The Cost of Wind

At a time when sharply rising oil prices are rippling through the economy — pushing up the price of a multitude of commodities, from gasoline to meat to electricity — the idea of generating power right in the backyard through renewable sources such as the wind grows even more attractive for homeowners.

Unlike coal and oil-fired power plants, or the cars and trucks that many Americans own and use, wind turbines do not pollute the atmosphere. Now the soaring price of oil — rising past one hundred thirty dollars per barrel in recent weeks — has added a delicious pragmatism to whatever environmental ideals that wind power already possessed.

On an Island facing some of the highest power prices in the nation, around twenty-two cents per kilowatt-hour, the promise of wind turbines to substantially reduce electricity bills holds an undeniable appeal. Despite the expense and complexity of placing them on a site — the cost of a residential wind turbine remains out of reach for the average homeowner — these high-technology machines are starting to appear on the Vineyard.

But wind turbines can carry additional, if less tangible costs.

In Chilmark, a turbine has been operating on residential property off Old Farm Road for several weeks. Some neighbors have expressed quiet concerns — about the sound that the turbine makes, described as a low, droning sound, and about the machine’s impact on the neighborhood landscape.

In a town that prizes and protects its rural nature, the possibility of wind turbines popping up all over Chilmark is a prospect the town should consider carefully and seriously.

Responding to the issue, the town planning board rightly has decided to reexamine the zoning bylaw that governs wind turbines. The board also is right to schedule a public hearing on whether further restrictions are needed, and to seek responses from Chilmark residents about renewable energy sources in a pending master plan survey. These are all thoughtful responses.

Like other energy sources, wind power involves tradeoffs. In the coming months and years, as high energy prices likely will continue to burden individual households, residents of Chilmark and the rest of the Island will decide which tradeoffs are worth the cost, and which are not.