Plumb: Wind towers are "out of scale"

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by George Plumb of Washington.

Utility-scale wind is not a suitable alternative electricity generation option for Vermont for a variety of reasons but one extremely important one that hasn’t been discussed. The wind towers are out of scale with what we value in Vermont. While we may enjoy visiting the big cities we are always delighted to return because we cherish our local and small scale working landscape, our relatively small communities with their modest population, and the scenic natural environment where we spend so much time.

Industrial wind towers are huge. They are 400’ tall! They are not of human scale. The tallest buildings in Vermont in our most densely populated cities are only 125’ tall.

Many who have had even a small number of wind towers go up in their area are very unhappy with the results. One of these places is Vinalhaven, Maine. Here is what Cheryl Lindgren, a member of Fox Islands Wind Neighbors, a group of concerned residents working toward responsible renewable energy on Vinyl Haven had to say about wind towers in a column in the November 12, 2010, issue of the Portland Press Herald, “Our experience has forced me to look into the deeper issues of industrial wind — the technology, the economics and the politics. It has been an uncomfortable journey that has changed my once honey-eyed vision of easy, green power to a view that industrial wind energy is, at present, bad science, bad economics and bad politics.”

These wind towers also have major impacts on the natural environment. Susan Morse, a much respected environmentalist who works on protecting wildlife habitat states, “At their best, even the most brilliant wind turbine infrastructure doesn’t belong on a mountain any more than oil drilling belongs in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We need to completely and irrevocably protect these precious places, large and small alike – habitats that are not continuously compromised and damaged by our activities. Such intact habitats along Vermont’s mountain ridgelines will play an integral role as global climate change forces countless species of plants and animals to adjust and find new habitats in which to survive and persist.”

Instead of massive wind towers that are out of scale let’s develop incentives for locally owned and installed solar options. I have put in an AllSun Tracker system and couldn’t be happier with the fact that although it is relatively large as solar panels go it is still of a scale that doesn’t dominate the landscape.

Comments

  1. Barb Morrow :

    I had to spend a lot of time researching and thinking about the proposed windtowers in the NEK and those underway there before I came up with the same conclusion. I would also refer people to the blog in the Burlington Free Press which comments on Sterling College students’ perspective on industrial wind in the NEK. (The College has not taken an official position.) It takes some courage for a liberal environmentalist to say, “Wait just a gall-durned minute,” to wind energy. People don’t have a real sense of the size and ancillary environmental disruption of these towers and what it takes to build them.

    However, private alternatives are far too expensive for the average Vermonter to install without massive incentives, towns are begging for tax relief and wind companies promise bribes, er, payments, and Vermont Yankee is massively unpopular. Work on reduction in energy use is incremental.

    On the other hand, if Mr. Shumlin gets a move-on, maybe he can make good on his idea to PLAN where industrial wind farms make sense in Vermont…ie there are just some ridgelines too important to blemish with our need for see after 7:00 pm in the dark. I would opine that most ridgelines in the NEK are out of bounds. Wish I knew the answer.

    I predict that Vermont Yankee gets sold, undergoes massive refurbishment, and gets relicensed. Maybe we will all glow in the dark, but at least we’ll be able to see where we’re going. Except for that pesky radiation and stuff and groundwater leakage, nuclear energy is relatively clean.

  2. Steve Wright :

    Amen to both of the above. Can anyone tell me why Vermont would–in its right mind–blast away significant portions of the Green Mountains in order to hustle up a few electrons? On the other hand, small, local and community-based wind facilities are a possibility. Combined with other sources in measured quantities–along with an aggressive efficiency effort–they may be our way out of the current–pun intended–nuttiness.

    And a big “hurrah” for those Sterling folks, speaking truth to power. Ah, I’m running out of puns.
    Steve Wright

  3. kevin ellis :

    I have admired and respected George Plumb and his views for many years. He raises really good issues about wind development in Vermont. The same points are made about Cape Wind and many other projects. But in the end, it is becoming a luxury to defend Vermont against the need for renewable power projects that may interfere with the views of our neighbors. If global warming was not the critical issue, things would be different. But we are past the point of no return and must take drastic action. It is fine to worry about scale. But we no longer have the time or luxury.

