Renewable Energy at What Cost
By BRENDAN O'NEILL
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.”