The world is looking for a no-brainer solution to the 21st century's impending energy crisis, and wind power seems to provide many of the right answers. But those who want to run straight for the first ridgetop and put up a turbine might want to slow down a second. In addition to its distinct advantages, wind power has real drawbacks that must be addressed before it is hailed as our global-warming savior.
Around New England, and especially in Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, activists have many reasons to oppose specific projects, or wind-power development at-large. Ask one of them about the pitfalls of wind energy, and then get comfortable — the list can include doomsday wildlife predictions, decapitation by enormous blades, negative effects on tourism, soaring energy costs, even a suspicious-sounding sickness or a crazy-making continuous drone.
"There's a lot more efficient means to reducing carbon-dioxide emissions," says Audra Parker, executive director of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, which is against the offshore Cape Wind project (currently stalled in litigation), and favors energy-efficiency measures as a means to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
"You always have to have a conventional power plant [in addition to a wind farm] running at capacity to meet the demand — the conventional power plants have never been shut down," says Anthony Spiratos, president of the Rhode Island Alliance for Clean Energy, which opposes the offshore wind-energy installment proposed by Governor Don Carcieri.
"The wind industry is in denial about human suffering caused by turbine noise, just as the tobacco and asbestos industries were in denial about the health effects of their products," says Steve Thurston, of Maine's People's Task Force on Wind Power. "There is no excuse for this industry to torment citizens who desire nothing more than a good night's sleep and to enjoy the peace and quiet of their rural environment." To that end, a group of Maine citizens just sued First Wind (see "A Mighty Wind," page 10) and several other parties; they say the noise generated by turbines negatively affects property values and quality of life.
While "wind-turbine syndrome" — described by New England doctor Nina Pierpont as a set of symptoms, including sleep disturbances, irritability, and nausea, brought on the by the low-frequency sound of industrial wind turbines — may never be widely diagnosed, there are other wind-skeptic arguments that point to unresolved issues. For fear of being labeled NIMBY-ites — Not In My Back Yard elitists along the lines of Ted Kennedy who simply don't want their views marred by towering turbines — opponents buttress their arguments with rah-rah-renewables rhetoric: they know they're up against the money and enthusiasm of the federal government, private companies, and the citizenry.
Even the Nature Conservancy's national energy expert, Jimmie Powell, has publicly acknowledged that leading alternative-energy sources (wind, solar, and biomass) take up a "substantial" amount of land — more than their un-green counterparts. He and other authors of an upcoming paper on this issue call it "energy sprawl," and predict that by 2030, energy production will occupy an additional 79,537 square miles of land in the United States — an area about the size of Kansas (which, itself, is about eight times as large as Massachusetts).
Many other green-minded organizations cite ecosystem destruction as a drawback to wind power. Though advanced technology (such as slower-spinning blades that produce the same amount of energy) helps prevent bird and bat death, there's no denying that wind farms and the roads leading toward them take up forested space typically inhabited by animal and plant species. Environmental organizations agree that many of these conservation concerns can be addressed by creating wind-farm site regulations that protect habitats, ecosystems, and livelihoods of those who depend on those ecosystems, particularly with regard to offshore wind farms and fishermen. Such regulations are being developed at the state and federal level, but striking a balance between the hunger for clean energy and the obligation to conservation can be difficult.
"Some of these areas are extremely important from a global-warming perspective," Mass Audubon Legislative Director Jennifer Ryan says of Maine's western mountain range, and the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, which house large chunks of the Appalachian Trail. "It's even more important to protect them from having roads be put into them. The question of standards and guidelines is extremely important." By identifying appropriate and inappropriate locations for land-based wind farms, says Ryan, governments can mitigate habitat disruption, protect public lands, and hasten the permitting process.