by David Blitterdorf’s
The debate over the aesthetics of renewables is one that I have avoided stepping into until now, because I believe that aesthetics are a matter of taste, and are therefore not a factor that should affect the much-needed update of our electrical infrastructure to rely more on distributed renewable energy. Beauty is famously in the eye of the beholder, but preparing ourselves to live in a world without ready access to fossil fuels or nuclear power is, to me, a “no-brainer.” We need to do it. The urgency I feel is the result of peak oil. Either in my lifetime or my children’s, as fossil fuels become harder and harder to find, steady supplies of gasoline, natural gas and heating oil will become prohibitively expensive or become disrupted. Our world needs to transition toward a new way of life that does not rely on fossil fuels, and Vermont should serve as a model for how this can be done, through a combination of conservation, efficiency, and a switch to distributed renewable energy.
However, aesthetics have become a bigger and bigger bugbear in the public debate over how to best accomplish this transition – particularly the proper siting of wind energy systems. My concern is that matters of taste are being used to muddle a clear consideration of the scientific data on the merits and capabilities of these technologies, and that people are allowing their personal emotions and desires to cloud their perception of what’s important in the long term for the public good.
This was brought home to me recently at a roundtable discussion about wind energy in Vermont that was part of a December 3 conference hosted by the Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network. In this forum it seemed that a clear consideration of long-term public good was not part of the discussion, for the simple reason that “aesthetics” seemed to mean “my experience, my view, my Vermont.” I was alarmed to be having a public discussion on the science of renewable energy with adults that whined, pouted and carried on like disappointed kids.
It is great for people to engage and be part of debates on our society’s future. It is good and necessary to hear and address the concerns people have on producing renewable energy in our own state. However, everyone participating in such a debate has a duty to educate themselves from objective sources about the way in which we use electricity, and about what is actually feasible in terms of accomplishing this transition. My problem is that we are not having a debate based on factual information. The story that opponents to wind energy in Vermont make up is just that – a story unconnected to reality or facts. Here is their story: “Wind turbines produce hardly any electricity. They destroy the mountains. They destroy wildlife. Humans get sick from wind turbines. Nobody wants them. They do nothing to slow global warming. They don’t help us to replace fossil and nuclear fuels. They are too big – put small ones in the valleys instead. Solar will solve everything. Someone else, somewhere else will provide the energy we need. We love and want windpower, just not here.”
It has been easy for these narratives to catch hold among those resistant to change and unwilling to dig into the real science, economics and facts behind the technology. The truth: Wind and solar are the largest energy resources we have in our state, and large wind is one-third the cost of solar. The majority of Vermonters have a deep understanding that we have a social and moral responsibility to stop destroying the source of our life – our earth. This is as true for us in the beautiful Green Mountain State as it is for those living amidst the tar sands of Alberta, the shale-gas fracking wells of Pennsylvania, the coast of the Gulf, or the removed mountain tops of West Virginia. Vermonters understand the old ways don’t work anymore. They are willing to change and look out on our mountains to see wind energy there, and be proud that Vermont will lead the nation and the world to a sustainable, renewable energy future.
What would our state look like now, and how effective would its infrastructure be, if residents had blocked the installation of electric and telephone lines and gas stations in the early twentieth century? It would undoubtedly be beautiful, but in the way a national park is beautiful – Vermont would lack Vermonters. The only people able to live here would be those vacationers able to view lack of electricity as a temporary boon, a relief from normality, not a day-in, day-out reality. These elements of infrastructure are inarguably man-made, inarguably essential to our way of life, and many would say they are also ugly. However, we don’t think about them. We look at our infrastructure and don’t even see it. The benefit it brings is taken for granted, as is its existence in our landscape. How can installing wind turbines and solar panels, which harvest natural resources and are capable of being de-installed at the end of a long and productive working life, be considered more ugly or less useful than Vermont’s several hundred gas stations? Even towns in the heart of the Green Mountains have power lines, telephone lines, heating oil tanks and gas stations – and each one of the latter holds hundreds of gallons of toxic fossil fuel transported halfway around the world to rest in an underground tank.
The future will be different than the past, and renewable energy installations will be more visible. We will see and live with solar on our roofs and in our yards, wind turbines near our communities and wind farms on our mountains. This is a natural transition updating Vermont’s working landscape, which will still remain green and beautiful.
David Blittersdorf is the President/CEO of AllEarth Renewables in Williston, VT – a company that specializes in the design, manufacture and installation of the grid-connected AllSun Tracker solar energy system. He is also the founder of NRG Systems in Hinesburg, VT.