At Large: Is wind energy the future?

At Large: Is wind energy the future?

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The unalloyed partisans on each end of the Horseshoe Shoals wind farm debate have little to offer the rest of us who must find a way to evaluate this impressive proposal. For us, it is a calculus of possibilities, probabilities, and certainties. For many of them, wind is the hot idea and, in its faddishness, the next big thing, indeed the only thing: Wind will save the globe, it will save lives, it will create jobs, and it will revive the economy into the bargain.

But, does wind make sense — not as a possibility but as a conclusion, as the answer, as its enthusiasts would have us believe? Is it the case that if our calculus of benefits and detriments, of value and cost, determines that there are better bets in the marketplace for modern, non-fossil fuel energy sources, are we really responsible for the hypothetical human, global, environmental, and economic toll? The view here is that we are not.

For instance, it is certain that the Nantucket Sound site of the planned 130-turbine wind farm is a wild and empty place, relatively unmolested despite its proximity to thousands of Cape and Island residents and their guests from the rest of the world. And, like Yellowstone or Yosemite do, the shoals attract the adventurers among us. It’s a wild place with a name, and it’s nearby. There are vast salt water reaches elsewhere, but we don’t know them, and we don’t visit.

It is probable that the planned wind farm will change all that, replacing a wild, dangerous, and empty place that we know and visit with a striking, industrial engineering installation that will have its own attractions, but not the ones we’ve prized for centuries.

It is possible that the energy the wind farm produces will play a role in the region’s energy future, but it is unlikely that it will be a large role. It is possible that our experience with these turbines will lead to improvements in wind-generating machinery that will help us to supply needed electrical energy from benign processes rather than carbon-producing fossil fuel generators. But a wide-ranging survey of carefully considered judgments about the composition of the nation’s future energy generating systems finds only limited expectations for wind-driven sources.

From a report entitled “Ending the Energy Stalemate: A Bipartisan Strategy to Meet America’s Energy Challenges”: “Equally important, commissioners found common ground in rejecting certain persistent myths — on the left and on the right — that have often served to polarize and paralyze the national energy debate. These include, for example, the notion that energy independence can be readily achieved through conservation measures and renewable energy sources alone, or that limiting greenhouse gas emission is either costless or so costly as to wreck the economy if it were tried at all. Most of all, commissioners rejected the proposition that uncertainty justifies inaction in the face of significant risks.”

This report is the product of the National Commission on Energy Policy, founded in 2002 by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and its partners, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Energy Foundation. It may be found at www.energycommission.org. The commission included energy industry leaders, conservationists, and scientists. Its conclusions and recommendations reflected a consensus that may not have pleased in every way the narrower interests of individual commission members.

The commission concluded that America will depend on fossil fuel for many years to come. It recommended the continued search for new or under-developed reserves. It called for increased investment in conservation and fuel economy measures, including incentives for buyers of hybrid vehicles. The commissioners called for significant new investment in advanced coal and nuclear technologies, with mandatory, tradeable greenhouse gas restrictions helping to finance the investments. Add to all this nuclear power, natural gas, solar energy, and highly efficient battery technologies. All these possibilities, and more without a doubt, deserve patient investment with an eye on real cost (that is, unsubsidized) to the economy and the end-user, cleanliness, and scalability.

Wind doesn’t perform very well against these criteria. It’s expensive to develop, it consumes a lot of land or water, it’s intermittent, it relies on the backup of on-all-the-time-providers, so that its future, against the competing technologies and the amount of dollars currently invested in those technologies, is doubtful.

It’s a commonsense assessment, and it advises that renewable energy will play a modest part in the ultimate solution. But the bulk of the called-for increase in investment should be directed toward other technologies, the commissioners recommended.

Perhaps the commission is wrong. Perhaps wind farms like the one proposed for Horseshoe Shoals will figure more prominently than we now think in the future composition of America’s electrical energy generation system, but against that possibility there is the certainty that this wild, unmolested, nearby place we know — that we’ve named — will be irredeemably altered by the private, commercial development plan proposed for Nantucket Sound.

The Vineyard’s own environment will be similarly degraded by wind-energy development on the near shore locations identified by the Commonwealth and by the proliferation of private turbines on Vineyard soil.

There are certainly other places, remote but unfamiliar, where a wind farm may contribute more and take away only a little. But Horseshoe Shoals and the waters immediately surrounding Dukes County are not among those places.