The case for wind

Most of Vermont’s media coverage of wind energy tells a David-and-Goliath story: the plucky locals and underdog activists going up against a corporate developer and the state regulatory system.

The pro-wind case usually gets short shrift. But even when it gets equal time, it’s almost always in response to anti-wind arguments. Rarely, if ever, is the positive case for wind given a fair hearing. As a result, there’s quite a bit of stuff about large-scale wind that most Vermonters don’t know. Here’s a list, with details to follow.

— For all our bluster about fossil fuels and gas pipelines, Vermont remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels, including fracked gas.

— Wind is a necessary component of a renewable system. There is no way we can reach our “90 percent by 2050” goal without large-scale wind.

— Wind has huge economic benefits, including tax payments to local and state governments and a healthier trade balance.

— Large-scale wind cannot be replaced by residential  turbines. It just doesn’t work. And replacing large-scale wind with more solar would dramatically increase solar’s footprint on our landscape.

— Thanks to recent advances, large-scale wind no longer has to be sited on the highest mountaintops. Lower ridges and hills are now suitable sites.

— Siting on developed land and rooftops is good, but it’s only a fraction of what we need. There aren’t nearly enough developed sites and roofs in Vermont.

And now for the details.

Our fossil fuel dependence. About 80 percent of our energy comes from fossil fuels. That’s all types of energy — including transportation and heating. And that’s kind of appalling for a state that prides itself on being greener.

Our goal of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050 includes all energy use. It assumes a broad transition from gas-powered transportation to electric and other sources. Interior heating would move from fossil fuels to electric heat pumps, which are far more efficient.

As a result, that “90 by 2050” goal assumes much larger demand for electricity — but electricity that’s almost entirely renewable. That means we’ll have to get very serious about building renewable sources if we’re going to get anywhere near the goal.

We can’t get there without wind. “We need every renewable technology to hit that goal,” says David Blittersdorf, who’s been developing renewable energy since the early 80s. (Blittersdorf is usually described as a “wind developer,” but his primary business is actually in solar technology. He’s worked on all of it, and has unique expertise in how it all works together.)

Each of the three renewable technologies has its strengths and weaknesses. Solar is strongest in the summertime and at midday. Large hydroelectric dams work like “a big battery,” he says, providing a valuable storage component through retention and planned release of water. That’s less true with dams inside Vermont, which are on smaller waterways; their peak production is in the spring. Wind blows year-round, day and night. Wind is somewhat weaker in the summer, when solar is at its height.

“The smart grid will integrate all these pieces,” Blittersdorf explains. “Fossil fuels will take on more of a supporting role for renewables.” But that can’t happen without all three legs of the tripod — solar, hydro, and large-scale wind.

Governor-elect Phil Scott puts his trust in future technological advances, which may create new ways to generate and/or store renewable energy. That’s nice, but there’s no guarantee it will happen quickly or robustly enough to make the difference. “90 by 2050” is a very ambitious goal; there is no time to wait for unpredictable breakthroughs.

A financial windfall. For all of our concern with growing the Vermont economy, blocking expansion of large-scale wind is a two-edged loser.

For starters, the more energy we produce, the fewer dollars we export. Vermont sends roughly a billion dollars a year elsewhere for every dollar in the price of gas. At peak prices, that was about $4 billion. Right now, it’s “only” about $2 billion. As we have shown before, local production provides a “multiplier effect” that provides a boost of economic activity beyond the mere dollars. Just imagine a Vermont economy supercharged by in-state energy production.

This should be kept in mind whenever siting decisions are made. Every time you reject a renewable development, you’re impeding the Vermont economy. Maybe that’s a trade-off you’re willing to make, but its terms should be explicit to one and all.

That’s one aspect of the renewables boom. The other is increased tax payments to the state and to host communities. Large-scale wind turbines pay the state three-tenths of a cent per kilowatt generated. Blittersdorf estimates that his Georgia Mountain wind farm, with a mere four turbines, pays the state about $100,000 per year.

Host communities and neighbors get an equal benefit. The town of Lowell, home to Kingdom Community Wind, gets $500,000 a year in revenue. Five abutting towns share an additional $180,000 per year.

Thanks to wind, small rural communities can finance significant improvements and/or cut property tax rates. Affordability, right? Again, you might be willing to forego the revenue to keep out the turbines, but that choice should be made clear.

Large-scale wind is a unique resource. It cannot be replaced by residential-scale turbines or greater deployment of solar arrays.

Blittersdorf refers to residential turbines as “kinetic art” that doesn’t produce enough energy to be commercially practicable. To equal the production of his four Georgia Mountain turbines, he says, would require 16,000 residential-scale turbines. The latter would be far, far more expensive to build — and, presumably, more troublesome to site.

As for solar, Blittersdorf says “We use 10 percent as much acreage [in wind farms] for the same production as the equivalent in solar. Both technologies require space; solar is horizontal, and wind is vertical.”

Aside from the interconnectedness noted above, replacing large-scale wind with solar would mean a vast increase in the number of solar farms. How do you think that’d go over?

Lower altitudes now available. Within the past several years, advances in wind turbine technology have greatly increased the number of feasible sites for wind farms. “All of a sudden, we’ve tripled the areas that are feasible for wind,” says Blittersdorf. “Georgia Mountain is only 1400 feet.”

This should be great news; we no longer need to focus on the most prominent, most iconic mountaintop sites. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of anti-wind advocates makes it appear that every potential wind site is a unique scenic wonder. That’s simply not true. We can build plenty of turbines while still avoiding the most sensitive sites.

