Reply to Senator Joe Benning’s plea for a wind moratorium

The following comments were written in response to Joe Benning’s op-ed in the Burlington Free Press on January 11, 2013, which are published here:|newswell|text|frontpage|s

Joe Benning’s comments deserve comments on a number of points.

1) Joe Bennning (and commenter Dan King) seem to be inordinately concerned about “the obscenely enormous concrete base pads” placed on Vermont mountain tops and what Benning terms “the environmental destruction” from utility-scale wind installations, but neither expresses the slightest concern about the environmental destruction which our use of other forms of energy imposes
To supply the nation’s primary source of electricity – coal – mountains are not just “dynamited” or despoiled by removing some trees and placing concrete pads: in coal country, mountains are being removed in their entirety, and the other environmental attributes of coal are even less inviting. Granted, the New England region (and a fortiori Vermont) relies little on coal.
But natural gas is not a whole lot better from an environmental point of view, and it IS this region’s primary source of electricity. Does Senator Benning really think that natural gas pipelines just lay themselves down neatly in the environment or that oil wells are beautiful? Or that drilling or fracking for oil and natural gas are environmentally friendly processes? What about the methane (24 times more potent as a greenhouse gas) associated with natural gas production?
Dan King actually lauds nuclear power, the region’s other major electric power source, while Senator Benning remains silent on the topic. But the nuclear fuel cycle requires vast uranium mines, and those involve a good deal more environmental despoliation than a few concrete pads. Uranium enrichment requires vast quantities of electricity, mainly from Midwestern coal plants. No one knows what the environmental effects of properly storing nuclear waste will be, because no one anywhere on earth has yet managed that feat, but we do know that the US has multiple failed sites spewing radioactive isotopes into the environment. None of which is to mention the possibility of a catastrophic nuclear accident, which, after VY’s technological twin at Fukushima melted down, can no longer be dismissed as due only to old Soviet technology or lack of containment. Anyone planning on buying any cheap Fukushima real estate?
If we are to have a legitimate discussion of environmental destruction, we must undertake a systematic comparative consideration of the destruction from all alternative sources, rather than considering only a litany of exaggerated and high-rhetoric arguments about just one energy source.
It is also worth noting that Vermont wind developers, unlike for example Vermont Yankee, must show that they can fully decommission their sites before they receive permits to build them. But there is no reason to believe that the concrete pads on which wind turbines rest are any more “permanent” than the concrete buildings in Vernon which we’ve housed for more than 4 decades.
2) Senator Benning belittles the contribution of utility-scale wind to global warming, because it produces electricity, “which does not power our transportation fleet and does not heat our homes.” But actually, electricity is perfectly capable of doing both. A few decades ago, many Vermont homes (and hot water) were heated with electricity, but because the sources of the power were not sustainable, DPS and the utilities encouraged customers to switch to other sources. Electric heat may not be a good answer for Vermonters, but geothermal heating systems probably are a viable source, and they happen to require substantial amounts of electricity.
Similarly, electric cars have never been much of a commercial reality: until now. Detroit has bet big on electric vehicles in recent years. The Japanese auto makers are also seeing them as a commercially viable transportation alternative. All this may or may not come to fruition, but surely it is unwise to simply ignore these developments or dismiss them out of hand.

Without over-arguing the opposing side of the case, neither of Mr. Benning’s arguments deserves to be simply taken for granted without further thought. Power from wind turbines may well make a significant contribution in future years to both heating and transportation in Vermont.

3) Mr. Benning speaks of “clear-cutting of hundreds of acres of trees,” but as Avaram Patt points out elsewhere, “The construction phase of First Wind’s 40 megawatt 16 turbine project in Sheffield involved the clearing of a total of approximately 63 acres, for the turbine sites, roads and everything else. Upon completion of construction, approximately 39 of those acres are being allowed to re-green,“ meaning that the “total project footprint after construction: approximately 24 acres, including turbine sites and roads.” (
4) Finally, Senator Benning touts his legislation which would declare a moratorium on utility-scale wind development, “to provide time for a comprehensive study of this particular tool.” He fails to note that Vermont has been studying this issue for well over 2 decades now, producing multiple Comprehensive Energy Plans and Electric Plans during that time. In preparing these reports, DPS held meetings with Vermonters, took public comment, and sought the advice of experts. The legislature has also visited and re-visited the issue multiple times. And since Vermont’s permitting process are notorious for being lengthy, none of these projects can be said to have snuck up on anyone.
Moreover, Vermont is not alone in having studied the issue. Other states and the federal government have done so as well, as have many other countries around the world. Capital markets have allocated billions to wind turbines, not just in the US, but around the world. Obviously, this does not necessarily mean that all these folks around the world are right, but it does suggest that virtually all the arguments wind opponents are presenting here have been heard and rejected elsewhere (except, of course, the argument that Vermont’s mountains are unique).
The senators’ call for a moratorium simply ignores all of the experience, studies, and reports which put Vermont on its current path, but fails entirely to provide a coherent rationale for doing so. Vermont’s processes are not perfect; they can certainly be improved. Some interesting suggestions for doing so can be found here:
Simply turning our backs on twenty-five plus years of work make little sense, especially given the urgency not only of global warming, but of a host of other environmental problems associated with harnessing energy for human use.

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