Johnson: Wind turbines on our mountains carry too high a price

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Charles W. Johnson, the retired Vermont State Naturalist and author of “The Nature of Vermont” and other books on natural history.

Huge wind turbines vs. the mountains. Environmentalists vs. environmentalists. An unfamiliar, uncomfortable fight is on.

I have been involved in conservation in Vermont for over 40 years, and this is the first time in my memory that two great environmental issues have collided head-on: growing concern about nonrenewable resources and climate change against growing concern about losing what we’ve worked so hard to save in Vermont’s landscape.

Why is this happening? I think because we have run into a serious ethical issue we have not taken time to consider adequately: How far should our little state’s finite and irreplaceable environment go – indeed, how far can it go – to deal with so huge an issue as worldwide climate change? What are we willing to sacrifice?

This fight is not just about that which can be weighed and solved by science, capacity studies, and permitting processes. It is also about how we relate to the land, physically, emotionally, spiritually. At its heart, it is about something we don’t talk about, especially in a political arena: love of the land.

Land is often treated as a collection of commodities, “natural resources,” for our use. Ownership of land is as a “bundle of rights” (e.g., development rights, rights-of-way, water rights, etc.) that can be bought or sold, singly or all together. Even Act 250 and other land-use laws work on this principle, with criteria to be considered before certain large developments can occur. So now with our ridgelines.

But how do we calculate what mountains mean to us in our long association, over lifetimes, over generations and generations of collective inherited memory? The very symbol of Vermont, the Green Mountains, is on our license plates, in songs, with names of businesses, even with our National Guard. They are part of our identity and self-image. They surround us. We look up to them and they inspire us. Are they just great heaps of “natural resources”?

Love of the land is real, even if it can’t be quantified. It is one of the most basic, universal human feelings, whether for a place we knew as children, our community, or our country. We wage wars over it. People give up their lives for it. Most people grieve deeply over the loss of a beloved place – too many times in my life have I heard, “I don’t want to go back there; I couldn’t stand to see what’s happened to it.”

I have witnessed in Vermont and elsewhere that we lose our wild lands and rural culture not in big chunks, but in little bits, incrementally. Death by a thousand cuts. More than 10 years ago, we were told not to worry, that very few mountains would be suitable for big wind. When we asked how many, where, we were shown maps and studies of generalities, but no one could tell us for sure. Ten years later we still don’t know, but we already have more than a “very few” and more are on the way.

So what to do?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but there are things to do even before we go after answers. We should keep in mind the Vermont we cherish: self-reliant, independent, protective of our special environment, small of size but big of heart. Along with “eating locally, buying locally,” we should try harder to get “energy locally” through conservation and efficiency, solar, wood and co-generation, small hydro, small-scale wind. We should stop and re-evaluate, community by community, based on what we’ve seen and felt so far.

Global climate change won’t go away in the next few years or decades, if it ever does. But our ridgelines certainly might, if we continue as we have. The Green Mountains have been here for more than 350 million years. Surely we owe it to them to slow down, take time to collect ourselves, and think about what they really mean to us.

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  • Stanley Shapiro

    Beautifully stated.One must draw a line in the sand.We can easily accomplish our renewable goals with energy efficiency and renewable modalities that do not destroy nor modify our most precious natural resource. The problem is really political.Wind development is clearly lucrative.The money circulates with the wind developers,their lobbyists and the politcians who benefit from their donations.Individuals and environmental groups that support industrial wind degradation of our mountains will be remembered as Colonel Nicholson’s who will collectively exclaim ‘what have we done!’

  • Bruce Post

    Mr. Johnson, what a wonderful, thoughtful, troubling and (sadly) necessary essay.

    I found these of your comments especially memorable: “Land is often treated as a collection of commodities, “natural resources,” for our use. Ownership of land is as a “bundle of rights” (e.g., development rights, rights-of-way, water rights, etc.) that can be bought or sold, singly or all together. Even Act 250 and other land-use laws work on this principle, with criteria to be considered before certain large developments can occur. So now with our ridgelines.”

