I live in Wheelock, Vermont, a town with 598 residents. Our town is so small that we have neither a post office nor a zip code. To get my mail, I have to travel two miles to the post office in Sheffield, our larger neighbor. (Sheffield has a population of 704.)
There’s a $90 million construction project underway in Sheffield this summer. In its entire 200-year history, the sleepy town has never seen anything like this.
A company called First Wind is installing 16 utility-scale wind turbines, each 420 feet tall, on a Sheffield ridgeline. When I drive down the gravel road from my house to the post office, there’s a spot on the road where I can glimpse the new turbines on the horizon. When they go online next winter, the turbines will generate 115,000 megawatt-hours per year — enough electricity to meet the needs of every home in Caledonia County.
Deep snow, plenty of moose, and four tranquil ponds
The wind farm is located on Duck Pond Road. To those of us who live nearby, Duck Pond Road, a gravel road that passes over Sheffield Heights, is the back way to Barton. Most of the road passes through undisturbed woods, and until this summer, the road got almost no traffic. There are a handful of hunting camps on Duck Pond Road; none of them have electricity.
Over the past few decades, I’ve enjoyed snowshoeing on the west side of Duck Pond Road, where it’s fun to travel between the area’s four high-altitude ponds. The last time my friend Bill and I went snowshoeing up there, we didn’t see anybody all day. But we did see plenty of moose tracks.
The development now under way in Sheffield is the first commercial wind development in Vermont in 10 years, and the largest wind farm ever built in Vermont. Compared to New York and Maine — to say nothing of Texas — Vermont has seen very little wind development.
Not in our backyard
Although I live off-grid, and therefore won’t benefit from the electricity generated by our local turbines, I welcome the new development. I think the turbines on the horizon are handsome, and I’m proud to live next door to a wind farm.
The First Wind project has engendered strong support from wind-turbine advocates; it’s also engendered strong objections from wind-turbine opponents. Opponents of the project formed a group, the Ridge Protectors, and hired lawyers to appeal the environmental permits issued to First Wind. Their opposition has not stopped the project. It’s been depressing to see how this polarizing issue has divided my friends and neighbors.
The opponents of wind development in Sheffield have cited a variety of potential drawbacks to the wind turbines: loss of bear habitat, injury to bats and birds, silt runoff into local streams, irritating noise that could reach nearby homes, and the visual pollution caused by towers on the horizon.
Where are they?
At public meetings organized to discuss the Sheffield wind farm, many anti-wind protesters complained that the tall turbines will spoil the view of our mountains. For example, one November 2006 news article noted, “Most of the roughly 90 people attending the first public hearing held in Barton said they did not see what they would get out of it except a spoiled view and noise from construction.” After all the debate over spoiled views, it’s ironic that Sheffield residents are now talking about how hard it is to find somewhere where the new turbines are actually visible.
There was a rumor that you could see the turbines from Leslie Newland’s house, but I drove by on a clear day and couldn’t see any of them. Last weekend I bicycled the entire length of Route 122 from Sheffield to Barton, over the top of Sheffield Heights, and I never saw a single turbine.
It turns out that there’s a spot at the old potato farm on Sheffield Square Road where you can just barely see the turbines. If you’re driving north to Canada on I-91, you can see some of the turbines at the crest of Sheffield Heights. The best view of the turbines I’ve found is from the public beach at Crystal Lake in Barton. From that vantage point, the turbines are a long way off, but you can see them. They look like elegant sculptures.
Yes, there will be impacts
I’m sure it’s true that the wind farm has impacted the black bears on Duck Pond Road. I’m sure that the turbines will kill some birds — just as many birds are killed by skyscrapers, pet cats, and my own house. (Twice I have heard a loud thunk and gone outdoors to find a dead ruffed grouse that flew into one of my windows and broke its neck.) And it’s true that the snowshoeing opportunities along Duck Pond Road have been altered forever. But I’m willing to live with these impacts.
Moreover, I’m also sure that the impacts of our local wind farm will be far less than the impacts of coal mining in West Virginia, where mountaintops disappear to feed the giant maws of our power plants. I’m sure that the impacts of our local wind farm will be far less than the devastation experienced by the Native peoples of northern Quebec whose land has been flooded by hydroelectric dams. And I’m also sure that the impacts of our local wind farm will be far less than the long-term waste-disposal problem created by Vermont Yankee, the nuclear power plant in southern Vermont.
Right now, we Vermonters get one third of our electricity from Vermont Yankee and one third from Hydro Quebec. Although these two sources of electricity have a relatively low global-warming potential, they have major negative environmental impacts.
When it comes to wind energy, it’s time for Vermonters to say, “Yes. In my backyard.”
Think of the alternative, and step up to the plate
With global climate change happening now, we are facing an environmental catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. If we continue to generate our electricity from sources that spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we face a grim future indeed. There is a strong likelihood that many of the trees that now fill our northern forests will die within my children’s lifetimes. At that point, what kind of bear habitat will we have on Duck Pond Road?
We’re running out of time, folks. We need a massive commitment to new sources of renewable energy, and we need to build these facilities now.
Because I live in a small town, I know most of my neighbors. When I drive by the homes of wind-turbine opponents, I know which ones leave incandescent light bulbs burning on their porches all night long. It’s time to get serious, neighbors. It’s time to buy some CFLs and put them on a timer.
I hope that within a few years, our new wind turbines will become an accepted and beloved addition to our views of the mountains. And I hope other Vermont counties will follow the lead of Caledonia County, and find a way to generate all of their electricity from a clean, renewable source.
Last week’s blog: “Straw-Bale Walls.”