Charles Komanoff


Komanoff opinion piece in a New York-New England regional newspaper debunking "anti" arguments

Wind power's benefits outweigh risk to scenery
By Charles Komanoff
Hill Country Observer, an independent newspaper for eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires
September 2005

In the past few years I've read dozens of tracts by opponents of electricity-generating wind turbines in New York and New England. Two things come through loud and clear: The anti-wind forces care more about their picture-perfect views than about preserving the earth, and none of them seem to know the first thing about how electricity grids work.

A case in point: Green Berkshires Inc. is campaigning to prevent construction of 20 windmills on windy ridgelines in western Massachusetts. On the group's Web site is the brazen claim that "global warming [and] dependence on fossil fuels -- will not be ameliorated one whit by the construction of these turbines on our mountains."

That's just wrong. In fact, as I explained to Green Berkshires' director in a series of e-mails last fall, each and every kilowatt-hour that wind turbines contribute to present-day utility grids translates one-for-one into reduced operation of power plants running on fossil fuels.

Power grids function as gigantic electron-balancing devices. Put in more electrons from one source, and other sources have to put in less. Because coal and other fossil fuels are the mainstay of grids in the Northeast, more wind power equals less fossil-fuel burning. That's Power Systems 101. To deny that is to deny the scientific truths of Maxwell and Faraday that made electricity possible in the first place.

This 1-for-1 displacement of fossil fuels is precisely what makes wind power so environmentally virtuous. Because wind turbines substitute for electricity that would otherwise have to be made from burning fossil fuels, they in effect keep those fuels in the ground, where they can't contaminate the atmosphere with climate-wrecking carbon dioxide.

This isn't to say that 20 windmills in the Berkshires, or even a hundred times that many, will stave off global warming or stop the flow of petrodollars to Osama bin Laden's Saudi pals. But putting up wind turbines aids those efforts every bit as much as energy-efficient measures like trading SUVs for high-mileage cars or replacing incandescent lights with compact fluorescents.

Anti-wind groups often counter that the intermittent nature of wind power requires keeping conventional fossil-fuel power plants available during times of little wind. That's true, but it's irrelevant to wind turbines' displacement of fossil fuels. The key word is "available." The fossil plants must be kept ready to run, but they aren't run (or are run proportionately less) whenever the wind turbines do.

Another indulgence of the anti-wind forces is rhetorically trading off wind power against energy efficiency. Critiquing a 30-megawatt wind farm proposed atop a former Adirondack garnet mine, the Adirondack Council wrote that "we could save more than 30 megawatts of power in the Adirondack Park through simple, proven conservation methods in homes and businesses."

True again, but completely beside the point. Conservation and wind energy aren't in competition; they're on the same team, opposing fossil fuels.

With global warming and petro-terrorism, the game isn't about topping off the regional grid with one more unit of electricity supply or one less unit of demand. It's about phasing out fossil fuels altogether. Every windmill stopped by the picture-window crowd is one more coal mine or oil well still doing damage.

Groups like the Adirondack Council have done invaluable work preserving scenic landscapes and natural ecosystems. But they came of age in times when environmental problems tended to be localized and advocacy often meant fighting development projects in one's back yard.

But climate havoc is a different beast. A global perspective is required. So is willingness to sacrifice for a greater good.

Thoreau once asked, "What good is a house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?" We need to regard our beloved landscapes as houses whose planet is fast being made intolerable by our overuse of fossil fuels.

John Muir, the patron saint of Yosemite and founder of the Sierra Club, famously said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." And so it is with energy production on today's terrible scale, and also with its antidotes.

Through dependence on fossil fuels, humankind has come to a point where a windmill-less Adirondack vista or Berkshire ridgeline is hitched to ruined climate and global violence.

Conversely, admitting clean, quiet, graceful windmills into our Northeast landscapes could show the way out of this dependence and to the recovery and continuance of our world.

If, by accepting a modest, largely aesthetic change in the landscape, we can heal the earth to this great extent, how in conscience can we not do so?

Charles Komanoff, an economist and environmental activist, lives in New York City and spends his summers in the Adirondacks.