Trouble in the Wind

When windmills are sited near scenic spots, environmental groups say that's too high a price to pay for green power.
November 2002
Tom Arrandale
By Tom Arrandale  |  Correspondent
Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

In the right places, machinery can look beguiling. Out on the empty plains, old-fashioned windmills and whirling prairie winds are reminders of the homesteaders' struggle for survival. Sleeker descendants now spin gracefully in windmill farms on croplands and pastures from the Dakotas down to Texas. They're eye-catching emblems for what hopefully will emerge as a more lasting legacy for the rural West's economy--and the whole country's environmental quality as well.

But what fits so well on the plains may not look so appealing in other parts of country. Renewable energy developers are now building windmill farms to serve the East Coast power grid that reaches more populous electricity markets. As in California, wind power is looking like a natural alternative. After all, East Coast states have been struggling to clean up air that's been tainted by the power plants that burn fossil fuels.

From Maine to West Virginia, however, several plans for harnessing the wind pose an unexpectedly uncomfortable choice for state and local governments. To put wind energy to work, windmill operators say that in many instances they've got to put the turbines right in the midst of some of the East Coast's most scenic spots, places where the wind blows strong and steady--atop Appalachian Mountain ridges or off picturesque Atlantic beaches. Nearby landowners and some environmental groups think that's too high a price to pay even for pollution-free green power.

The Appalachian Mountain Club, the nation's oldest conservation organization, is protesting plans to build 29 turbines atop the Redington Pond range in western Maine. The region contains seven of Maine's 13 highest peaks, and the 300-foot-tall towers would be visible to hikers on the northern reaches of the Appalachian Trail. The club also worries about what installing turbines, running transmission lines and building 10 miles of new roads will do to rare plants and animals and fragile steep slopes. "We support wind power in concept, but why here?" is the way Gabrielle Kissinger, the club's Maine conservation director, puts it.

Unfortunately, people living near other windy terrain are asking the same question. Wind power developers are now exploring additional wind-blown sites that lie close to suburban towns and vacation resorts where big-city dwellers now buy second homes to escape cluttered metropolitan landscapes. The newcomers may be all for using renewable energy themselves, but they don't want neighbors putting up windmills that stand out on the horizon--and thereby diminish property values.

In Wisconsin, the Calumet County Commission imposed a moratorium on windmill towers more than 100 feet high along the Niagara Escarpment near Lake Winnebago. This summer, residents in Cherry Lake, New York, near scenic Cooperstown, began protesting state plans to help finance more than two dozen 400-foot-tall turbines that would be visible from Otsego Lake. Long Island residents have blocked a wind project at Montauk Point, and Cape Cod residents are contesting a proposal to place 170 turbines six miles off the coast in Nantucket Sound.

The American Wind Energy Association predicts that wind generation will multiply twenty-fold over the next two decades, putting state and local officials on the spot. Along the Columbia River gorge, Klickitat County, Washington, is studying wind patterns to identify sites where wind-power projects will be permitted. In Maine, the mountain club wants the state legislature to prescribe siting standards to direct wind projects away from the most fragile mountaintops and wildlife habitat. But instead of planning to generate their own, there is the distinct feeling that many populous regions would prefer to get their green power from North Dakota.

North Dakota bills itself as the Saudi Arabia of wind and probably would welcome the business. Wind farms pay farmers and ranchers a going rate of roughly $2,000 an acre annually to lease one turbine site, and that steady income could prove the salvation for rural county economies that are now wilting throughout the arid Western plains. But the nation's electric power system was built on hauling coal or piping natural gas across the country to fire power plants that transmit electricity through regional grids. The infrastructure isn't set up to carry power 2,000 miles from North Dakota or Montana windmills to Maine or Massachusetts customers.

Besides, it's only fair that the Northeast take advantage of the clean-energy options right in its own backyard. As a Montanan, it's clear to me that the West will bear more than its share of the burden if the nation tears up Rocky Mountain grizzly habitat and uproots Powder River ranching families drilling for natural gas to fire powerplants that serve cities thousands of miles away.

Of course, governments in other regions should do their best to keep green-power projects from thoughtlessly disfiguring distinctive landscapes. But instead of dismissing them as eyesores, the rest of the country should be looking at windmills as gracefully designed symbols of a common commitment to public-spirited environmental policy.