Indeed, mountaintops are actually too high for modern turbines. Weather conditions are fierce. Turbines are subject to icing in winter. The winds are still strong enough at lower elevations, without the damaging effects of extreme weather.

Rooftops aren’t enough. A popular refrain of the anti-renewable crowd is that we should make use of already-built spaces. Problem is, there just isn’t nearly enough of a built environment in Vermont. According to VPIRG, it would take nearly 800,000 residential rooftops to supply 100 percent of our electricity needs. There are only about 327,000 housing units in Vermont. But that’s not all; only about one-third of rooftops are suitable for solar panels because of orientation, shade, and other factors.

Rooftop solar is definitely part of the equation, but as Blittersdorf says, “it’s not the silver bullet.” Full buildout of suitable rooftops would provide only a fraction of the energy we need.

Conclusion. Wind power is not without environmental impacts. But wind is one of the least impactful of them all — and is much, much safer and causes much less environmental harm than the fossil fuel sources we are so heavily reliant upon.

Large-scale wind is a vital part of our renewable energy future. It can’t be replaced by solar, hydro, or anything else.  If we don’t build wind in addition to other renewables, we are sentencing ourselves to excessive dependence on fossil fuels. It’s that simple.

The facts are all there. They are not very widely known or understood. They ought to be.

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8 thoughts on “The case for wind

  1. bobzeliff

    On top of this, in Texas where there is a large installed wind base, it has turned out to be cheaper than natural gas…. gas utilization is down and the Texas plants are asking for a gas rate increase.
    I believe Iowa gets nearly 30% of its energy from wind.
    I don’t think Vermont can be considered a leader in renewable energy generation or use.

    Reply
  2. Bud Haas

    One of the things that was not reported by VTDigger or the Valley News re the VECAN conference at Lake Morey this past Saturday, which featured the famous Soren Hermansen of Samso Island in Denmark, was his explaining how the “farmers” and Nimby’s there changed their opposition to Wind after 1) many hours of talk leading to consensus as to location, and more importantly 2) that every person on the island had a right to buy-in (invest) in the wind machines. This appeared to be the difference between a “socialistic” environment where everyone can participate, and our capitalistic environment where the people can only “buy-in” through their town gaining tax benefits by voting for the project.
    And yes, he reported that wind had to be part of the “solution”.

    Reply
  3. Sen. Joe Benning

    Okay, I’ll bite. The 90% renewables by 2050 is a VERMONT goal. All wind produced here is plugged into a REGIONAL grid system. Every kilowatt hour of wind produces a RENEWABLE ENERGY CREDIT which is traded as a public commodity. Virtually all, if not all, of those REC’s are sold out of state to offset brown power produced there. So long as that is happening, industrial wind is NOT being credited against VERMONT’s goal. How is it you thus contend this particular renewable tool is going to help get Vermont to its goal?

    Reply
  4. Norm Etkind

    “Interior heating would move from fossil fuels to electric heat pumps, which are far more efficient” and then the “three legs of the tripod — solar, hydro, and large-scale wind.”
    But we have a chair with four legs when we include biomass.
    Vermont has an abundance of solar energy conveniently stored in our forests. We hire many Vermont people to harvest it, process it, and distribute it in the form of cordwood, chips or pellets to heat many of our buildings. Yet, no mention here. Why?
    No form of energy is perfect. They each have their benefits and drawbacks, the only perfect energy is obtained through improved efficiency and conservation (also not mentioned in this piece).
    Electric heat pumps are a more efficient form of electric heat and they have made great strides with recent increases in efficiency. But they need electricity to operate. And as the temperatures get colder their efficiency drops.
    Solar PV does not produce when heating demand is greatest so heat pumps will rely on grid power for a significant portion of the heating load. This will put additional stress on the electric grid’s ability to provide winter peaking power which occurs after dark. Most peaking power is produced by fossil fuel plants. So, while heat pumps are part of the answer, they are not “THE” answer to how we should heat our homes.
    While heat pumps have become more efficient so has use of biomass. New cordwood, chip and pellet boilers have greatly improved their efficiency and reduced their emissions. Our forests can and should be sustainably managed to ensure their continued benefit to Vermont while supplying us with clean heat.
    Biomass is an important option in the mix as we look toward utilizing more renewables and has the additional benefit of not negatively affecting peak electrical demand as heat pumps do.
    I believe they deserve equal time when considering our renewable fuel options.

    Reply
      1. Norm Etkind

        Biomass is entirely renewable. Trees grow back. The more complicated question is whether they are greenhouse gas neutral. International conventions on climate change consider using biomass to be carbon neutral, hence the major exports of US made wood pellets to Europe. Again, with sustainably managed forests, the CO2 released during wood combustion is absorbed by other trees as they grow completing the greenhouse gas neutral carbon cycle.
        So, it becomes a question of time-frame and breadth of view. If your time-frame is immediate and restricted to the stick that’s burning, you have added that CO2 to the atmosphere. If you take the long view (and I believe climate change is certainly a long-term problem) and consider the forests as a whole, using biomass is carbon neutral (with some caveats about energy used to transport the fuel and in manufacture of pellets etc.)
        Similar caveats need to be applied to the manufacture of photovoltaic panels, the majority of which are manufactured in China using electricity from coal burning power plants. The manufacture of panels is very energy and chemical intensive.
        Wind does not have the same drawbacks as solar in terms of the ability to produce electricity at night. However we are abundantly aware of the need for windmills to be placed where the wind is, often in a place where there is significant public opposition.
        No form of energy is pure and without drawbacks (except for the aforementioned conservation and efficiency).

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