Ervin: A nuanced wind policy

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.


  1. Kevin Jones :

    On your first point you overlook the important fact that all Vermont wind projects, consistent with our flawed renewable program design, are selling thier renewable energy credits into out of state renewable programs. When they do that they are neither a net increase in renewables in the region nor do they reduce Vermont greenhouse gas emissions. In fact the correct accounting for a power contract that has been stripped of its renewable energy credits is to assign the environmental attributes of the residual mix for New England to the load served by that power contract. In short the more energy we purchase from these SPEED resources the higher Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions. While I agree nuance can be important, generally nuance is trumped in both theory and practice by fundamental flaws in program design and implementation. To see what the fuel and emission characteristics are for Vermonter load served by these SPEED resources check out this link from the same reliable sources you are quoting at ISO-NE:

  2. Erwin,
    You are making a few statements regarding wind energy that are at variance with the facts. Also it would be useful for you to post the URLs of your sources.

    Here are three examples:

    “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.”

    Germany wind 7.3% and PV solar 4.6% in 2012, a total of 11.9% of VARIABLE, INTERMITTENT energy; source BDEW and below URL

    “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.”

    The below studies show the effectiveness of wind energy to reduce CO2 is significantly less than 100%. The ISO-NE study may have made incorrect assumptions.

    “Wind offers an affordable, clean, efficient and reliable source of power.”

    IWTs on ridge lines in New England are not economically viable, because wind speeds are not high enough, and the QUALITY of the wind is poor (compared to flat sites, such as the Great Plains and offshore), meaning the wind comes from various directions and speeds at the rotor, which means the rotor cannot be as efficient as stated in Vendor brochures, hence the lower real-world capacity factors than the CFs of 0.32 or better, assumed by IWT developers.

  3. Anne,

    I have significantly shortened my response to Mr. Erwin, just posted it, but it disappeared again.

    Please resurrect it.


  4. Carl Werth :

    “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.”

    Clear, succinct and to the point. This “nuanced” stance above is exactly what I have been trying to convey to those I engage in discussion about IWT on Vermont ridgelines when they push rhetoric and call me anti-wind. Thank you, Mr. Ervin.

    I have always wondered – was there ever any thought siting IWTs on Vermont mountains that already have roads to their summits in place – aka Ski Resorts?

    • Carl,
      It is not that simple. Here is an example regarding the Bolton Valley Ski Resort:

      Since October 2009, the Bolton Valley Ski Resort has had a Vermont-made, 100 kW “community” wind turbine, project capital cost $800,000 (includes a $250,000 gift from the Clean Energy Development Fund); vendor-predicted energy production 300,000 kWh/yr, for a CF = 0.34; vendor-predicted estimated useful service life 20 years.

      A recent check of the Bolton Valley website in January 2013 indicates actual energy production from October 2009 to-date (39 months or 3.25 yrs) was 509,447 kWh, for an actual CF = 509,447 kWh/(3.25 yr x 100 kW x 8,760 hr/yr) = 0.179, 47.4% less than the vendor-predicted CF of 0.34 to obtain VT-PSB approval.

      Like selling a car and telling the new owner it will do 34 mpg, whereas it actually does only 18 mpg. Also, an early indication of poor CFs on Vermont ridge lines, as I predicted some years ago.

      Value of energy produced = (509,447 kWh x $0.125/kWh)/3.25 yr = $19,594/yr; if annual O&M and financing costs, amortized over 15 – 20 years, are subtracted, this value will likely be negative, i.e., a CEDF-subsidized money loser.

  5. Annette Smith :

    So where would you like Iberdrola to build wind turbines in Waterbury? Time to step up, all you people who think this is so important. Identify where you want them in your community.

    We keep hearing the same things repeated, most recently by Bill McKibben, that wind turbines displace fossil fuel emissions. Tell me which plants have reduced their fossil fuel consumption in response to the 767 MW wind energy on the New England grid. My research indicates that wind often displaces other renewables such as hydro and biomass, and it interacts primarily with natural gas since there is hardly any oil used in the NE grid, and coal is called up infrequently. Natural gas is the primary fossil fuel that interacts with wind energy in the New England grid, and none of the natural gas plants in the New England grid operate efficiently in response to the wind energy. The most efficient plant in the system is inefficient when it ramps with wind. I’m still looking for evidence that there is any fossil fuel or GHG emission reduction in the grid now after the $2 billion that has been invested in wind energy in New England.

