Alternative wind future for New England
By Michael J. Caduto | November 07,2010
Turbines at a wind farm in Searsburg.
The governors of New England met a year ago and envisioned a future where one-third of our region’s energy would be supplied by wind power. This blueprint was proposed by ISO New England, the region’s independent system operators — an organization created by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 1997 to “ensure reliability and establish and oversee competitive wholesale electricity markets.”
While the governors’ intent to increase New England’s supply of renewable energy is commendable, their effort is overshadowed by issues that will determine our region’s ability to control the future impacts that energy supply will have on the economy and environment. ISO is gradually doing for the region’s energy market what the nation’s financial management firms and banks did prior to the crash of our national economy in 2008: It is deregulating the energy economy and selling electricity swap futures contracts, leaving prices and policies vulnerable to the vicissitudes of a market economy and speculation in energy futures.
This is nothing new. We’ve been dealing for a century with the ramifications of the market-driven utility ownership that has managed New England’s power supply for maximum profit versus the benefit of ratepayers. It started in the early 1900s when investor-owned utilities (IOUs) gradually took over hydroelectric capacity on the Connecticut River and its tributaries. ISO New England’s website boasts that “88 percent of the region’s generation is unregulated, the most in the nation.”
ISO’s answer to our energy needs is a regional system of outsized wind farms perched on scenic hills and mountains. This electricity would reach households and businesses via new transmission lines that would crisscross the countryside by clear-cutting natural habitat and slicing through farmland and neighborhoods on a scale beyond anything New Englanders have yet experienced. These industrial-sized wind turbines would be far out of scale with New England’s rolling hills and valleys — a single blade on the larger turbines spans the length of a football field, including the end zones.
The power lines proposed by ISO New England would form a loop that runs from northern Maine to Waterbury, Conn., and would carry 500-765 kilovolts. These lines would be bigger than any that exist in the region. The average New England power line is now 250 feet wide. At this scale, 30 acres of land have to be cleared for every mile of powerline. Even a single line running 450 miles from northern Maine to Waterbury, Conn., would require taking nearly 21.5 square miles by eminent domain — an area that is more than twice the size of the city of Montpelier, 1.2 times the size of Providence and nearly half the size of Boston — New England’s largest city. Since ISO’s new transmission line will form a loop and be wider than our existing power line rights of way, it would require clearing an area of habitat bigger than the city of Boston.
So a regional energy production/marketing group appointed by a federal agency has devised a policy to turn environmentally friendly wind power into New England’s next environmental disaster. Not surprisingly, many “wind farm” proposals are not just backed by local or regional corporations. Enel North America — the financial powerhouse behind the wind facility proposed for the little town of Ira — is a subsidiary of the second largest utility in Europe, Enel SpA, which is the largest power company in Italy.
New England’s landscape need not be despoiled with hill-crowning wind towers that are connected to distant municipal centers by a new power grid of unprecedented scope. We can site large-scale wind projects in environmentally appropriate locations close to existing transmission lines, and so make use of New England’s share of the country’s existing half a million miles of power lines (already enough to wrap 20 times around the equator). Even better, we can increase efforts to conserve energy and create a multitude of small-scale solar and wind power stations within the communities where the power will actually be used.
If New Englanders are not proactive with how we manage energy needs and market policies at this critical juncture, then profit will drive our regional energy policies, above environmental and social considerations. If we continue to focus on energy consumption versus conservation, and allow the ISOs to do with wind power what the IOUs did with hydroelectric power in the early 20th century, then our children are going to inherit one gigantic environmental and economic I OWE YOU.
Michael J. Caduto of Chester is an ecologist, educator and author of 18 books on the environment, including the Keepers of the Earth series and the forthcoming “Catch the Wind, Harness the Sun: 22 Super-Charged Projects for Turning Nature’s Forces into Energy” (Storey Publishing).