Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Jamison Ervin, who is a member of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, is on the board of the Waterbury Local Energy Action Partnership, and works globally on climate adaptation solutions.
Nuance – the subtle difference in meaning that allows us to differentiate between whether something is good or bad, silly or serious, right or wrong, when the differences between them are sometimes not easily apparent – is vital to effective policy making. And in this era of hot-button topics (think gun control, abortion, fiscal cliff), nuance is all but drowned out by feverish and impassioned rhetoric. In this particular point in history, where we are in a global and local crucible of climate and energy decisions, wind power has somehow emerged as one of these hot-button issues in which sides have become polarized, and nuance somehow has been left behind. One must become either pro-wind or anti-wind, with only a narrow demilitarized zone between the two.
After reading the recent op-ed/rebuttal piece by Elinor Osborne on the Vermont Natural Resources Council’s statement opposing a moratorium on wind, I feel compelled to call for a more nuanced approach on wind energy in Vermont than either a “pro-wind” or “anti-wind” stance.
First, let me address what I believe to be some errors in Ms. Osborne’s letter:
• Adding wind power in Vermont does significantly reduce regional CO2 emissions. When Vermont wind energy is deployed to the regional grid, the grid operators reduce the output of the most expensive power plant in the region, which is almost always fossil-fuel fired power plants, thereby reducing emissions. In fact, the region’s grid operator — ISO-New England — put out a recent study that found that obtaining 20 percent of the region’s electricity from wind would reduce CO2 emissions by 25 percent. ISO-NE’s report also found that that would drive regional electricity prices down by more than 10 percent by offsetting output at the most expensive fossil-fired power plants.
• We are currently a long way away from the point of grid instability because of renewable penetration. The New England grid can handle far more wind than we are even remotely close to deploying. Arguments about “intermittent power” putting us over a tipping point are a fallacy. Germany is rapidly advancing renewables — including wind — and despite a near 30 percent intermittent renewable penetration, they have one of the world’s most stable grids. And Vermont’s smart grid will only help increase our absorptive capacity.
• While our residential electric energy use per capita has stabilized or declined, electricity use, especially commercial electricity use, will almost certainly continue to grow. In my town, for example, electricity usage continues to grow at about 2 megawatt hours per year, even with concerted energy efficiency efforts and with one of the highest per capita solar installations in the state.
Yes, wind power is essential if we are to show the nation how we can wean ourselves from oil. No, mega-wind turbines with massive road infrastructure in sensitive, newly-fragmented habitats is not acceptable.
Let me put some numbers in perspective. Waterbury has among the highest installed solar capacity of any town in Vermont – close to a megawatt of power. Yet this is less than 1/60th of the energy that our town consumes. If we are ever to hope to come close to transitioning from fossil fuels to a low-carbon economy, clean energy will have to come from somewhere. Our towns simply do not have enough south-facing rooftops and open fields to provide for the kind of solar that is needed to get us to the state’s 90 percent goal, even by 2050. We need solar, yes, but we also need hydropower and wind power if we stand a chance of turning off the carbon spigot as a town and as a state.
Wind offers an affordable, clean, efficient and reliable source of power. That is not to say that wind power is the only answer; most certainly hydropower, solar, biofuels and methane capture must be in the mix. And many of the points that Ms. Osborne addresses are valid. Here is where nuanced policy comes in. Yes, wind power is essential if we are to show the nation how we can wean ourselves from oil. No, mega-wind turbines with massive road infrastructure in sensitive, newly-fragmented habitats is not acceptable. Certainly there is a more nuanced, reasoned way forward. But a blanket moratorium does not move us any forward, it only stalls us, at a time when the full impacts of climate change are beginning to come into focus.
Does wind have a role in Vermont’s energy future? It already does, and it must certainly continue to do so. And yes, we must identify strategic locations and necessary safeguards to minimize impacts on key habitats and unfragmented forests. I appreciate VNRC’s measured, nuanced response to the wind debate. I have no doubt this is a difficult issue for them; they have spent the last half a century tirelessly advocating for the protection of Vermont’s natural resources and environment. Indeed, their dedication is why I joined as a member. To me, the fact that they are critically analyzing this issue and working to shape a better outcome for wind in Vermont is refreshing and essential. What I understand from their position is this: “If Vermont is going to develop wind, let’s find a way to do it in the right places, with the least environmental impact and the best mitigation strategies possible.”
These are not easy issues, and these are definitely challenging times. They call for less rhetoric and posturing, and a more nuanced understanding of how to meet these challenges.