Industrial wind developments (IWDs) in Vermont are often described as “green,” “clean,” “sustainable,” and “renewable.” This falsely implies they can eliminate enough fossil fuel use to influence the world’s climate, and that they are otherwise harmless. Most of Vermont’s faint carbon footprint is from transportation and heating. Only about 5 percent is from electricity use. IWDs can only reduce that number by a fraction. This is partly because our wind resource is relatively poor. The grid also requires constancy. The intermittent pulses from wind have to be balanced by steady sources like carbon-emitting gas plants.
Moreover, Vermont can’t count most of this wind energy toward our arbitrary self-sufficiency goals because it will be sold out-of-state as “renewable” credits. This weak blow against carbon, combined with related environmental costs, suggests IWDs are green in name only. This symbolic “greening” requires actual de-greening. Modern turbines are colossal. In low-wind sites, they are even larger: Roughly 500¢ tall with a blade-sweep diameter considerably longer than a football field.
In Vermont, they are built on mountaintops. Their massive foundations are made by leveling bedrock, pouring cement, and adding gravel trucked in from miles around. Enormous roads, which traverse and fragment the forested landscape, are necessary to transport turbine components and assembly cranes to their destinations.
This infrastructure eliminates cool, sponge-like, sediment-holding, carbon-sequestering, and chemical-free forest. It becomes an open, largely un-vegetated source of local warming for the ground, air, and headwater streams. The impervious, manmade substrate increases run-off, erosion, and sedimentation rates.
In border areas plants are controlled with herbicides. This symbolic greening requires us to develop high-altitude mountains. To list just a few of their values, they are: Refugia for wildlife that shy from heavy human activities; “native” sanctuaries from the exotic, ecosystem-changing plants common in valleys and along roads; the places where pure, cold-water ecosystems begin; sites of critical habitats like stands of bear-nourishing beech trees; and great locales to hunt and hike. Just above, where turbine blades spin, are flyways for birds, bats, and insects. Once degraded, these ecosystems and animals will not be renewable.
This symbolic greening requires us to alter our world-famous view scape. Rural beauty, or the general lack of development, is a characteristic that survives chiefly in our mountains. Perhaps, it’s best exemplified by the undulating ridgelines and the stunning skylines they form. Cherished by Vermonters, these qualities also provide the foundation of our beauty-based economy. If lost, these values will, by definition, not be sustained.
This symbolic greening requires human sacrifice. When running, turbines broadcast audible noise and far-reaching, inaudible, and health-degrading infrasound. Vermont towns typically have widely dispersed populations. When IWDs are crammed into them, there invariably will be people living so close to turbines they will lose property value and, possibly, their health. Naturally, these potential victims tend to fight proposed IWDs. Conversely, people living safely on the other side of town, and lobbied hard by the wind industry, are more tempted to accept this threat to their neighbors. This dynamic creates harmful social climate change. Once damaged, these priceless commodities lives and communities may not be renewable.
IWDs hurt our environment while doing nothing for the world’s. If we want to make a real difference, and put nobody at risk, we should drive less, insulate more, and embrace domestic solar. Even better, we could simply not develop our unspoiled mountains. This would protect Vermont’s wonderful environment of rich natural habitats, physical beauty, quaint villages, and close-knit communities.
Select board member, Wildlife Biologist,