    The ISO-NE study was done in 2010 before deployment of all the wind currently on the grid, and it was contracted out to GE and the wind industry. Sure, in theory, if we have peaker plants that are specifically designed to ramp efficiently (they exist, but none have been installed at any NE gas plants) wind energy could displace fossil fuels. Theory is creating public policy that is resulting in real world harm to people and the environment.

    Both the New England grid and the German grid are experiencing instability issues because of wind, the issue has been in the news in VT and NH in the last week, and it is easy to find out what’s going on in Germany, just look at der Spiegel International. Take off the rose colored glasses and let’s have an honest discussion based on facts, not what might be possible, if only……

  6. Annette Smith :
  7. Doug Reaves :

    I am not opposed to wind power, but I believe that these projects should be owned by the public rather than private investors. Wind power, by its nature, depends on the commons – wind, viewshed, wildlife habitat, and (up to this point) mountain tops. I am dismayed that we are letting these valuable public resources be eaten up by private and corporate interests rather than sharing them with all. I am also dismayed by the lack of imagination and planning being applied to the very important task of eliminating fossil fuel dependence. It seems we have latched onto mountain top turbines as the only possible solution, and now we can stop thinking.

  8. Elinor Osborn :

    It’s obvious from today’s opinion piece and from the replies that there is much confusion as to what the facts are concerning ridgeline wind. And more information is coming out as Vermont’s ridgeline wind comes into production. (see a VPR piece broadcast on 1/31/13.) That’s exactly why a moratorium is needed— in order to bring out all the facts in a careful study so Vermont can plan a reasoned and thoughtful direction to go with renewables. It’s important to know that the moratorium concerns ridgeline/industrial wind only. It does not affect smaller wind installations.

  9. August 16, 2012 Grid instability issues in Germany sends industry scrambling for solutions

    David Hallquist
    CEO, Vermont Electric Cooperative

    • John Greenberg :


      I just read the Der Spiegel article to which you and Annette Smith both make reference. As far as I can see, the only reference to wind is this: “The problem is that wind and solar farms just don’t deliver the same amount of continuous electricity compared with nuclear and gas-fired power plants. To match traditional energy sources, grid operators must be able to exactly predict how strong the wind will blow or the sun will shine.

      But such an exact prediction is difficult. Even when grid operators are off by just a few percentage points, voltage in the grid slackens. That has no affect on normal household appliances, such as vacuum cleaners and coffee machines. But for high-performance computers, for example, outages lasting even just a millisecond can quickly trigger system failures”

      It is noteworthy that all of the instabilities to which the article makes reference are all of extremely short duration.

      That left me curious about 3 points, which Googling “grid instability Germany” failed to resolve. First, if this is such a major problem in Germany, why isn’t there more information about it? Second, other than the pretty loose attribution to wind and solar in the Der Spiegel article, do we really know that renewable intermittency actually caused the specific voltage changes Der Spiegel mentions? Third, how does one reconcile your and Annette’s suggestion that wind makes grids unstable to the other article of interest I did find, which says precisely the opposite?

      Specifically, “German Grid Reaches Record Reliability in 2011 Thanks to Renewables” — — states:

      “The German Network Agency began to calculate the SAIDI value (system average interruption duration index) in 2006. The index does not factor in planned interruptions or interruptions caused natural disasters — it factors only unplanned interruptions that last more than three minutes.

      “The German grid has proven to be the most reliable among reporting EU member states year after year since it began reporting in 2006.”

      “Germany’s performance can only be properly appreciated in the context of other countries. As the chart (above) shows, Germany has consistently been the leader among reporting EU member states since it began reporting in 2006. The differences are also not slight, such as 15 minutes versus 20 minutes. Instead, the number of minutes of grid interruptions in other countries (such as France, which had 62 minutes of SAIDI downtime in 2007) is often several times the German level.

      … “By way of comparison, the United States had a SAIDI of 240 in 2007, which would put the country at the back of the ranking in the chart.”

      I will note that Der Speigel refers several times to milliseconds, and the Clean Technica article specifically refers to interruptions that last more than 3 minutes, but I’m not sure what to make of that.

      So since you brought it up, let me ask you to answer my queries, and more generally to tell us what point(s)you think we should we be gleaning from all this, especially in the context of the controversy in Vermont over utility scale wind projects. Please put this is some context and perspective for us.