    Your sentiments reminded me of what Liberty Hyde Bailey, often called the father of American horticulture, wrote back in 1915 in his book The Holy Earth:

    “We have not yet escaped the idea that vested rights — and particularly personal realty — are inviolable. Certainly, these rights must be protected by law, otherwise there can be no stability and regularity in affairs; but there is no inalienable right in the ownership of the surface of the earth…. In the end there will be no private monopoly of public or natural resources.”

  • Cedar Hannan

    Probably the most eloquent plea for sanity that I’ve heard in this debate. Thank you Mr. Johnson.

  • The list of communities and their mountains being impacted by big wind proposals is long and growing fast. When Vermonters are engaged and have had the opportunity to vote, the only towns that have voted in favor are the ones receiving money. All others have voted no. Here’s the vote count so far:

    Londonderry voted 425-213 to oppose wind turbines on Glebe Mountain, and changed town plan
    Sheffield 120-93 to continue to explore the wind project (after PR campaign by UPC/First Wind). The vote was not to support the project.
    Barton 160-0 to oppose
    Sutton 120-23 to oppose and changed town plan
    Manchester voted 62 to 60 not to support wind turbines on Little Equinox Mountain, and to appropriate $150,000 to oppose the project through the PSB process
    Readsboro voted 191 to 31 to allow expansion of the existing 11-turbine array, which in 2006 was anticipated to involve turbines 100 feet taller, not the 200 feet taller that the PSB approved.
    Lowell 342-114 in favor (after one-year PR campaign by GMP)
    Ira 80 to 29 to support town plan that says no wind turbines on
    Wilmington 51-15 to oppose the Searsburg expansion, also known as Deerfield Wind

    Why are Vermonters saying “no”? Because when a development is proposed for your neighborhood, you get involved and learn about the impacts. In the case of big wind, the more people learn, the more opposed they become. A neighbor of a current proposal wrote “these proposed windmills are massive – over 400 feet – (think of a 40 story building)!; the roads need to place these on a ridgeline will require a huge amount blasting, the buffer zone need will affect hunting and wildlife not to mention what else, the lights and noise needed on the towers will affect people healthwise, animals behavior and even changes the types of animals that will be in the area!”

    How many more communities are going to be divided, how many more mountains are going to have their guts ripped out of them, how many more individuals and their investments are going to be sacrificed in the name of saving the planet? The deep connection that Vermonters have to the land is something that Bill McKibben, Tony Klein, Peter Shumlin, Paul Burns and David Blittersdorf say we don’t have time to discuss. Thank you to Charles Johnson and for articulating and giving space for the dialogue.

  • Steve Wright

    Charles Johnson is one of the most accomplished conservationists ever produced by a state well-known as a breeding ground for such species.

    Decision-makers would be well-advised to pay attention to his comments.

    Well-said Charles!!

  • Thank you, Charles.
    I wish every Vermonter would read this, including the people on the Public Service Board, at The Agency of Natural Resources, Gov. Shumlim…as well as, President Obama and the people in the EPA. After having read this they should think about it and not just move on. This is serious stuff!!!

  • Steve Young

    We should also keep in mind that Big Wind technology and economics, as applied to Vermont ridge tops, is still experimental. We don’t know what the effects will be on migrating birds, or how this issue will be monitored. We don’t know whether the economic projections, which have come from sources that have vested interests in the projects, will be realistic. We don’t know where the Big Wind interests are planning to go to work next. Insofar as we have been able to get anything like an unbiased opinion on these issues, the conclusions are not impressive in supporting large scale wind development. Before we wreck any more mountains, we need to see some hard evidence that these projects will live up to the claims made for them.

  • Steve Young

    We need to remember that Big Wind technology as applied to Vermont ridge tops is still very much in the experimental stage. We don’t know, for example, what the effect of giant windmills will be on migrating birds, or how this issue will be monitored. We don’t know whether the economic projections are realistic; they mainly derive from sources that have vested interests in the projects. We need to see whether Big Wind lives up to its claims before we go wrecking any more mountaintops, and we need to have a clearer picture of what is being planned for the future, and where. The record on all of this issues is, so far, unimpressive.

