in private hands to support investment in wind farms.” While not zero impact, wind is “a very low-impact way of making electricity,” he adds. By comparison, the extraction and burning of fossil fuel is far more detrimental to the environment, he emphasizes. Regarding the Vermont protests, he says, “Other forms of energy are removing entire mountaintops to extract coal. We are not doing that.” In fact, some prominent environmental and wildlife groups support responsible wind power, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Wildlife Fund.
No scientific evidence proves wind farms are detrimental to health, says Kelley, who insists that among the 38,000 turbines in operation, complaints are the exception. He notes that newer turbines are quieter and run more efficiently, and that adjustments have been made to blade speed and turbine design to reduce harm to birds and bats. The industry is studying the use of acoustics to deter bats, which navigate by sound. As to the soaring height of turbines, they need to be tall to reach the strongest winds, supporters say. What’s the alternative? Kelley asks rhetorically. “Put a new coal plant in my community, put a new nuclear plant in my community?” He and other advocates accuse fossil fuel rivals of funding some anti-wind organizations.
Though local opposition poses challenges, the fate of the tax credit is widely viewed as a bigger and more immediate threat to wind’s future. The credit expires Dec. 31 unless Congress renews it for one or more years. The uncertainty in Washington has prompted some projects to be shelved or put on hold, and there could be substantial layoffs, Kelley warns. Wind also faces a mushrooming threat from natural gas, which is abundant and inexpensive due to increased production of domestic underground reservoirs, Nicholson says. “If natural gas prices stay as low as they are, it’s hard for wind, even with a production tax credit, to compete against cheap natural gas.”
Beyond worries about bat safety and tinnitus, something else fuels the resistance to wind power: the visceral reaction provoked by the sight of hulking turbines lurking in the distance or towering over neighborhoods. “The geography of it does create these possibilities of conflict,” Kimmell observes. Studies have shown that among populations near wind farms, people complain more frequently about noise if they can see the turbines, the commissioner says. “The visual element is definitely a part of this, but I don’t want to say it’s the only thing.”
Written and compiled by staff writers and editors, GOVERNING View is an on-the-ground, and sometimes behind-the-scenes, look at the topics we're covering in print and online. From notes on what's up in statehouses, county courthouses and city halls, to encounters with people, places and things, GOVERNING View is a window into the side of state and local government you don't always see.