As the New Year begins, we thought it might be beneficial to our Windaction.org visitors and subscribers to take a look back at 2008 and see how the wind energy debate shaped up over the course of the last year.
Worldwide, installed wind energy capacity reached 120,000 megawatts (MW), an increase of 26,000 MW since 2007. Here in the United States, wind grew by over 6000 MW and now exceeds 22,000 MW installed. Most of this development, spurred by generous tax subsidies and established renewable energy goals, was conceived, planned for, and approved in the years leading up to 2008.
Since January 1, 2008, our subscriber list has doubled, reflecting the growth in wind energy development. Our subscribers include wind developers, environmentalists, wildlife and energy experts, decision makers, stakeholders, and people who are affected, positively or negatively, by the projects. The Windaction.org database of news articles, opinion pieces, documents etc. also expanded to just over 19,500 entries including more than 6,000 additions in the past year. We communicate weekly with the press and others who are tracking wind project development at all stages.
Based on news postings and e-mail, the areas of the world experiencing the most development and controversy include the United States, Canada, Europe (in particular the UK and Ireland), New Zealand and Australia. Within the United States, 2008 saw a groundswell of concern coming from States we had previously not heard from -- Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, California, Idaho, Nevada, and Minnesota. Others, including Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Illinois, Washington and Texas, continued to be at the forefront of the debate. Interestingly, while Minnesota and California have long encouraged wind development, it was not until 2008 that Windaction.org developed lasting contacts with concerned residents in these states - an indicator that resistance to the turbines is growing there as well.
With each new wind facility proposed, Windaction receives inquires from those living nearby. Rarely are people narrowly focused on the visual impacts or aesthetics (NIMBY) of the towers, a characterization commonly asserted by wind proponents and the press. Rather, people express substantive worries related to their health, safety, and quality of life, particularly when project plans involve siting 450-foot towers within 2000-feet of a residence and as little as 500-feet from property lines.
Since wind facilities are typically approved through the local planning and zoning process, e-mails we receive include questions about the process and how residents can go about getting their voices heard. But more disheartening, people are e-mailing us about the growing distrust of government officials tasked with reviewing and approving the plans - and with good reason.
Those sitting on the town and county boards seldom have any experience with power plant siting, nor are they equipped to evaluate the extensive and complex issues related to turbine noise, flicker, property value impacts, decommissioning, tax benefits and risks. Small town boards, in particular, are easy prey for the smooth-talking wind representatives intent on getting their way; Windaction.org has tracked numerous examples of developers manipulating local boards. New York State is a hot bed for this activity, prompting Attorney General Cuomo to step in and reassert order and fairness into the process with his Code of Conduct for wind energy companies working in the state. But New York is not alone. The public, and not so public, antics of wind developers span nationwide. One of the more blatant cases involves former Maine Governor Angus King who for the last year, as a private citizen, has been trying to ram through zoning changes in Roxbury, Maine to permit industrial turbines over the objections of Roxbury property owners.
By the beginning of 2008, Windaction.org began to notice a shift in the debate at the grassroots level. Until then, there was little continuity in the news stories. Discreet local news events detailing individual wind farm proposals and related controversies were the norm with limited reporting in the national press. But in 2008, something changed. People in rural areas were becoming increasingly aware of projects proposed for their communities and were starting to engage more quickly by talking with their neighbors and searching the web for details. More and more anecdotal information was coming to light in 2008, a reflection of the number of turbines built closer to where people live, a growing anger at turbine noise and other consequences of living near the towers, and the desire to get the word out.
Residents of Mars Hill in Maine wrote letters to those in Roxbury Maine encouraging them to ask questions and demand answers of their town board and State agencies. Gordon Yancey and his family captured national press attention with their story of how the Maple Ridge wind facility in New York tore their family and the community apart. Gerry Meyer's story in Wisconsin was picked up by USA Today after he cataloged the impacts of the turbines on his family and how his life had changed for the worse. Jane Davis in the UK shared her experiences with the turbines and why she abandoned her home. Gail Meir of Italy and Barbara Ashbee-Lormand of Ontario Canada documented similar experiences. Rene Taylor, who lives with her family in the shadows of Horizon Wind's Twin Grove facility in Illinois, wrote how their quality of life had been harmed and why Mrs. Taylor now commits hours of her time helping others in Illinois and elsewhere to learn more about the projects before they're constructed. And Dr. Nina Pierpont has worked tirelessly over the last several years investigating "Wind Turbine Syndrome", a condition in humans marked by headaches, sleeping difficulty, concentration and behavioral problems which she believes is triggered by the effects of turbines' low-frequency noise and vibration on the inner ear.
After witnessing what others were dealing with post-construction, communities also started to recognize the importance in moving cautiously when reviewing wind projects. Promises of tax revenues and jobs piqued interest, but residents understood how critical it was to balance possible benefits against the environmental, societal, and economic impacts of industrializing enormous swaths of land in their area. Others doubted the idea of building expansive onshore wind facilities hundreds of miles from load centers only to reap a trickle of intermittent, unpredictable energy.
In 2008 we saw townships and counties throughout Wisconsin adopt local laws to protect the health and safety of their residents, despite State laws prohibiting municipalities from restricting wind projects except under very narrow conditions. Elsewhere, communities sought change via elections, replacing the people sitting on local and county boards.
As more people and communities raised public concerns, wind developers responded by seeking ways to fast-track the approval process. They lobbied State agencies and politicos to legislate for the rapid expansion of wind development in the interest of meeting State renewable energy goals. Rural residents, who were doing their part locally to protect themselves, had limited knowledge of what was happening at their State houses hundreds of miles away, but the result was very real. A number of States have already responded with laws and goals that favor massive wind development without stopping to consider the consequences (or viability) of their actions. Windaction.org has observed firsthand the growing impatience at the State and Federal levels with those who report concerns about the towers. Residents in areas targeted for wind development are dismissed as misinformed while others are accused of being shortsighted, or worse, selfish and anti-Earth. Energy policy has become politicized and the goals are more about the urgent need to go green and build wind facilities, than about meeting our energy needs through clean, reliable, and cost-effective methods.
President-elect Obama is sending strong signals that he will "stimulate" the economy and put people back to work by transforming United States' energy generation, once and for all, into renewables and wind. Perhaps Obama and his staffers believe that enough money thrown at any ideal goal will make it happen. Or that lofty goals repeated enough will make the difference. But nowhere in Obama's "New Energy for America Plan" is there an analysis of his plan or details of the risks. Nor does he seem to care. Perhaps we are to accept that our political leaders, turned energy experts and economists, have already considered the issues -- but don’t count on it. And if the new administration is relying on the report "20% Wind Energy by 2030" coauthored by AWEA and the Department of Energy, we have much to discuss.
Before we race to dump billions of dollars into building a new electricity infrastructure that will criss-cross our open spaces with wind turbines and associated transmission, lining the pockets of T. Boone Pickens and a handful of corporations, it would be prudent for our local, state, and federal governments to consider the controversies wind has wrought in rural areas and to understand why everyday people have put their lives on hold to fight these developments and help others. The time has come for the United States to remove the rose-colored glasses, to stop with the platitudes and wishful thinking, and to finally understand that energy policy cannot be driven by emotion and superficial assumptions.