Why Wind in VT Protects VT Air Quality

There is a new popular trope about where Vermont’s air pollution comes from, that’s intended to imply that installing wind in Vermont does nothing to protect our air quality.

Some people are going to ask why I’m being so persistent on this issue. It’s simple:

We face an imminent, unprecedented planetary emergency.

Due to the chemical composition of the source of warming gases, at 6 degrees C temperature rise, the earth will have air and water so acidic, it will be incompatible with most life forms – including humans. We are currently on track for 7 degrees C. Every moment we waste in shifting from coal and other fossil fuels increases our momentum toward this catastrophe.

We need to ensure future wind installations are handled much better and with greater transparency and community involvement than the installation in Lowell. In my opinion, far more damage was done by the process used in Lowell than by the actual installation – because cramming an already planned and approved project down the throats of locals without bringing them into the process from the start has led to this incredible, angry backlash against all wind projects.

We don’t have time to mess around with the kind of angry opposition that was created by the greed, lax attitude toward & enforcement of environmental regulations, and the patronizing attitudes of those who dropped the Lowell development into the middle of a caring community.

The opposition created by this failure on the part of the state and the developers leaves us with a greater likelihood of facing the obscene devastation that will be wrought by the impending changes in climate.

In a world where few mammals and no sea creatures can survive due to the acidity of all planetary water, and where trees are reduced to little more than tinder for massive wildfires, the unnecessary problem caused by poor handling of the Lowell project is tragic. Even Shakespeare could not write a tragedy as heart-rending as the one humanity faces if we do not stop burning fossil fuels as quickly as possible, and stop burning coal quickest of all. The lousy handling of this project makes it just that much harder to do so.

Which brings us back to the topic of the diary. When people are angry, they tend to hold tenaciously to ideas that support their anger – even if those ideas are entirely wrong. Here’s one of many instances of one of those ideas, which has appeared in various outlets over the last several weeks:

In our part of the world, greenhouse gas emissions come from our chimneys and tailpipes, not our electrical outlets

Usually that claim is made in the form of calling someone else misinformed about energy and pollution, which is a tad ironic.  

Given the pervasiveness of this false pollution claim, it’s important to put this information in plain sight:

These graphs are taken from this NH study. While the study is specific to NH, the general principles hold true for all of New England. Here’s the “money” quote:

During periods of unhealthy air quality for ozone and small particles in [the state], approximately 92 percent to nearly 100 percent of this pollution originates from sources located outside of [the state]. These pollutants are transported into the state with the wind over great distances.


Coal Plant Emissions Trajectories:

Moved the rest to after the jump…


Mercury deposition. Yellow = arrives via long-distance transport in upper air currents:


Where our air comes from on high-pollution days (left) vs clear days (right):

Did you note the common thread? Our air pollution – and the majority of air pollution in New England – comes from the coal burning region of the country.

18% of the electricity fed into the New England grid comes from coal fired power plants [as of 2000, I’ve seen varied claims of the percentage since, generally lower, due to changes in efficiency and power sources – like the addition of wind & solar].

Offsetting the coal-powered electricity in the regional grid reduces the amount of coal those plants must burn. This in turn reduces the level of coal-fired pollutants in our air.

There’s another claim making the rounds that also needs to be understood in context. Wind opponents claim that it is second only to mountain top removal in terms of the damage it causes (ignoring, of course, the not-too-distant future in which climate change wipes out most of the ecosystems on the planet).

Second Only to Mountain Top Removal

Here’s a map of the state of Vermont showing the impact of the Lowell Wind project compared to the impact of one small mountaintop removal project in Kayford, WV.

The little dot in the upper right is roughly 4 times the size of the Lowell project (my drawing tool didn’t have a smaller pen size).

The big square covering just under 1/5 of the National Forest (which turns out to be almost exactly the boundaries of the Breadloaf National Forest), is the size of one, single mountain top removal coal mine in Kayford, WV:

Unlike mountaintop removal, there will be significant regeneration of the forest over the vast majority of the Lowell site. This is not the case in the barren wasteland left behind by every single mountain top removal coal mining project.

Wind, solar, and hydro power replaces coal in our electric mix. ALL of them are needed if we want to replace coal as quickly as we MUST in order to prevent the worst devastation of climate change. Stopping wind will make it impossible to meet the very hard deadline that has been set by the laws of physics.

To get an even better idea of the difference in scale, here is a map of JUST the removal that has happened in the Appalachia Region of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The Kayford site, which is the size of the entire Breadloaf National Forest, is one of the tiny dots just south of Charleston, WV on this map:

There is no VT wind project planned, or possible, that would even show up as a dot in that map.