    • Barb Morrow :

      “it is becoming a luxury to defend Vermont against the need for renewable power projects that may interfere with the views of our neighbors,” writes Mr. Ellis. With all due respect to Kevin, the concern expressed by most people I know is far more complex that whether the neighborhood vistas decline. It is true that our need to consume huge amounts of energy has reaching a critical point – probably over the top. However, as the ocean is going to rise up my plan is to hit for the hills, and I’d appreciate having them intact when I get there. I can think of a few ways to reduce use that are less drastic than blowing off a mountain top. One is the draconian WWII idea of turning off the lights on our towering urban buildings…just every other floor would be tremendous. But, I digress.

  4. You can read more of Sue Morse’s comments here:
    http://www.vce.org/SueMorse_Nov172010comments.pdf

  5. Steve Wright :

    Kevin, My Friend,
    If we’re “past the point of no return,” then why do we have to, “take drastic action?”
    And your comment re the “view” is, with due respect a disingenuous dig in the ribs. Can you tell me why the “drastic action” must include blasting away–reshaping–the 450 million year-old Lowell Mtns ridgeline in order to put in place a project with a 25 yr. lifetime? Can you help me understand why we “must” develop a project that–admittedly by the developer, Green Mountain Power–would not even be proposed were it not for federal production tax credits? Let’s develop our local, small-scale wind and solar resources without blasting away at the Green Mountains. What a gift to future generation: a sensible energy solution and intact mountains.
    Steve Wright

  6. Kevin, I recommend you read the comments of Ben Luce, a renewable energy advocate, about the reality of large wind turbines on Vermont’s mountains and their ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in any significant way: http://www.vce.org/Ben Luce_VCEPressConference_November_17_2010.pdf.

  7. Ben Luce :

    Reasoning that we have to accept utility-scale wind generation because we are out of time to deal with climate change is not a legitimate argument because it does not take into account the scale of the resource, and the potential for alternatives, including the price trends of alternatives. As an argument, it is simply lacking any relevant technical content.

    Ridge line wind power is among the least of the renewable energy resources available to the Eastern US, and by far the most destructive. Adding up NREL’s numbers for the wind power resources in the Eastern US, I find that even if fully developed, that is, if we devastated MOST of the ridges in the Eastern US, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of the US would be decreased by only about 1%. From a more down-to-Earth perspective, its easy to see why this is the case: It would take over 150 miles of ridge line just to produce the equivalent of the output of Yankee.

    At the same time, the solar energy resource of the Eastern US, and Vermont for that matter, utterly dwarfs the wind resource. Its not just a little larger, its HUNDREDS of times larger. And its much more accessible in terms of placing generation close to load.

    The potential for cost reduction of solar is also much better. The cost of utility-scale wind power, which should be compared with wholesale power costs, is no longer decreasing rapidly due to the intrinsic cost of placing large generators on big steel towers with giant rotors attached. Ridge line wind in particular is proving to quite expensive (well above competing wholesale power alternatives such as hydro).

    At the same time, the cost of photovoltaics, which should be compared with retail power costs (because solar can be sited at or very near load almost everywhere) is decreasing dramatically, and appears to be on a convergence with retail power costs (that is, projected to reach “grid parity”) by about 2015. If you don’t believe me, look up the posted online in various places by Paula Mints, the best PV industry analyst in the World (and there are similar sources around showing the same trends). Just in the last year, according to the Dept. of Energy, the price of modules decreased roughly 40% and the cost of the PV power by 25% (while wind power actually increased in cost).

    Finally, more than 90% of Vermont’s GHG emissions today do not result from electricity generation, but from combustion of heating oil and transportation fuels.

    So it is a perfectly sound strategy, and in fact a more rapid and cost effective strategy, to focus aggressively on cutting emissions now with weatherization, wood heat, more efficient vehicles, mass transit, etc, while beginning to phase in PV and other more appropriate forms of electricity generation, and then really aggressively transitioning to PV as it becomes much cheaper and as energy storage becomes widely available.

    The pro-wind folks are simply focused too narrowly on one particular and seemingly convenient option without really looking carefully at the big picture. But ridge line really does have incredibly negative consequences for Vermont’s environment, culture, tourism economy, etc, and just the effort along to site wind projects is tearing apart the communities involved.

    This kind of mad rush for an inappropriate solution is a perennial problem with energy development. Its the same enthusiasm driven and uncritical attitude that the led to mountaintop removal mining, inappropriate drilling and fracking, etc. Some of these examples are certainly even worse, but this still doesn’t justify devastating Vermont’s incredibly fragile and precious mountaintop environments for what will be only a small contribution. Moreover, given the small potential of ridge line wind generation, virtually all (99%) of the clean energy generation is going to have to come from solar, offshore, midwest wind, or some other sources anyways. So why not focus on these really serious solutions, instead of a largely symbolic one that is simply going to ruin the state and destroy public interest in renewable energy?

