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Don’t overlook conservation when considering wind power

By Bill Coyle

The issue of wind energy and the Mad River Valley has returned to the news. Rather than engaging in a debate about the merits of wind power, perhaps we should examine the objectives for supporting alternative energy and whether or not support for medium- and large-scale wind projects in the Mad River Valley would provide material progress toward these goals.

The first assumption is that people support renewable energy largely to reduce carbon emissions and adverse environmental impacts of these emissions. There would be much less interest in the pursuit of green or renewable energy sources if people believed that burning fossil fuels is environmentally neutral. Second, it is rational to pursue actions that result in the greatest reduction in carbon footprint for the lowest cost. Third, it is desirable to reduce carbon emissions in a manner that results in the fewest adverse, second order impacts. In a nutshell, where is the greatest leverage for Vermont to reduce its carbon footprint, for the lowest cost and the least amount of collateral damage?

The answer is not in generating electricity by alternative means. The answer is reducing consumption of petroleum-based fuels for transportation and heating.

Based on 2008 data, Vermont generated 1,356,000 tons of carbon emissions. Here is the breakdown by source: gasoline/diesel, 49.6 percent; heating oil, 32.9 percent; propane, 9.3 percent; natural gas, 7.7 percent; electricity, 0.5 percent. Electricity generation's share of Vermont's carbon footprint is dead last at one-half of 1 percent. Annual carbon emissions from transportation and petroleum-based heating outweigh those of electricity in Vermont by a factor of 160 times. There was a famous bank robber named Willie Sutton. Legend has it that when asked by a reporter why he robbed banks, Sutton responded, "Because that's where the money is." In a similar vein, Vermonters should seek carbon emission reductions at the most significant sources.

Pursuing wind power to reduce substantially Vermont's carbon emissions is the equivalent of robbing the next-door neighbor kid's lemonade stand in order to fund a retirement in exile on the South Pacific Island of your choice. It just isn't going to get you there.

Point one is to focus on actions that have substantial impact. Point two is to pursue carbon reduction efforts that are most cost effective.

If Vermonters were to reduce consumption of petroleum products for both transportation and heating by 6.3 percent, it would have 10 times the impact of totally eliminating the state's electricity-driven carbon footprint. On a practical basis, that translates into eliminating 1 in 16 car trips. Reducing miles traveled by 1/16t has six times the impact of eliminating 100 percent of Vermont's electricity-driven carbon emissions. This requires no additional capital cost. In fact, reduction of driving through carpooling, ride-sharing, trip consolidation is a net savings. It is net savings with no capital investment and immediate payback. Of course, buying more fuel-efficient cars is also a means to reduce consumption, but that requires capital.

Similarly, reducing consumption of home heating oil by 1/16 has four times the impact of completely eliminating all sources of Vermont's carbon-based electricity. There are many ways to conserve home heating oil consumption. Some require no to little capital; others require modest to moderate expense in terms of insulation, better windows and doors, more efficient burners, etc. All of these actions are within our grasp.

Point three is related to the Hippocratic dictum "to do no harm." Ideally, we would have choices that are all benefit and no downside. Realistically, we pursue choices that have the greatest benefit for the lowest level of unwanted secondary impact. In medical treatments, we want the most effective course of care with the fewest side effects. For Valley residents who believe strongly in the need for carbon emission reductions, one might assume that the goal is the greatest impact on emissions with the least amount of collateral environmental cost. Industrial scale wind development is not without environmental cost. The facts are that: 1) Vermont's wind resources are not "excellent," 2) most of the wind resources are located along her high-elevation ridgelines, 3) industrial-scale wind development has substantial negative impact on ridgelines, watersheds, view sheds and the remaining unbroken forestland in the state.

Vermont is wind poor. Nearly all of the viable U.S. wind resources are located in the center of the country and offshore. The top 10 states for wind potential are in the Midwest, Southwest and Rocky Mountain states. Iowa at number seven has 100 times the wind resource of Vermont. Iowa's least productive wind areas exceed the potential of Vermont's most productive. The Gulf of Maine possesses 25 times Vermont's potential for wind-generated power.

Nearly all of Vermont's potentially viable wind resources are in her scenic, signature, high-elevation ridgelines. These ridges are a great source of Vermont's beauty and attraction. The headwaters of many of Vermont's streams, creeks and rivers originate in these high-elevation areas. These mountains are the home to the last remaining contiguous forests in a state whose woodlands are becoming increasingly fragmented.

Industrial wind development requires very large roads and access ways to construct massive wind towers and their foundations. Operating maintenance requires access and mountaintop roads. Ongoing operations have issues with very high levels of low-frequency noise and light flickering. People in communities in Vermont and other areas of northern New England are now coming to grips with many of the adverse impacts of industrial-scale wind. If one examines the facts on Vermont's carbon footprint and the leverage points for reduction, the cost of large-scale wind is likely not worth the benefit.

There is a genuine and legitimate belief on the part of many Valley residents that "we have to do something" in terms of reducing carbon emissions and any adverse impact. There are many "somethings" that Vermonters can do to reduce the state's carbon footprint. I respectfully suggest that the "somethings" should target the most significant sources of carbon emissions. The "somethings" should be cost effective. Finally, the "somethings" should have fewest adverse, second order impacts. Conservation and efficiency in consumption of petroleum-based transportation and heating fuels far outweigh the benefits of industrial wind. This results in immediate cost savings. Most solutions involve little to no capital. No conservation efforts sacrifice the mountains and ridgelines that Vermonters cherish. Conservation may not be as flashy, or as demonstrative as stringing windmills along the ridgelines. The math is irrefutable; conservation has the greatest impact on Vermont's carbon footprint, without the disruption and destruction of her cherished, irreplaceable mountains and ridgelines.

Bill Coyle lives in Waitsfield and Hanover, NH.


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