  • Thank you Charles, your comments are right on target.
    It is time for the environmental and conservation groups in Vermont to reassess their positions on big wind. All of us that support these organizations need to contact the leaders and tell them we do not support the defiling of our mountains at the alter of green group think.
    In 1938 Aldo Leopold said, “…our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. …But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”

  • Rob Macgregor

    Mr Johnson asks “What are we willing to sacrifice?”, while not really addressing the fact that is is precisely our unwillingness to sacrifice that has gotten us into this mess in the first place. We have wanted to have it all (cheap gas, cheap electricity) for so long now that we’ve painted ourselves into an energy corner. Small scale production, and conservation and efficiency will not get us out of it, by themselves. The problem is that to a large extent the true and devastating impacts of this mindlessness have been felt elsewhere, beyond Vermont’s borders. Do Mr Johnson’s concerns for the natural environment end when he crosses the state line? Does he somehow imagine that we will not suffer the consequences of our mindlessness here within the state, or that we are not already having to deal with them in terms of their impacts on our natural landscape?

    I guess Mr Johnson indulges the prejudice that Vermont’s landscape is somehow so much more special than West Virginia’s, or that of the states overlying the Marcellus shale formation, to the point that we alone should be immune to the consequences of our own energy demands, while others continue to bear our burden.

    As to Ms. Smith’s vote tally, and as opponents have pointed out many times about votes in favor of projects, how a town votes on a wind project generally has very little to do with the facts. This much is true whether the vote is in favor or opposed. Ms Smith blithely dismisses
    the connection that wind proponents might themselves have for the landscape, as if they have not really studied the issue. Does she really want to go there?

    The overall point being that it’s entirely possible to come to a different conclusion about the impact of wind development when you adopt a somewhat broader perspective than what happens within town or state borders.

    • You’re using diversions to show that you just don’t care enough about scenery to fight this scourge. How can you lament energy wasted over many decades, yet excuse the most bloated, land-inefficient form of power Man has devised? This isn’t about Vermont per se, it’s about blighted scenery everywhere, but of course Vermonters will focus on Vermont as Mainers do on Maine, etc.

      The idea that gigantic machines on mountains are a mandatory penance is not a given. The industry has momentum and doesn’t want to lose subsidy money, fearing the PTC will eventually run out (after the most recent major extension to 2022) so it’s going to push as many blighting projects as it can with “green” propaganda. Even if one decides the heck with the landscape, wind turbines haven’t technically worked well enough to justify most of their praise.

      The least you can do is promote rooftop solar, which doesn’t add to the human footprint. Parking lots and canals are other good locations for solar.

      • So here we are more than four years after Charles Johnson wrote this commentary.

        Peter Shumlin is leaving office after a series of astounding failures and ethical lapses.

        We are about to elect a new governor. It is astonishing that one of the candidates is vowing to carry on the failed programs of the spectacularly unpopular Shumlin—right down to the anti-democratic, anti-environmental energy policy that contributed to his unpopularity.

  • Rob Pforzheimer

    Mr. Macgregor says, “The problem is that to a large extent the true and devastating impacts of this mindlessness have been felt elsewhere”
    So what are you suggesting, that if we in VT also feel the “true and devastating” impacts of mindless, unneeded industrial wind development that the impacts to places beyond our borders will be alleviated?
    Seeing as how wind power has not shut down or curtailed any other generation, or lowered emissions anywhere, it is insane and mindless to destroying our ridge lines with these subsidy farms that are nothing more than symbols of gullibility, stupidity greed and mindlessness.

  • Well said Charles.

    As long as i can remember, i have always been drawn to the mountains, and to well cared for land in general.

    The sad truth is, even if every ridgeline in Vermont is blasted for mega wind turbines, this will not even begin to solve climate change.

    The vast majority of carbon emissions in the “Northern Forest” come from non-electricity sources, namely exhaust from vehicle and home heating fuels.

    (in Vermont, carbon emissions from electricity amounts to about 1/20th of this state’s annual carbon output)

    And while so-called environmental groups such as VPIRG, so-called public utilities such as Green Mountain Power, and so-called progressive politicians such as Peter Shumlin would like us to believe the power generated from industrial wind farms is local, the truth is it will be tied into the regional grid.

    Dorothy Schnure, spokesperson for Green Mountain Power, has stated that any wind energy generated in Vermont will mean natural gas plants in SOUTHERN New England will be able to run less.

    But again, actual carbon reductions will be minimal at best, and hardly justify sacrificing what’s left of this, or any, state’s natural heritage.

    Before doing any major additions to the energy supply, the first step is to reduce demand through efficiency upgrades and conservation measures, both here in Vermont and globally.

    As Pogo said so well, “we have met the enemy and it is us” – specifically, our overly consumptive, wasteful lifestyles and infrastructure.

    Cody Michaels,
    Hardwick, VT

  • Talk with Bill McKibben, who is also an accomplished expert in his field –

    I completely agree we should do more – much, much, more – to curb demand via efficiency, and, no, I’m not a landowner living near a wind farm. But I’m watching the Holy Earth’s temperature rise at an alarming rate, and the longer we delay on renewable generation, the sooner a day of reckoning comes upon us.

  • John, where’s your evidence that building big wind is reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Check out this video from a UVM student who interviews a UVM professor who says Vermont is doing our part by conserving our forests

  • Rob Macgregor

    Wind power has not displaced coal fired generation and the resulting emissions in large part because coal is artificially inexpensive, and therefore way more profitable than many of the alternatives. When coal and the other fossil fuels are subject to carbon taxes, wind and the other renewable forms of generation will begin to have a measurable impact on emissions.

    Meanwhile, even if the majority of Vermont’s emissions are due to transportation and home heating with fossil fuels, we will not have the luxury of inexpensive gas and oil around for much longer – we’re just flirting with higher prices now and people are already screaming “bloody murder”. A viable alternative and partial solution is to switch from fossil fuel based transportation and heating to electric transportation and heating. This will not be accomplished along with the replacement of fossil fuel fired electric generation (no matter how successful we are at conservation and efficiency) without utility scale wind, as one part of the renewable energy portfolio.

    Since we have sites suitable for such development, we have to make a serious effort to take on at least some of that responsibility. Anything less is just kicking the can down the road, and over the town or state line.

  • What sites are “suitable for such development?” Name a community in Vermont that wants big wind turbines. Name a mountain whose environment is worth sacrificing. After three years working with Vermonters, what I see is uproar and opposition growing, not declining.