To those who keep spreading this particular claim, please stop hurting your cause with hyperbolic claims about the damage of wind vs mountain top removal. Continuing to claim that the carefully sited wind projects in VT are even remotely comparable to the damage from mountain top removal seriously harms your credibility regarding your environmental concerns.

You could not be more effective at pushing away those who would happily help you fight for proper environmental controls on wind construction if you repeatedly poked them with a pointy stick.

As I’ve said many times in the past, I believe in strong regulations and equally strong enforcement of those regulations for wind projects. I believe Lowell was handled very, very badly on several fronts.

Hyperbolic and specious claims about the actual harm are not helpful to the cause, and will do nothing to strengthen regulatory oversight in future projects.

Some further perspective is provided by Bill McKibben in an article about the opposition to Cape Wind (which sounds remarkably similar to the opposition to VT wind):

But those criticisms, however valid, are small truths. The big truths are these: Each breath of wind that blows across Nantucket Sound contains 370 parts per million of carbon dioxide, up from 275 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution, before we started burning coal and gas and oil. That CO2 traps the sun’s heat-about two watts per square meter of the planet’s surface. Right now the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is higher than it’s been for four hundred thousand years. If we keep burning coal and gas and oil, the scientific onsensus is that by the latter part of the century the planet’s temperature will have risen five degrees Fahrenheit, to a level higher than we’ve seen for fifty million years.

Big truths have to trump small ones. It becomes a caricature of environmentalism to object that windmills kill birds or fish-in fact, new windmills kill very few birds compared with the original models. In fact, says Greenpeace, offshore windmill platforms in Europe have often turned into artificial reefs providing prime spawning ground for fish. But even if windmills did kill some birds, that’s a small truth-the big truth is that rising temperatures seem likely to trigger an extinction spasm comparable to the one that occurred when the last big asteroids struck the planet. Already polar bears are dying as their ice empire shrinks; already coral reefs are disappearing as rising sea temperatures bleach them, and by some accounts, they may be gone altogether before the century ends.

The choice, in other words, is not between windmills and untouched nature. It’s between windmills and the destruction of the planet’s biology on a scale we can barely begin to imagine. Charles Komanoff, an independent energy consultant in New York, calculates that Cape Wind’s windmills could produce as much as 1.5 billion kWh annually. Or, looked at another way, if  they aren’t built, twenty thousand tons of carbon will be emitted each week as coal and oil and gas are burned to produce the same amount of energy. The windmills won’t provide all the power for the Cape, but they might provide something like half, which is a lot.

10 thoughts on “Why Wind in VT Protects VT Air Quality

  1. .. selfishness inherent in this concept: “if it only cleans other people’s air, I don’t want it in my state”?

    That is, after all, the sentiment underlying the “in our part of the world, greenhouse gas emissions come from our chimneys and tailpipes, not our electrical outlets” trope. It’s an appeal to selfishness – as long as I’m not the one suffering the ill effects, I don’t want to contribute to the solution.

  2. … far more damage was done by the process used in Lowell than by the actual installation – because cramming an already planned and approved project down the throats of locals without bringing them into the process from the start has led to this incredible, angry backlash against all wind projects.

    In their rush to move the project forward without getting everyone on board and resolving environmental conflicts, the Lowell proponents thoughtlessly jeopardized the future of wind in Vermont.  Now its going to be doubly difficult to get consent from everyone to find solutions that make wind workable here.

    …And we’ve got to.

  3. the larger picture. We need renewables near the top of the list for viable alternatives to coal & nuclear powered electricity, right under conservation & efficiency.  

    Steven Chu:

    “The biggest gains, in terms of decreasing the country’s energy bill, the amount of carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere, and our dependency on foreign oil, will come from energy efficiency and conservation in the next 20 years. Make no doubt about it. That’s where everybody who has really thought about the problem thinks the biggest gains can be and should be.”


    Our landscape has changed & continues. Each generation has its new altered landscape to to deal with. Telephone poles, power lines, cell towers, substations, hydro dams-the list goes on. All or most progress has been met with disdain. No matter what is proposed, someone will bitch.

    Although the solar panel ‘farms’ are pretty ugly, as we have seen & now know due to the many nuclear disasters culminatiing w/the misery & destruction of lives & livlihoods post Fukushima which isn’t over yet, which is uglier? Solar panels & windmills or a region becoming uninhabitable due to nuclear destruction? Windmills are not really unsightly imho, Holland didn’t seem to mind when they saw the value of this technology. Theirs are actually kind of cute.

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