Because so many Vineyarders have been stirred up by the Cape Wind Project and because our various governing bodies are wrestling with the issue of residential wind turbines, isn’t it time we had a rational, non-emotional discussion of the future of wind power on our Island?
First of all, I believe we must accept the reality that our country as a whole must shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Remember that a large portion of our fossil fuels are in the form of petroleum, much of which comes from the Middle East, thereby enriching many who hate us and challenge our national security. Furthermore, the roughly $400 billion which we spend on imported oil is a financial burden on our country which we can no longer afford. Finally, with the disaster still occurring before our eyes in the Gulf of Mexico, there can be no denying that fossil fuels, particularly oil, threaten long-term damage to our environment.
While there may be new sources of sustainable energy in the future, the most promising technologies today are wind and solar. Nuclear power is again enjoying a resurgence as a virtually limitless, domestic source of electrical energy with fewer environmental risks than oil or coal. But a significant expansion of our nuclear resources is many years away.
Wind and solar power are here and now. Europe now produces about 5 per cent of its electricity with wind power and the European commission has set a mandate of 20 per cent by 2020. Denmark has already crossed the 20 per cent mark, and sometimes produces more electricity from wind than it uses. Last year, China also outlined plans to more than double the country’s wind capacity by the end of 2010 by investing $15 billion in onshore and offshore wind projects. Sadly, the U.S. is lagging far behind with only 2 per cent of our electrical energy coming from wind. As a result, we are now falling behind in the technology of wind power as well.
These are some of the background reasons why, as Vineyarders and as Americans, we must develop a more tolerant attitude toward wind power. Last year, we built a five-kilowatt turbine at our home in West Tisbury. Our objective was to play a tiny part in what must be a national imperative to shift our country’s energy supply to renewable, sustainable sources. Our home has received considerable publicity as the Vineyard’s first zero net carbon house. With the geothermal heating and cooling system, and with the wind turbine, this wonderful property will operate totally without gas or oil fuel, and therefore will not produce any carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases. I believe the day will come when virtually every house built in the country will be heated by the stored geothermal energy in the ground. When it comes to electricity, until we again deploy nuclear energy, the choice is between wind and sun (photovoltaic cells). In our case, because of the location, the experts recommended wind.
Because wind turbines are clearly visible, neighbors with a scenic view have a legitimate reason to be interested. But policy-makers must be careful to balance the legitimate interests of neighbors with the demands of this new and urgent national imperative. Clearly, a wind turbine which is close to, directly in front of, and clearly obstructs a scenic view of another property, should be questioned. I would not want a wind turbine directly in front of and close to our new home, I am the first to concede. So this must be a somewhat subjective determination. I would argue that simply being visible to another homeowner, particularly if in one’s peripheral vision should probably not be considered objectionable and therefore allowed. This dividing line between what is or is not objectionable has shifted, given the rapidly changing public attitudes toward renewable energy. In other words, the burden of demonstrating that a wind turbine is objectionable is certainly greater now that it would have been in the past. This is particularly because residential wind turbines today have a sleek and rather elegant Caldor-like design which most people consider to be quite beautiful.
A second objection often heard about land wind turbines is that they are noisy. This has always been a puzzle to me. Our turbine in West Tisbury is only 100 feet from our home, and I can state unequivocally that our turbine cannot be heard inside the house. Why do we not complain about the sound of a ceiling fan which is certainly louder, even at a low speed, than a wind turbine? Standing outside in a reasonably strong wind, a sound can be heard, but frankly it is obscured by the sound of the wind itself.
I find it especially regrettable that in many instances our town officials have yielded to the concerns of one or two neighbors and declined to issue a permit for the installation of a wind turbine. This is far too important an issue to give anyone a veto without some balanced assessment of the legitimacy of the objection. Many communities across the country have dealt successfully with the challenge of establishing criteria or guidelines for the approval process. The burden must be on the objector to establish that the visual effect of a wind turbine has a significant adverse impact on a scenic view or outlook.
Our own experience during the past year with our residential wind turbine has far exceeded expectations. The turbine is beautiful and quiet to such an extent we don’t even notice it anymore. Furthermore, and more importantly, all of our neighbors, even those who can see the turbine, are equally enthusiastic about it and the contribution it is making to our shift to sustainable, renewable energy sources.
Can’t we all overcome our resistance to change and become part of this national imperative?
Alexander Boyle is a resident of West Tisbury.