Wind power: Don’t let backlash get in the way of a good thing

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Misbehavior by insurance companies helped push national health care reform to passage. The brazenness of Wall Street investment banks is now doing the same for financial regulation.

Now, the disaster along the Gulf Coast — already the largest oil spill since the wreck of the Exxon Valdez in 1989 — may play a similar role is spurring completion of energy and climate-change legislation, including changes in national policy at least as vital as the first two.

And this is where Maine, and wind power, come into play.

It’s been a long time since Maine was a leader in any new industry, but it has managed to do so with wind. A state regulatory process that is clear, an administration that is committed and a public that was, at least initially, receptive, has led to the first large-scale installations in the East. Wind turbines have had an easier time in western states, which have a lot more space and, in some areas, a better resource.

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While Maine companies have so far been involved mostly in planning and constructing wind projects, a manufacturing role in technology now dominated by Europe and China is not out of the question. These are the economic building blocks that help small states grow.

Lately, though, there has been a reaction which could develop into a backlash if not properly addressed.

After proceeding almost below the radar during the first half-dozen large projects, wind power is controversial in many Maine communities. Some towns have adopted moratoriums while others have enacted ordinances that arbitrarily bar wind towers within a mile of any residence.

Certain environmentalists have also been getting plenty of ink to charge that wind towers are “destroying” mountains while providing negligible benefit.

Some of the charges have a cartoonish quality to them, such as the repeated claim that wind-generated electricity has never replaced a fossil fuel plant.

The electricity grid is a large, complicated entity with multiple sources of generation and transmission. One power source is never going to “replace” another, but, over time, generating power from wind, sun, tides and possibly nuclear fission will allow us to shut down numerous coal and oil-burning plants.

That’s the whole idea behind the congressional energy bill which, however slowly and imperfectly, aims to shift us from carbon-based to less environmentally destructive forms of energy. Maine’s wind industry is a small part of this national scheme, but it would receive a major boost if this bill becomes law.

The idea that tax credits and stimulus grants make windpower uneconomic is even more flawed. Even today, the federal government subsidizes oil and natural gas drilling through the tax code, under the theory that investors won’t take the risk without the write-offs. Support for wind power is a lot more sensible use of federal dollars today, and has been true for many emerging industries, from railroads to aerospace.

Then there is the question of siting. Don’t build any more wind towers on land, goes the argument – build them out in the Gulf of Maine where no one can see them.

The trouble here is that offshore towers in deep water, while potentially a boon, are still theoretical. We know how to erect turbines on land, but deep ocean power is years away. By waiting, Maine would forfeit any advantage it has gained to date.

Not every site proposed for wind towers is a good one. Not every town or city where they’re proposed will want to have them. But much of the current protest movement seems remarkably uninformed about the real costs and benefits.

No one ever said that there would be no impact to building wind towers in Maine. The case is that these are reasonable and limited impacts, and that building wind generation is in the public interest, as well as the private interests that obviously benefit from their construction.

One hopes the public is ultimately well informed about the choices we are making. Oil spills and the destruction of whole mountaintops by strip-mining for coal are just some of the inevitable consequences of not pursuing alternatives.

It took nine years to gain last week’s federal approval of the Cape Wind project off Cape Cod, a campaign in which opponents of towers that would be barely visible from land made a caricature of environmentalism. Maine’s track record, so far, is much more encouraging.

But keeping it that way will require people speaking up whenever those who pretend that we don’t have to make choices about future energy use start amping up the rhetoric.

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