  10. Annette Smith :

    Please watch this video of Luann Therrien speaking at the press conference yesterday:


    The Therrien family needs a place to live, and Steve Therrien needs a job. Both their home and the health has been destroyed by the Sheffield wind project. There is nothing nuanced about what has happened to them. It is not acceptable, and shame on Vermont if we can’t put these people first, before wind industry interests.

  11. I think a most important nuance that has been previously elucidated by James Howard Kunstler is that technology will never be a replacement for energy. It is tempting to believe that Rube Goldberg machines, such as IWTs, smart meters and high-frequency ballasted light bulbs will somehow replace our need for fossil fuels, but these approaches are dangerous progress traps. They all make the grid less stable by reducing power quality and make our homes less safe.

  12. Lance Hagen :

    Mr. Post,

    I have a technical question for you. In the VPR news report, Mr. Hallquist implied that the reason that the ‘capacity factors’ (CF) are low for local wind project is grid stability, forcing these projects to ‘curtail’ generation. You have stated in prior posts that you believe that the wind quality is also poor. My question is, if magically the grid stability was rectified, such that ‘Curtailment’ wasn’t required, would we still fail to achieve CFs of 0.32, due to wind quality?

  13. Peter Romans :

    Mr Ervin actually makes an excellent case for the moratorium. Let’s say that there is a reasonable way to incorporate IWT’s in our grid. By his own admission, Ervin agrees that we have not found that “nuanced” approach. The status quo pits individuals or towns against corporate resources and the political power of the governor, the House, environmental orgs, and our flawed review process. Throwing in Sanders and McKibben ensures that there will be nothing subtle or nuanced about our next wind installations.

  14. Richard First :

    Show me a wind turbine that sits atop a car/truck/airplane and reduces it’s Co2 emissions…then we’d have something to talk about.
    Thanks to the other citizen comments above – great job explaining the real cost of this false choice for VT.

  15. Moshe Braner :

    There are several factual errors in this article:

    “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.”

    – that is mathematically impossible. First of all, most of our CO2 emissions are not even from electricity generation. Even if you amend that statement to say “would reduce electrical generation CO2 emissions by 25 percent” it would only be true if * 100% * of the power displaced by wind would have come from fossil fuels.

    “While our residential electric energy use per capita has stabilized or declined, electricity use, especially commercial electricity use, will almost certainly continue to grow.”

    – it does not have to, and should not. Much electricity is wasted, especially by the bigger users who get it at a discounted wholesale rate, which should not be allowed. A prime example is the obscene new water park at Jay peak – with a special new transmission line from the Lowell wind project. Instead of industrial wind, you could save a lot of fossil-fueled electricity at zero cost: simply outlaw propping open the doors of a business that is being air conditioned at the same time.

    “Our towns simply do not have enough south-facing rooftops and open fields to provide for the kind of solar that is needed”

    – false, do the math. The roof of a typical residence has enough space for enough solar panels to balance out reasonable residential electricity use, and that’s before using any non-roof area.

  16. sandy reider MD :

    That the health impacts on those living near these industrial wind turbines is largely ignored by all the number crunchers is a serious oversight. My limited clinical experience and observations here in the NEK coincide with those noted by others all over the world …. these big turbines are deleterious to human health and if not sited correctly will continue to harm Vermonters. Those financially unable to abandon or sell their homes are in a bad fix. The VT Department of Health, charged with protecting the health of Vermont’s citizens, has been conspicuously absent from this debate and should take a more proactive stance NOW.

  17. In contrast to several comments, adding wind to the utility system has direct carbon dioxide reductions (CO@. Power plants are dispatched together in a regional grid. Adding wind energy in Vermont causes the utility system operator to reduce the output of the most expensive power plant in the region – almost always the least efficient fossil-fuel fired power plant.

    According to a 2010 New England independent grid operator study, each megawatt-hour (MWh – enough to power a typical home for a month) of wind energy delivered to the regional utility system saves 943 pounds of CO2. The New England system operator also conducted a detailed analysis of how wind energy reduces fossil fuel use and pollution in the region, and found that obtaining 20% of the region’s electricity from wind would reduce CO2 emissions by 25%, and also drive regional electricity prices down by more than 10% by offsetting output at the most expensive fossil-fired power plants.

    Further, a 2012 study by the Massachusetts Departments of Environmental Protection and Public Health issued a definitive scientific analysis that refutes several myths about sound perpetuated by wind energy opponents. There report, as well as many other credible peer-reviewed studies from around the world, refute claims that wind farm sound causes negative health impacts.

    For the facts on wind power visit:



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