Wind Farms and Global Warming

This week’s RE Insider column is by Stephen H. Burrington, vice president and general counsel of the Conservation Law Foundation and Nancy L. Girard, vice president and director of CLF’s New Hampshire Advocacy Center. In their column, “Wind Farms and Global Warming,” they advocate the increased use of wind power as a real Renewable Energy alternative. They write, “To protect the air and water, halt global warming, and win independence from foreign energy sources, we need large-scale development of Renewable Energy. We need it soon and at a price the public is willing to pay.”

The Environmental Protection Agency’s new Climate Action Report makes it official: a heat-trapping blanket of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is smothering the earth. Human activities – particularly the burning of fossil fuels – are causing global warming. And human activities – such as our use of New England’s beautiful coastline, vulnerable to rising sea levels – will be dramatically affected unless global warming is arrested. The challenge seems daunting. We must reduce greenhouse gas pollution by at least one-half to halt global warming before it has gone too far. We need to act soon, since high levels of greenhouse gas pollution released today will linger in the air for many years. Partisan rhetoric sometimes obscures the fact that global warming is a manmade problem that has manmade solutions. Yesterday’s technology got us into this problem, and today’s technology can help get us out of it. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of electricity production, which accounts for 34 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution. New England has begun to show the way. Electric utility restructuring laws are letting market forces modernize our power plant fleet. Old, inefficient plants face competition from new, natural gas-fired plants that emit half as much carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour of electrical output. Enough gas-fired plants to supply 40 percent of New England’s peak demand on a hot summer day have begun operation or are near completion. Natural gas is cleaner than coal or oil, but it is still only a transitional fuel. Burning it produces carbon dioxide, and gas released through leaks, which can occur during extraction and transportation, warms the earth at twenty-three times the rate of carbon dioxide. To protect the air and water, halt global warming, and win independence from foreign energy sources, we need large-scale development of Renewable Energy. We need it soon and at a price the public is willing to pay. The stage is set for in New England. Some states are putting “renewable portfolio standards” into effect, requiring all retail electricity suppliers to include in their power sources. Developers are stepping forward with proposals to build wind energy “power plants.” Is it time to declare victory in the battle against global warming? Not quite. In New England, winds are strong and steady enough for significant energy production only along the coast and on high mountain ridges. Cape Wind Associates has proposed to build 170 large wind turbines in Nantucket Sound. Another developer has proposed a smaller mountaintop wind farm in Maine that would be visible from points along a 30-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Many environmental groups have leapt to the barricades to challenge these projects – all while proclaiming their support. For some, wind power is a thorny issue. The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), for example, has spent decades fighting to protect both the marine environment and northern forests from myriad threats. In CLF’s view, the question is not whether New England should have wind farms offshore and in the mountains, but where. Why? Because a look at the options shows that wind energy is one of the best available solutions to the problem of global warming. Solar power should be part of our future. But with a price tag many times that of other energy sources, it is not poised to become a major energy source for our region. Fuel cells, currently powered by natural gas, hold promise. But further technological progress and price reductions will be necessary for them to go into widespread use. Wind energy has arrived. Its price has dropped steadily for two decades and domestic wind energy installations nearly doubled last year. Countries in northern Europe are developing offshore wind farms. A small wind farm recently began operation off Prince Edward Island. The technology keeps improving – a wind farm built today will likely provide even more and cheaper energy in the future. The visual impact of wind farms stirs much opposition. But the aesthetic question illustrates the need to avoid rushing to judgment. Some wind farms actually attract tourists who hail them as beautiful. Local support for a small wind farm in Searsburg, Vermont, increased after it was built and there for all to see. Each wind farm proposal should be scrutinized carefully. But the debates about offshore and mountain wind farms demand the best from all of us, not just the developers. The stakes are high. There aren’t many other options and there aren’t many alternative wind farm locations. The search for solutions to global warming can reveal new opportunities. We should act responsibly and give wind energy a fair shot. The forests, beaches, and ocean are counting on us. Stephen H. Burrington is vice president and general counsel of the Conservation Law Foundation. Nancy L. Girard is vice president and director of CLF’s New Hampshire Advocacy Center. CLF is New England’s public interest environmental advocacy organization, working to solve the environmental problems that threaten the people, natural resources and communities of New England. CLF’s advocates use law, economics, and science to design and implement strategies that conserve natural resources, protect public health and promote vital communities in our region.
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