  • A great misunderstanding exists among the lay public that wind and solar energy are clean, near-CO2-free, grid-parity just around the corner, etc. As we saw on Lowell Mountain, it is far from clean, environmentally-benign, etc. The health-damaging infrasound and low-frequency noise complaints from people “living” within less than a mile from the 3 MW wind turbines will start the day the turbines are put in service.
    Wind and solar energy does not reduce CO2 anywhere near what RE promoters (without any measurements) claim. Wind and solar energy cannot exist unless the grid has adequate, gas-fired, gas turbine-based, quick ramping/quick-starting generating capacity that operates (inefficiently) in part-load-ramping mode to ramp down when wind energy surges and ramp up when wind energy ebbs to maintain near-perfect balance on the grid, to maintain frequency and voltage variations within set ranges, and to avoid brownouts and blackouts.
    During periods of greater wind speeds, with high instantaneous wind energy percent, IWEP, on the grid, more of such gas turbine capacity will operate inefficiently requiring extra fuel and emitting extra CO2/kwh; the extras almost completely offset what wind energy was meant to reduce. Adequate gas supply is absolutely essential for variable, intermittent wind and solar energy to be of use to the grid, unless adequate hydro capacity is available for balancing, as it is in Sweden and Norway to balance Denmark’s wind energy.
    In the US, Germany, etc., some grids with significant wind turbine capacity have mostly coal plants and not enough gas turbine plant capacity to balance the wind energy. As a result coal plants are used to balance wind energy which causes their combustion systems, designed for steady operation, to become unstable (more fuel is consumed/kWh and more particulate, SOx, NOx and CO2 is emitted/kWh), and causes their scrubber-based pollution control systems, designed for steady operation, to
    become unstable because stoichiometric ratios cannot be maintained within set ranges (more particulate, SOx and NOx is emitted/kWh). This is especially the case at greater wind speeds, as documented in the Bentek I report of the Texas and Colorado grids.
    Here are some studies (performed by highly respected, mostly-retired, energy systems professors, doctors in engineering, and professional engineers), based on actual grid operations measurements, that show very little CO2 reduction due to wind energy.
    On variable cloudy days, solar energy varies even more than wind energy, as experienced in southern Germany, with nearly a million solar systems, where solar energy varies up and down by greater than 1,000 MW within minutes, thus upsetting the stability of the grid. The 4 major German grid operators are at wits-end dealing with the existing RE (wind energy in the North, solar energy in the South), and see no way to timely prepare for the coming RE. Maybe a few grid brownouts and blackouts, as have happened in Texas, will wise up the irrationally-exuberant RE politicians in Berlin. See internet.
    About 10-15 percent of the year there is no wind energy because wind speeds are too low (less than 7.5 mph) to turn the rotors or too high for safety. Wind energy is minimal in summer, moderate in spring and fall, maximal in winter and, at all times, strongest at night. It is mostly out of phase with daily peak demands. Wind turbines draw energy from the grid during idle hours, up to 10-20 % of their capacity on cold winter days; it is called parasitic power,
    About 65-70 percent of the year there is near-zero PV solar energy. It is minimal in the morning, maximal at noon about 3-5 hours before the daily peak demand, minimal in the evening, zero at night. New England, with much cloudy, snowy, rainy weather, solar energy is highly unsuitable, as it is in Germany; it is far superior in the US Southwest, Spain, North Africa, etc.
    Accordingly, wind and solar energy has zero dispatch value to ISO-NE, the New England grid operator. However, wind and solar energy does have SCHEDULING value.
    For example: The scheduling value of wind energy in Texas is about 8.7% of the installed wind turbine capacity, per ERCOT website.
    That means nearly ALL existing generators will be required (staffed, maintained in good working order, fossil-fueled or nuclear-fueled) to provide energy when wind and solar energy is minimal; economically viable, utility-scale energy storage has not yet been developed.
    The existing generators (base-loaded, load-following and balancing) will be required to operate (inefficiently) more hours at part load than without wind and solar energy on the grid, have less production, become uneconomical and yet cannot be retired, because they are needed when wind and solar energy is minimal.
    Owners of such generators in New England, unable to withstand the misguided RE mania, will demand compensation, as they do elsewhere, and will certainly be reluctant to invest in any new generators due to uncertain economic/political conditions, as is already happening in Germany.

    • Rob Macgregor

      So your recommendation is? Do nothing? Business as usual?
      Continue to burn coal because renewables have not yet realized your idealized performance curve?

      And perhaps you would enumerate the comparisons of impacts including the way the fuels are obtained?

      Or account for the fact that New England does have impound hydro-capacity that could be used for balancing?

      I’m reminded of the saying “difficulties do not a refutation make…”

      • Rob,
        Vermont and the US and the world have not scratched the surface regarding energy efficiency. A 50% reduction is easily attainable at a lower cost/kWh than renewables and with EXISTING TECHNOLOGY.

        In Vermont, the real CO2 emission culprits are the transportation and building sectors. What Vermont needs is not RE, but a:

        – Gas-guzzler tax, based on mileage (the lower the mileage, the higher the tax).
        – Strict, enforced building energy performance codes (Btu/sq ft/yr for heating, cooling and electricity).
        – Time of day, TOD, electric rate schedules. The rates would vary hour-by-hour as daily demand varies. This would flatten the daily demand curve more effectively and at less cost than Efficiency Vermont’s staff of about 180 people and $40 million/yr budget.

        These measures would require minimal public funds and subsidies, would quickly create jobs all over the state and would quickly and more effectively reduce Vermont’s CO2 emissions many times more at less cost than any RE buildout; for poor Vermont, increased EE is the most rational approach.

  • Rob Macgregor

    As you well know, Ms Smith , the primary criteria for wind development are adequate wind resource, proximity to infrastructure such as transmission and roads and willing landowners. Other conditions are imposed on the process under the terms of the regulatory framework of Sec. 248, including no unduly adverse impact on other resources
    including human and natural communities.

    Now perhaps you’ll tell us all what sites are suitable for mountaintop coal removal….. what mountain is that whose environment is worth sacrificing? Or what sites are suitable for hydraulic fracturing… tar sands extraction, uranium mining?

    Are you suggesting that fossil fuel business as usual will not have greater impacts over a larger portion of the planet, or is it that there is a magic solar bullet that is actually going to happen within a time-frame adequate to address the magnitude of the problems we face?

  • This conversation reminds me why I love Vermont. Everyone commenting really cares about the environment both locally and globally. We are all frustrated with the current state of things and sincerely want to make things better now and in the future. We definitely don’t want to make things worse.
    Based on my current understanding industrial ridge top wind will definitely make things worse locally, for the State and in the short term. The good produced for this sacrifice appears to be dubious even long term and globally.
    We all seem to agree that conservation of energy is the cheapest and most effective way to help our environment and reduce green house gases. I have a modest proposal to help accelerate this goal which is currently set at a 25% reduction nationally, but with current technology 50% reduction is a possibility.
    I suggest we come up with a marketing campaign centered around a very visible “signal” when a business or homeowner weatherizes their building or takes other actions to significantly reduce their carbon footprint. This will be similar to the signal sent by the drivers of a Prius or now an all electric car. What this signal would be I’d leave up to more creative minds.(A good summary of this was on Freakanomics radio a few weeks ago)
    I suspect that signalling is a strong motivator for folks who put up a solar panel or a small windmill. Weatherizing would actually do more good, but no one knows it after the installers are gone. For the Governor and NGO’s like VPIRG, ridge-line windmills may be motivated in part by the same signalling impulse. “Look at us, we are doing something.” No doubt it is good for fundraising and PR (the cynic in me says) but is it really doing good?
    Before Vermont martyrs anymore of its mountains, we owe it to future generations to do all we can to do real good, using proven technology and conservation practices. Then and only then should we consider implementing less proven technologies.

  • Glenn Czulada

    >>But I’m watching the Holy Earth’s temperature rise at an alarming rate

    Where are you getting your information?? Below is the link to two temperature seris, UAH is satellite data, HADCRUT is the data the IPCC uses (land-based thermometers). Both show a rise of .3C the past 30 years.

    Both show that there has been no average warming since 1997. That’s 15 years ago! What is so “alarming”??

    Do you think that the world has always stayed at the exact same temperature?

    Also, why not look how average annual temp’s in VT have changed the past 65 years. Go to link below, plug in 1945-2012, average annual temp. and you will see there has been NO TREND in VT temps for over 65 years!
    What’s so worrisome?

    I agree with poster above. Wind turbines are a monument to greed, stupidity and being gullible. Better cross check your sources.

  • Charles,
    It would not surprise me if the “alternative energy” created by these wind turbines never offsets all the fossil fuel from all sources involved building them from square one.

  • Kristian Omland

    While I respect Mr. Johnson, he overstates his case. We actually do have only a “very few” operating wind farms: two; three more are either under construction or permitted. The number of wind farms will remain well under the number of alpine ski resorts. Alpine ski resort development involves blasting for lift tower installation, trail widening, and road construction. Throughout the operating life of a resort, there are runoff, erosion, and pollution problems. Development of an alpine ski resort is certainly at least as much of a threat to a ridgeline as construction of a wind farm. Yet Vermont has 60 years experience living with major alpine ski resort development to show us that limited use of Vermont’s ridgelines is compatible with ecosystem and scenic values.