The Martha’s Vineyard Commission has a suc cessful history of protecting the Island from development that would enrich the few while hurting the public as a whole. Its temporary moratorium on large wind turbines deserves great praise as a courageous step given the risk of being branded antigreen energy. A pause to stop and understand fully the benefits and risks of siting industrial facilities (that’s what they are) on the Island is precisely what is needed because the debate over wind energy projects has become completely unbalanced. The facts have been pushed aside in a rush to cash in on massive government subsidies and favorable regulatory rules that inflate revenues. The rhetoric is high-minded, but wind energy developers are just as interested in grabbing a quick buck as the guys who build strip malls.
Everyone seems to want to believe in wind as the magic clean energy bullet that will painlessly allow us to reduce fossil fuel consumption and slow global warming while still driving around in SUVs. A cynic might attribute the positive image of large-scale wind power to a vast, clever public relations campaign largely funded by the likes of General Electric, Vestas, and the other big names in the wind turbine business. Showering money on nonprofit organizations has also been a good tactic to build national and local support for projects. But how many supporters truly understand how large-scale wind turbines fit into our overall system for generating and transmitting electricity or the net global production of greenhouse gases? Countries such as Denmark that are at the leading edge of wind turbine deployment are already suffering a hangover as the cost of subsidies skyrockets even as other government spending has to be cut. The Danish public has also begun to see that their country is more dependent than ever on the traditional coal, gas and nuclear generating capacity of neighboring countries to meet their power needs in periods of peak demand — and what happens to the electric bills when those countries make Denmark pay the full cost of providing backup power supplies.
The wind turbine mania might be easier to understand if we had not just gone through a very similar episode with alcohol fuels. The industrial-political juggernaut of Archer Daniels Midland and the big Midwestern corn growers shaped the debate in much the same way. Gasohol would free us from dependence on Middle Eastern oil and encourage a green renewable energy source. They did not mention the negatives — countless billions of dollars in direct subsidies, reduced fuel economy in cars, virtually no net reduction in oil consumption, and worst of all, higher prices for staple foods that have led to starvation for millions of people in the underdeveloped world. We are starting to get small hints of the dark side of wind turbines, as was evidenced in a Dec. 26 front-page New York Times story about the environmental destruction wrought in China by mining some of the key rare minerals needed to fabricate large turbines.
The real tragedy of the wind power steamroller flattening the opposition is that we are losing all the good that could come if even half the enthusiasm and government policy support pushing large-scale wind turbine projects were directed to improving energy efficiency. But G.E., the tax shelter promoters, hedge fund managers and the others who are cashing in on the wind power boom can’t make much money from conservation, no matter how much the public might be saving or how much more real good it would do to save the planet. Island supporters of big wind projects, who are for the most part genuine in their beliefs and for whom the money is a secondary motivation, will at best get table scraps left by those who finance and build the projects. They need to stop and ask themselves why they support a massive increase in the construction of new industrial facilities when the U.S. has done so little to bring our energy consumption levels in line with the rest of the developed world.
At the end of the 19th century, city fathers across America fought for the privilege of siting refineries, coal mines, steel plants and other large industrial projects in their towns. A line of tall stacks belching black smoke in the sky was a symbol of commitment to progress and the virtues of the modern world. Let’s slow down and make sure that our descendents don’t see a line of wind turbines stretching across the Island and its surrounding waters and wonder how we could fail to understand the true cost we will all pay to allow a handful of developers and manufacturers to make a quick buck.
The MVC needs to do its part to ensure that wind power developers do not get to steal the Island’s character just because they are better at public relations than the strip mall guys.
Frederick Khedouri lives in Chilmark.