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Last week I wrote about the challenges of small wind turbines and the difficulty of successfully integrating wind power into buildings. This week, I’ll look at larger-scale commercial wind power developments.
Though I have long been willing to point out situations in which wind power is not practical, I am a strong supporter of wind power where it makes economic and environmental sense. It is a critical component of what will have to be a multi-faceted effort to come to grips with our greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
A fierce debate is raging about the merits and aesthetics of commercial wind developments in Vermont and elsewhere. Ironically, here in Vermont, a state known for progressive thinking and environmental awareness, our legislature is considering a three-year moratorium on wind power development. How is it that many Vermonters are so willing to fight against a clean, safe technology that offers one of the solutions we so desperately need to solve our climate change conundrum?
As I explained last week, there is a tremendous economy-of-scale with wind power. Since the early 1970s, when the modern wind power era emerged following the 1973 oil embargo, wind turbines have gotten larger and larger — from a few kilowatts (peak output) then to a few megawatts today. This is because doubling the output of a wind turbine doesn’t come close to doubling the cost. Larger wind turbines produce far more cost-effective electricity than smaller wind turbines.
By combining multiple wind turbines into larger wind-power developments (wind farms), the necessary maintenance needs can be aggregated. Wind turbines have moving parts and require regular servicing. From a business standpoint, it’s hard to justify sending out a repair technician to service just one machine; servicing a few dozen turbines makes much better business sense.
Large, megawatt-scale wind turbines are also safer when it comes to birds. As a long-time birder, the safety of our avian friends is a high priority of mine. There were horror stories in the 1980s when the thousands of wind turbines in California’s Altamont Pass and Tehachapi Pass caused large numbers of bird fatalities. These 1980s-era wind turbines were very small by today’s standards — most were rated at 25-35 kilowatts — and in a reasonable breeze the blades would spin so fast as to become essentially invisible to birds.
Today’s very large turbines have massive blades that rotate relatively slowly. Birds can see these blades, and fatalities are far lower.
Yes, there still will be some bird fatalities from modern, large wind turbines, just as birds will collide with radio towers on a foggy night. This saddens me, but ultimately the impacts on birds and other species in our ecosystems will be far greater as a result of global warming if we don’t come up with alternatives to fossil fuel combustion — and do so very quickly. (Those with concerns about birds should put their energy into preventing the carnage from house cats.)
Commercial-scale wind power, in my opinion, makes sense where three conditions apply: where there is lots of wind; where we can use large wind turbines (from several hundred thousand kilowatts to several megawatts in peak output); and where there is enough space to aggregate multiple large wind turbines into wind farms.
Finding windy enough locations in states like Vermont usually means ridgetop locations. In the Upper Midwest it means agricultural land — where it can significantly boost a farmer’s per-acre revenue while having relatively little impact on crops or grazing. In Texas, which now produces more wind power than any other state, it means broad expanses of open grassland.
One of the very best places to put wind developments is offshore, where winds are steady and there are no hills or trees to produce turbulence. I am very excited about offshore wind farms that are proposed for Nantucket Sound , Maine, New Jersey , and Delaware — and frustrated at how long projects have been held up for aesthetic reasons.
Coming back to Vermont, the bottom line is that if we want a robust renewable energy policy that includes wind power for the state — and I do — we will have to find large tracts of land that include ridgelines. I don’t know the Meadowsend Timberlands  site in Windham and Grafton (the potential wind development that is being so heatedly debated today), but the 5,000-acre tract is large enough for there to be an adequate acoustic buffer from adjoining properties, and it must include some ridges where winds are predicted to be suitable for cost-effective wind power generation.
What I think surprises me most about the opposition to wind power around here is the fact that towns where wind farms would be located can realize significant tax benefits. In the little town of Sheffield, Vermont (population 700) between St. Johnsbury and the Canadian border, for example, where a 40-megawatt wind farm  went into operation in 2011 after a long battle with opponents, that wind project is projected to provide $520,000 per year in tax revenue to the town for the next 20 years, plus another $230,000 per year going into the Vermont Education Fund, according to Iberdola Renewables.
Of the $532,000 tax payment received by the town in 2012, according to Sheffield selectman Max Aldrich, 50% was put into a long-term capital reserve fund that is expected to grow significantly over the years (as long as Sheffield voters continue to support the current reserve formula).
With town budgets inexorably going up, I find it remarkable that towns like Windham and Grafton — where Meadowsend Timberlands wants to asses the viability of a commercial wind power facility — aren’t embracing wind power with open arms. Perhaps these towns are a lot wealthier than my own town of Dummerston, but as a taxpayer in Dummerston, I would be jumping up and down if there were a 5,000-acre property owner in town who wanted to develop a wind farm that would lower my property taxes and help our town become carbon-neutral. And I find it ridiculous that many in our legislature want to impose a statewide moratorium on projects like this.
For many, it is an issue of aesthetics. Unlike a lot of people, apparently, I actually find wind turbines attractive. I’d much rather look at the slowly spinning wind turbines on a ridge across the valley than not be able to see that ridge due to smog. Knowing that those turbines are generating power without releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere or accumulating nuclear waste makes them all the more beautiful in my eyes.
I suspect that some of the Sheffield residents who had previously opposed the wind farm are coming to think of wind turbines as a little more attractive after seeing the impact on their property taxes and realizing all the benefit that capital reserve fund will bring to their town.
Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc . and executive editor of Environmental Building News . In 2012 he founded the Resilient Design Institute . To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed .