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Renewable Energy at What Cost

Looking out from the magnificent expanse of the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah, one of the few visible structures is the Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge, located some 30 miles distant. The towers of the bridge stand 400 feet above mean sea level, the approximate height of the tower and blades of the current generation of large wind turbines. It is easy to understand why there is concern about impacts on scenic, natural and cultural resources from turbine development significantly closer to Martha’s Vineyard.

The Vineyard should host such development in its wind-rich offshore environment, the argument goes, because fossil fuel use is changing the climate in dangerous ways. Wind power will help address the problem.

Indeed, Martha’s Vineyard and coastal areas worldwide are particularly vulnerable to the impacts predicted by climate change models: increased drought, intensified and less predictable storm cycles, migration of destructive invasive species. The dilemma for the Vineyard is that, while global inaction on climate change will lead to dire impacts on land, habitats and species, the set of solutions being put forth to address the problem will have their own negative impacts on the local environment.

Prior to 1750, carbon dioxide levels measured 280 parts per million. Levels are currently around 389 parts per million and rising. Scientists warn that a failure to stabilize that number well below 450 parts per million will result in climate disaster. To avert that fate, over the next 50 years, nations must collectively avoid emitting about 200 billion tons of carbon (200 gigatons GtC).

A joint project sponsored by Princeton University has proposed a series of strategies and technologies dubbed “stabilization wedges” to achieve that goal by deploying eight activities or “wedges” that would each account for a 25 gigaton reduction of carbon.

Improving the efficiency of buildings and industry can provide three wedges. One wedge can come from consumers embracing energy conservation, another from making transportation more energy efficient. Ending tropical deforestation can yield two wedges. And one wedge can be contributed by wind power.

The hurdle for wind is that gaining a 25 GtC wedge of emissions savings will require a “scaling up” of the industry by a factor of about 30. Wind currently produces less than one per cent of total global electricity, although it is growing fast. Approximately one million turbines of two megawatts in size would be required to make the wind “wedge.” That translates into a sizable environmental footprint on land and water, leading to concerns about energy sprawl for a relatively limited return.

Time is another hurdle. Experts warn that immediate action is needed to reduce emissions, and scaling up wind will take time. Efficiency and energy conservation approaches can start immediately and offer an effective strategy for allocating limited resources to achieve carbon reductions now. And when wind turbine developments are proposed, the Vineyard should insist on linking local community benefit to strengthening the primary tool for actually combating global climate change — and that means money coming to the region to implement energy conservation and energy efficiency in our homes, businesses, equipment, and transportation systems.

We know that deployment of renewable energy systems in the Vineyard’s wind-rich environment is likely because of the financial incentives that government has put into place to make wind development profitable. The challenge for residents, Island planners, legislators and conservationists is to chart a course that allows us to do our part in saving the global environment without destroying the values that define the Vineyard’s special character.

One way to do that is suggested in a new study of the environmental impacts of renewable energy technologies. Completed three months ago by The Nature Conservancy and entitled Energy by Design, it concluded: “The possibility of widespread energy sprawl increases the need for energy conservation, appropriate siting, sustainable production practices and compensatory mitigation offsets. Avoid development when you can, minimize impacts when you can’t, and compensate for those impacts that cannot be avoided.”