Wild Side : Wind power? Yes, but...
Renewable energy is rapidly gaining traction on the Vineyard. Wood-burning stoves and their miraculously efficient, pellet-burning descendants grace more and more Island living rooms. Growing numbers of photovoltaic arrays and solar collectors are poised to glean energy from the sun as soon as we see it again. And a lengthening queue of proposed wind-power projects may soon be joining Martha's Vineyard's handful of existing turbines.
Indeed, for an Island that can't agree on anything, we have come amazingly close to consensus that increasing our renewable energy base is a desirable goal. Viewed from the Wild Side, this is a good thing. Mostly. Two and a half centuries of a growing global addiction to fossil fuels has dramatically altered the chemical composition of the planet's entire atmosphere. Carbon that has been locked, inert, deep underground for tens of millions of years has been hauled wholesale to surface, combined with oxygen, and belched out to form a planet-spanning blanket of insulation.
Looming climate change is the real, alarming, and to some degree inevitable result - a scientific conclusion that has been accepted by all except a shrinking and increasingly marginalized minority. Whether you look at global warming from the perspective of its effect on society or its effects on the natural world, humanity has opened a Pandora's box of long-term, complex, and mainly undesirable change. Kicking the fossil-fuel habit is our only sane course of action.
But conversion to renewable energy, alone, is not going to solve our problem. Often lost in our euphoria over "green" energy is the reality that every form of energy production comes with costs. One drawback of renewable energy sources is that, by and large, they are relatively weak. Wind, for example, is literally as light as air, and even a fast wind isn't all that fast. As a result, breezes don't contain very much energy, and some of what they do contain is lost in the process of capturing it and converting mechanical energy into more versatile electricity. To meet Martha's Vineyard's electric needs with wind power would require thousands of small turbines or scores of gigantic ones, adding up to a vast commitment of resources.
Some costs of renewable energy relate to the entire "energy footprint" of a new turbine or a solar panel: mining raw materials, manufacturing parts, and shipping equipment to the Vineyard all take energy and have ecological impacts. Other costs are more direct and local: wind turbine blades, for example, pose a threat to birds and bats, and while I firmly believe that this risk is slight in most situations, it is still a risk that adds up as more and more turbines go on-line.
Moreover, large-scale energy development of any kind will have visual impacts and will require space, both concerns on an Island that prizes outdoor activity and depends largely on tourism. Unfortunately, many of the most efficient sites for energy production also happen to be places noted for aesthetic values or heavy wildlife use; the Gay Head Cliffs, for example, offer energetic winds but also attract large numbers of tourists and migrating birds of prey.
In moving toward renewable energy, then, the Martha's Vineyard community should avoid the complacent illusion that reduced impacts, or different impacts, are the same as no impacts at all. The fact that some impacts are less noxious than the ones that result from burning fossil fuel doesn't make them any less real.