To the Editor:
Only a few years ago, habitat loss was front and center among causes for concern about the future well-being of the American ecological landscape. Not much has changed to allay this concern; sprawling development continues, and alteration and loss of natural habitat is largely unchecked.
What has changed is the focus of many mainstream environmental organizations. Concerns about future effects of climate change have taken precedence over immediate and observable effects of habitat loss.
Some who label themselves environmentalists would allow and even advocate industrial-scale renewable energy development in our remaining wild areas, including national forests and other lands set aside for permanent preservation.
Among evidence for this shift in perspective was the near silence of environmental organizations when environmental review requirements were eliminated from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, an economic stimulus package that will provide grants to large corporations covering as much as 30 percent of the cost of megamillion-dollar industrial-scale wind energy projects.
The act explicitly exempts the award program from provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act. It’s fair to say national environmental organizations turned their back on what has apparently become yesterday’s issue.
The assumption seems to be that any trade-off is worth it; that long-held concerns about habitat conservation and the need for careful environmental assessment are irrelevant in the context of climate change. Perhaps nowhere is the need for objective analysis made more clear than in the forested Appalachian Mountains where the wind industry and its advocates argue that ridgeline wind development can replace coal and other problematic energy sources.
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander addressed this in a Wall Street Journal commentary, “We’re about to destroy the environment in the name of saving it.” To put things in perspective, he said we could line 300 miles of mountaintops from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Bristol with 50-story wind turbines and still produce only one-quarter of the electricity provided by one TVA nuclear power plant.
Similar comparisons can be made even closer to home. It would require more than 300 miles of wind turbines, stretching the entire length of the Blue Ridge Mountain chain in Virginia, from Mount Rogers to Harpers Ferry, to match the August peak-demand period output of Dominion’s controversial new coal-fired power plant in Wise County.
It’s not necessary to deny that climate change is a real problem nor is it necessary to support either coal or nuclear power to conclude that wind energy development on Appalachian ridges is not a realistic alternative.
One can even acknowledge that industrial-scale wind energy development might make sense in other places with perhaps less environmental trade-off. The better alternative in the eastern U.S. is offshore, where the wind resource is dramatically more reliable, where deforestation and road construction are not required, and where turbines can be arrayed in relatively compact and efficient grids rather than in single-file corridors along ridge crests.
The next time you see wind turbines portrayed on television and in other advertising, notice that they are depicted in treeless landscapes, typically plains and deserts, or in the ocean, and ask yourself why it is that images of turbines strung out along forested ridge crests are rarely part of the wind industry’s PR campaign.
Once enough people ask this question, we will perhaps start to take a more rational and conservation-minded approach to wind energy development and solving the climate change problem.
Webb is a senior scientist with the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia and manager of the Virginia Wind website: http://www.VaWind.org.