History supports public backing of wind power

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Critics of Maine’s burgeoning wind-power industry are producing more spin than all the blades of the industry’s towering turbines.

Wind power constantly gets knocked on the grounds that it poses health hazards, spoils nature’s scenery and relies heavily upon federal subsidies.

The jury is still out on potential health risks, and aesthetic impact is in the eye of the beholder. But there’s nothing unprecedented or necessarily unsound about using governmental subsidies to jump-start desirable projects too novel, large or risky to be undertaken entirely by private business.

For more than a century-and-a-half, the U.S. government has used its financial clout to bring about critical forms of economic and technological development.

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Such outlays of government largesse have often been linked to policies of military security, national prestige or social uplift, but enormous economic benefits have flowed from them nonetheless.

One early project was the Transcontinental Railroad. Authorized by the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, it used federal government loans and land grants of over 100 million acres to subsidize private construction of a continuous line running from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, Calif.

Finished in 1869, the line linked East and West coasts, making the U.S. into a truly continental power. It reduced cross-country travel time from months to days and opened the trans-Mississippi hinterland to settlement, farming, herding, mining and logging.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Pres. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal initiated the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a massive program of dam construction, rural electrification and flood-control along the Tennessee River. Blasted by its critics as socialist, the TVA used regional planning and federal dollars to create jobs, reduce soil erosion, and promote economic and social development in an impoverished region of the South covering 40,000 square miles.

Between 1942 and 1945, the federal government poured billions into the top-secret Manhattan Project to create an A-bomb. Before the Manhattan Project, nuclear energy was just a theory, and no one knew if the atom’s power could be unleashed through a controlled chain reaction. The advent of a peacetime nuclear-power industry would have been impossible without the Manhattan Project, whose original purpose was to beat Nazi Germany in a race to develop the super weapon that could win World War II.

The Federal Highway Act of 1956 authorized the construction of the Interstate-Highway System, which Pres. Dwight Eisenhower justified on the grounds the military needed a national transportation network. The Interstate system became the primary conduit for transporting people and goods throughout the U.S., in the process creating a new suburban culture and giving a major boost to the automobile and construction industries.

Since 1958, NASA, a federally financed agency, has been responsible for the nation’s civilian space program. The program grew out of Cold War rivalries between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and represented America’s attempt to catch up with and surpass Soviet successes in launching rockets and satellites into space. NASA eventually became the catalyst, not only for significant advances in aeronautics and space exploration but for a host of other technologies adapted to everyday use, including digital imaging, electronic sensors and guidance systems, composite materials, satellite transmission, robotics and lasers.

All these projects were extraordinarily expensive by the benchmarks of their time, well beyond the financial capacity and appetite for risk of the boldest venture capitalists. Yet, with governmental assistance, each ultimately produced quantum leaps in national prosperity, technological prowess and productive capacity, while advancing other important national goals.

Perhaps, then, instead of focusing just on wind power’s short-term impact on jobs, taxes and utility rates, we should look at its potential long-term benefits, both economic and noneconomic

For instance, would the expansion of a domestic renewable energy source like wind substantially lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil, thereby reducing the need for American soldiers and ships in the Middle East to protect petroleum supply lines? Could it provide more diplomatic leverage in dealing with prickly oil-producing states like Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela?

Could wind energy help alleviate environmental and public health damage caused by coal mining, oil-and-gas drilling, spills, explosions, and smoke-stack and tail-pipe emissions?

If scientists are correct about the global-warming effect of greenhouse gases, could expanded use of wind energy play a role in reducing the frequency and intensity of violent storms, coastal and riparian flooding, and desert spread in equatorial regions?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then we should, as a matter of state and national policy, seriously consider promoting the growth of wind power through simplified licensing procedures and governmental subsidies during the industry’s gestational period.

Wind power may represent one of those rare opportunities, one where we can all do well by doing good.

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