Economic Development

Power Puffs

From my neighborhood in Livingston, Montana, you can watch three wind turbines spin with the gales that rush down from the Rocky Mountains. The towers...
by | November 30, 2007

From my neighborhood in Livingston, Montana, you can watch three wind turbines spin with the gales that rush down from the Rocky Mountains. The towers aren't that noticeable in the grand sweep of the plains. If anything, they're reminders of the simpler days some old-timers still remember when windmills pumped water for cattle and Sears Roebuck "windchargers" powered the old-fashioned console radios in ranch-house living rooms.

Now, wind power is going through a renaissance around the country. Federal and state officials are counting on giant arrays of high-tech turbines to capture energy from wind to help replace fossil fuels and counteract global warming. Rural cities and counties like mine are intrigued by the possibilities of creating new jobs and generating electricity from the stiff-blowing winds that, on some days, make us hold on to our hats.

As I look out across the plains, wind turbines seem to me to be graceful yet modern technological accomplishments, and there's a lot to be said for reaping as much homegrown local power as possible. But for all wind energy's clean and green appeal, even the best-intentioned technologies can have detrimental consequences. Local officials in these parts are taking their time to see how alternative power markets develop. More likely than not, some constituents will raise a fuss if a developer proposes erecting a metal forest of 400-foot-tall towers where the Yellowstone River flows in front of the snowy Absaroka Mountains.

Other wind-swept communities will also be in for some fights as large-scale wind power development spreads to new regions. Wind-generated capacity has been expanding 25 percent a year, and Texas has overtaken California as the leading wind power state. Wind farms already operate in 36 states, and the federal government is promoting big-scale wind projects and planning to carve out high-voltage transmission corridors to connect them to energy-starved population centers. A booming wind industry is now scouring treeless plains, exposed ridgelines and ocean coastlines for promising sites. In many a slow-paced town or county, officials all of a sudden are trying to strike a balance between fulfilling the nation's energy demands and preserving the local community's distinctive character.

For the past five years, well-funded opponents on Cape Cod have bogged down a proposed 400-megawatt project five miles offshore in Nantucket Sound. The 130 turbines would stand more than 400 feet above the surface, and residents - many of them wealthy, second-home owners - are concerned that on clear days the towers will be visible above the seascape. Massachusetts officials have backed the Cape Wind project, but the local Cape Cod Commission in October denied a permit for transmission lines connecting the turbines to the state's electric power system.

Similar opposition is spreading, especially in the Northeast, where developers have begun leasing sites on windy New England and Appalachian mountain ridgelines. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court this year upheld a Bear Creek Township ordinance that stalled a 34-turbine project near lakeshore wetlands. New York communities are struggling to figure out how to manage a spurt of proposed windmill farms in the state's largely empty far northern counties. The American Bird Conservancy calls for tough federal standards to keep turbine blades from killing hawks, songbirds and bats, and opponents have formed national organizations to warn about the noise and distracting "shadow flicker" that poorly designed wind farms inflict on nearby residents.

Clearly, not all the doubters can be dismissed as just a fortunate few out to protect dramatic views from their own backyards. State and local officials need to do some hard thinking about where wind farms will be environmentally acceptable. At the same time, poor urban neighborhoods and boom-and-bust mining towns have put up with more than their shares of refineries and coal-burning power plants. Maybe it's time for communities favored by more pristine natural settings to live with lesser consequences from developing different technologies.

Delaware residents seem to be reaching agreement that it's preferable to install wind turbines barely visible from Rehoboth Beach than to rely on natural gas or unproven "clean coal" power plants. High Plains farmers and ranchers are glad to accept the $3,000 or more wind developers pay a year to lease enough land for a single turbine. This fall, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire stepped in to reverse the Kittitas County commission's decision to block a 65-turbine plant near semi-rural homes.

In evergreen Washington, public alarm about climate change makes alternative power a political best-seller. Even so, for a governor to overrule local land-use authorities takes considerable fortitude. That's a quality more state and local officials will have to demonstrate if the country is to use the winds to supply more of its energy.

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