Monday, November 10, 2008

Wind turbine advice

Grainy picture of local turbines at dawn.

This was a note to a former student involved in the Great Maine Wind Turbine Controversy:

Dear Mick:
Up until now, a bulk of what I've been reading in regards to industrial wind power has been very negative, by and large. Could you recommend to me some websites, journal articles, reports, and other resources that speak of the pros and even un-biased facts about this development? I truly want to be thoroughly educated in all aspects of this topic and do not want to be tempted to take one side or the other without solid knowledge.

Dear XXXX:

Of the various options to provide energy that would reduce climate emissions, wind power is currently the most cost-effective, coming in at between 2 and 6 cents per installed watt, compared to upwards of 20 cents for solar, 10 cents for nuclear, and so on.

There are few renewable energy options that offer as good an economic return for communities and corporations. Because of their good economics, private finance is interested in them, hence the developer's interest, but they also will help keep electricity prices down for ordinary people, compared to other sources of power, assuming fair competition and regulation in power generation.

So they are beneficial to owners of stocks and shares in energy companies, which are, like all stocks, often owned by ordinary people through pension funds, etc, they provide jobs in wind development corporations and maintenance contractors, although these are mostly specialized engineering, development, and finance jobs, and they can help keep electricity prices from rising as fast as other energy prices.

Local jurisdictions can benefit from taxes, and landowners benefit from lease payments.

Wind power also helps meet state and federal goals for energy independence. The current war in Iraq, for instance, which costs taxpayers an awful lot, and requires a lot of death and destruction, is at least partly over oil, and might not be so likely to be repeated if we develop our national wind power resources, as well as other clean, independent energy.

(There are many different kinds of ugliness in the world.)

I can recommend a good book on wind power control and development that covers all of this quite well. I have it in my office, and you can take a look at it when you come.

Then there are the ecological benefits.

Most climate scientists expect that to abate dangerous climate change of 2 or more degrees Celsius in the next 100 years, we need to reduce emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Wind power is one part of the possible mix. Climate change by itself doesn't make a good argument for any specific form of clean energy. There are lots of others to choose from, including efficiency and conservation. But the European countries, who are ahead of us in reducing emissions, have generally found wind power helpful and inexpensive so far.

I have a couple of very up-to-date science books on climate change that make this clear.

The consensus prediction for New England, from the New England Regional Assessment (NERA) which can be googled and downloaded easily enough, is that our our region will experience a 3-6 degree Celsius increase in average annual temperature, giving us roughly the climate of Virginia (3 degrees) or Georgia (6 degrees). This kind of rapid warming will destroy forest ecology, make farming initially quite difficult, force wildlife to migrate, and generally overturn most efforts at conservation. That's without taking the likelihood of damage to houses and other infrastructure from increased extreme weather such as floods, hurricanes and windstorms into account, or sea level rise.

Like I said, this resource (the NERA) is available on line, as is the IPCC 2007 report. Both are scientifically moderate documents, and well supported by the evidence.

So generally although a lot of people find them ugly, and think of them as damaging to wildlife, many people do benefit from wind turbines, and scientists who keep up with climate change news see them as one possible form of energy generation that would help mitigate and thus avoid climate change.

(There are plenty of scientists, and conservationists, who don't really understand how severe the climate change worries are. Those, like me who have up to date training, tend to see stopping climate change as an overriding priority for all conservation.)

On the down side, there are documented effects on birds. I have a copy of a book with some of the latest research, which again you can study when you come. Bats may actually suffer more than birds, according to new research in Europe. And there are effects on humans. They can be noisy, they can create discomfort through noise or reverberation at very low frequency, and they are considered unsightly by many, although not all. I also can help connect you with the deliberations and documentation of the federal-level USFWS Wind Advisory Taskforce, which is quite relevant as other communities are experiencing similar qualms.

Wind turbines are also new to Maine and we don't know how to best control their development, or how to tax them for the benefit of local jurisdictions. The experience of locals in Freedom, for instance, seems from my vantage point to have been largely negative. The turbines used may have been noisier than promised, the company doesn't seem to have done a great job of education or outreach, to say the least, there were accusations of unfair dealing, and the town itself may not quite have known how to cope well with the strong feelings that developed.

A more rational approach, it seems to me, would emphasize stricter performance standards and deeper setbacks to houses and abutting properties, would anticipate skyline and viewshed effects carefully, specify public disclosures needed from corporations wishing to develop sites, such as the specific equipment to be used and its specified noise and other characteristics, would allow for a stronger say by the community and by abutting landowners, would look for a much more structured and deliberative process in town meeting, and would plan to tax turbines, output, and site leases carefully (not just the capital value of the equipment). Writing town ordinances to do all this that would survive court and even constitutional challenge is a specialized business.

Turbines can also be owned by communities instead of for-profit corporations. That is what we're aiming for with our Mt View High School project, in which, if we're successful, the school will benefit from much cheaper energy, freeing money from the budget for education. there will also be a turbine available for high school and vo-tech education purposes, making it more likely that local people get hired to do installations and maintenance of future turbines.

So, I apologize if this all seems too even-handed and rational. (But this is exactly the sort of thing that a policy PhD is likely to suggest -- it's what we do.)

But a balanced approach is really the only one available. As I believe XXXX has already realized, even were a group to try some kind of more aggressive action, say a blanket ban, they would be unlikely to succeed in any case, largely because the property rights are all on the side of the landowners and development companies. Development restrictions for any kind of development (think how widespread are suburbs and sprawl) are problematic in the courts.


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