  8. Thank you Barb Morrow for bringing the anti-whind folks out of the nuclear closet. I have long suspected that many if not most anti-wind folks are pro nuke. Apparently you would prefer to create nuclear waste for future generations to deal with rather than spoil your viewscape with a wind turbine. I respectfully disagree.

    Your conclusion that “nuclear energy is relatively clean” is not merely wrong but shocking. Even the most ardent pro nuclear zealots would not go so far as to suggest that nuclear power is cleaner than wind power.

    Ben Luce’s numbers are based on the unstated assumption that Vermont Yankee will be relicensed in 2012. Much of Ben’s own comments do not include any “relevant technical content.”

    Kevin Ellis seems to be the lone voice of reason amidst a very distressing anti-wind hysteria.

    I am not a member of any organization whatsoever that has anything to do with wind power. I have conducted my own completely independent investigation into utility scale wind. I urge others to do likewise. I believe you will conclude as I have that utility scale wind is appropriate in Vermont when it is properly cited with sufficient setbacks.

    • barb morrow :

      You should not assume, sir, that just because someone is anti-wind they are pro-nuclear. Nor should you assume that because someone wants a more planful, considered placement of wind towers, they are anti-wind. Or that because they don’t want outsized wind towers on certain ridges, that it’s only because of the view, a sense of beauty, or a lack of valid study.

      • Pete Blose :

        Barb,

        I apologize if I misread your previous post. I did not mean to assume anything. It sounded to me like you were clearly willing to accept nuclear power instead of utility scale wind. Now I am curious to know exactly what you’re saying. Would you be willing to accept the relicensing of Vermont Yankee so that there would be no utility scale wind in Vermont?

        I have researched this issue a great deal and have come to a very definite conclusion. I think utility scale wind is appropriate in Vermont as long as it is properly cited with sufficient setbacks. I disagree with many of the comments that have been made. I think Ben Luce’s analysis is incorrect. I feel quite strongly about this. However, this is meant to be a friendly straightforward discussion about the issue. Thanks.

    • Ben Luce :

      Peter Blose’s claim that my numbers are based on the assumption that VY will be re-licensed is incorrect. It is based on the assumption that Vermont will continue to have fairly low CO2 emissions associated with electricity production over the next 5-10 years, but this is well justified by the fact that Vermont utilities are already finding good success a renegotiating hydro contracts at prices well below that of ridge line wind (as far as we can tell), and also because the Northeast grid has a lot of natural gas fired generation that Vermont can avail itself of in the near-term.

      On the other hand, I do NOT advocate for long-term dependence on either of these power sources. My point is, that if want to actually decrease our CO2 emissions, which I agree we must, the most effective and rapid path for doing so is to temporarily and partially rely on existing hydro and natural gas generation while we phase in appropriate local sources of renewable energy generation (e.g. solar), and at the same time attack our greatest sources of CO2 emissions, which are heating fuel and transportation fuel.

      From a practical standpoint, all of this is a moot point anyway. VY is not going to be replaced by wind power in the near future in Vermont: Utilities are already negotiating to replace VY’s baseload contribution with other sources. The idea of replacing VY with wind doesn’t even really make sense technically – replacing baseload sources with intermittent renewables is at this time simply not yet possible. What is possible is reducing the GHG emissions of natural gas fired generation with wind, and if wind did not have terrible consequences for Vermont, this would be a worthwhile thing to pursue. But those who hold forth wind as a substitute for VY are really just employing a disingenuous tactic to create public support for wind. But this doesn’t have anything to do with legitimate energy development planning.

      I also note that relying on utility-scale wind will actually tend to reinforce our partial dependence on both hydro and natural gas fired generation, as utility-scale wind generally needs to firmed with other large-scale generation. We also know, from the ISO itself, that a significant addition of utility-scale wind will require a great deal of new long-distance transmission, which will have very serious additional environmental impacts.

      Mr. Blose has also suggested that my arguments are incorrect and lack technical content. My arguments, however, have put forth specific numbers about the (dismal) potential of ridge line wind power to decrease US GHG emissions, the enormous impact to mountaintop environments, and other details. Mr. Blose has not advanced any technical arguments to the contrary. His pro-wind argument seems to consist of litte more than just saying that he thinks the impacts to the mountains will not be too bad, and unfounded claims that the arguments of others are incorrect and have something to do with secretly supporting nuclear.

