by Donald de Voil, Montpelier, part-time instructor for the Vermont State Colleges
Vermont is a net importer of electricity. Every day, the state consumes significantly more electricity than is generated here (U.S. Energy Information Administration). This allows Vermonters to enjoy the benefits of electricity, without having to deal with many of the realities of electricity production. Recent developments in renewable energy are changing the geography of energy production though, bringing wind turbines to the state. The backlash against such development has been very vocal and Vermont’s Public Service Board is now considering the introduction of rules that significantly reduce the noise level that wind turbines can make, which (depending on exactly how they are worded and implemented) could easily make any future wind power in Vermont, impossible.
Every form of electricity production has associated impacts and this includes wind power. New energy developments always create winners and losers. Acknowledging this and supporting those disadvantaged by energy development is an important societal obligation, especially because groups marginalized by wealth and color typically draw the shortest straw.
But this does not mean there should be no place for wind turbines in Vermont. In a society where energy consumption has doubled roughly every 25 years for over a century and fossil fuels make up nearly 80 percent of the current U.S. energy supply (U.S. Energy Information Administration), we desperately need to pursue every single non-fossil fuel energy option we have. Vermont’s excellent energy efficiency initiatives have been very successful at allowing us to do more with less in energy terms, but they don’t fundamentally change the fact that energy consumption is now an integral part of our daily lives. Unless we are willing to turn off all the electrical devices that we depend on daily, the power they require must come from somewhere. It is simply unfair to expect people in other places to accept the costs of our energy consumption.
A decision about the future of wind power needs to compare the impacts of wind with those of other forms of energy production. By comparison with most other major energy sources, wind is benign. Turbines have some ecological impacts, but they are small in comparison with coal, natural gas or hydroelectric. Turbines also have human impacts, but again, these have to be assessed in comparison with the alternatives. Wind turbines do not give children asthma or leukemia, which is the reality for those who live near coal fired power stations. They do not poison underground water supplies and vent carcinogens, like hydraulic fracturing wells used to drill for natural gas. Turbines do change vistas, but they do not remove those vistas altogether, as occurs with mountaintop removal coal mining, or the flooding of valleys for hydroelectric dams. Alongside the voices of Vermonters who are concerned about what wind power means for them, we need to also hear the voices of those whose lives have been destroyed by other forms of energy production in other places.
As someone originally from another place who moved here 12 years ago, the current public debate about wind power in Vermont reminds me a lot of my home country of Scotland two decades ago. At that time, wind power was still a new and emerging industry in Scotland and concerns about the impacts it would bring were widespread. Today, Scotland (a country of 5 million people) has days where its wind turbines alone produce more electricity than is used by the entire country (WWF Scotland) and turbines are ubiquitous across much of the landscape. There are wind farms on hillsides, there are turbines on farms and even within some urban areas, such as the city of Dundee near where I grew up.
Wind power in Scotland is subject to noise level regulations, but they are not as restrictive as the ones being proposed here in Vermont right now. Does everyone in Scotland like wind development? No, but when I speak with family and friends on return visits to my home country, I find that familiarity with wind power has led to its acceptance. In a country where the reality of human induced climate change is widely understood, most see wind power as a positive and necessary step. There has been no environmental health crisis in Scotland associated with noise from wind power development. Despite concerns about the impact of wind power on its important tourist industry, Scottish tourism today is as strong as ever. The Scots I know have grown accustomed to the presence of wind power and do not notice the turbines in their landscape any more than they might notice pylons or roads.
Vermont faces a critical decision about its energy future right now. The state has set a target of meeting 90 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2050 (Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan). This target is ambitious, but in a world of impending energy resource scarcity and climate change, it is also rational and entirely necessary. Whether we like it or not, massive changes to our energy sector are upon us.
Wind turbines do have impacts, however they are far less detrimental than those of most other energy options on the table right now and effectively banning any future wind development in Vermont will have impacts too. As a kid growing up in Scotland, I never saw a wind turbine. Now they are an everyday part of the Scottish landscape. The transition to wind power in Scotland has been rapid, but so too has the ability of Scottish people to accept wind power and learn to live beside it. Vermonters can learn to live beside wind power too.