  9. The high capital cost and little power production per invested dollar of renewables makes them very uneconomical.

    Big wind towers have no place in Vermont

    Small wind and community wind, not on ridge lines, is grossly uneconomical.

    FEW OF YOU MENTION ENERGY EFFICIENCY.

    It is, by far, the least costly per kWh saved and per lb of CO2 reduced, AND IT IS INVISIBLE, requires little or no maintenance, is “there” 24/7/365.

    In Germany, Austria, Sweden, etc., with similar climates as Vermont’s, tens of thousands of houses and apartment buildings have been built to the 25-year old Passivhaus Standard.

    They use about 10% of the energy for heating, cooling, electricity and domestic hot water than similar size, standard, code-built German houses.

    http://theenergycollective.com/willem-post/46252/thermal-solar-california-desert
    http://theenergycollective.com/willem-post/46824/impact-csp-and-pv-solar-feed-tariffs-spain
    http://theenergycollective.com/willem-post/46142/impact-pv-solar-feed-tariffs-germany
    http://theenergycollective.com/willem-post/46652/reducing-energy-use-houses
    http://theenergycollective.com/willem-post/47519/base-power-alternatives-replace-base-loaded-coal-plants
    http://theenergycollective.com/willem-post/46977/impacts-variable-intermittent-power-grids

    • Pete Blose :

      Willem,

      I have visited the Passivehaus Institute in Darmstadt Germany and visited several Passivehaus projects there. There is at least one Passivehaus in Vermont and another recently built in Jefferson New Hampshire. There is no question that the Passivehaus standard should be adopted in Vermont-as soon as possible. There is no need to take the time to test out the standard here. The Europeans have thoroughly tested and verified everything. Vermont has a great opportunity to take the lead on this.

      However, there is one problem. As I’m sure you know the Passivehaus standard is most often used for new construction. Applying the standard to a retrofit is much more difficult and expensive. Considering this, how long would it take before a substantial percentage of buildings in Vermont would meet the Passivehaus standard??? It would take a VERY long time. What should we do in the meantime?

      I think we should build utility scale wind farms. This is precisely what they are doing in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. I think we should also adopt what I believe has become common practice in Europe and that is to require setbacks from occupied dwellings of a mile or so for all wind turbines.

      • Pete,
        I lived for 26 years in Europe (Germany, Norway, the Netherlands). I am familiar with what is happening there. After you read my articles you will have learned a lot about energy issues and that they are not as simple as many people think.

        Seventy percent of Vermont’s CO2 emissions are from buildings and transportation. Increased building efficiency and higher mileage transportation should be getting subsidies to reduce their CO2.

        If new houses and apartment buildings built to the Passivhaus standard received 30% of the capital cost as a grant, as wind and solar renewables do, then there would be a lot of new Passivhaus building going on in Vermont and the rest of the US. Their efficiency would be INVISIBLE.

        It would take a few decades to replace most of the houses in the US, just as it would take a few decades to replace most of the gas guzzler vehicles with high mileage vehicles.

        The materials AND labor would be about 90% US sourced (good for the US trade balance, the US economy and US job creation), whereas about 60-70% of a wind or PV solar facilities, such as wind turbines, PV solar panels and rectifiers are imported.

        It would be less costly than building trillions of dollars of highly visible wind farms that need to be replaced every 20-25 years!!

        Example: 30% wind penetration of just the East Coast requires about 110,000 wind turbines.

        Production : 302,610 MW x 1 TW/1,000,000 MW x 8,760 hr/yr x CF 0.377 = 1,000 TWh/yr,

        Capital cost of land-based wind farms: 231,730 MW x $2,500,000/MW = $0.58 trillion.
        Capital cost of offshore wind farms: 70,880 MW x $3,921,000/MW = $0.28 trillion.
        Capital cost of transmission systems: $92.5 billion. See EWITS pg. 39
        Total capital cost: 0.58 + 0.28 + 0.093 = $0.95 trillion.

        Building that many wind farms would take decades to complete on just the East Coast and largely benefit foreign wind globals, including China. Currently GE and Vestas produce 3 wind turbines each per day for the WORLD market. See my article on Base-Power alternatives.

  10. Marion Seguin :

    Has anyone considered the vegetation that will be flattened and erosion which follows just so a few people can enjoy cheap electricity for 20 yrs. The package of destruction is not worth it!!! Marion

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