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.

  4. He blames most of climate change on the earth moving toward the sun, and says we should resolve the gap between rich and poor practice more contentment.

    Are you bleeping kidding me? That’s what you want to base our response to climate change on?

    The Dalai Lama is a wonderful man – kind, brilliant, and truly heroic.

    He is right that we need to solve the gap between rich and poor, but, in that video he demonstrated that he has NOT ONE IOTA of understanding of the science behind climate change, and the risks posed to the entire biosystem of earth.

    In addition, I bristle at false dichotomies, which is what you present. You are implying that we can only focus on one thing at a time, and it should be something other than climate.

    With 6 billion people on the planet, I’m pretty sure we can have people working on many aspects of many problems all at once.  

    In fact, we can attack climate change AND make things better for lower income people. The jobs created by doing some of the most effective things to fight climate change are exactly the kind that cannot be outsourced. No one sitting overseas is also climbing around in your attic with a hose, pouring in insulation. Ditto for installing a wind tower, solar panels, or a micro-hydro box.  

  5. If we were more “content” (Dalai Lama was corrected to mean simple-living, but maybe content was the right word) as a people, we would not be where we are now.  It is our western lifestyle that has most significantly altered the climate.  The third world’s main contribution to climate change may come to be it’s population growth combined with our example, if disease doesn’t prevent that.

    If we reduce our wants, we reduce our needs and our reliance on gigantism in power sources.  There are a lot of people in Vermont doing just that, eagerly.

    If we – (and I am not talking to Simplify here or claiming solutions or rebutting him/her, so please give me a break, if you would be so kind) .. if we took guidance from natural systems, we might find answers to our problems that don’t replicate the damage we did in the first place.  Our efforts are rarely as graceful OR successful as those happening all around us in nature.  The more we generate, the more we use.  Renewable megawatts are certainly preferable to fossil fuels, but it’s the more that may bite us.

  6. That sometimes my humble iPhone is a more capable miltitasker than the US populace as a whole.

    Unless it concerns watching more than one picture in picture show at a time.  

  7. I am not implying we can only focus on one thing at a time, but I am genuine in asking if we are focusing on the right thing in Vermont.  

    We have very clear arguments being made in support of and in opposition to big wind:

    1.  We have to build as much wind energy as fast as possible in Vermont to address climate change, it’s our primary renewable resource and we must build it because of the Gulf Oil spill, Mountaintop Removal, natural gas fracking, and Fukushima.


    2.  No matter how much wind we build in Vermont it’s not going to make a dent in addressing global climate change.  And until someone provides a life cycle analysis that includes the total carbon footprint of using dozens of excavators and bulldozers and drill rigs and trucks fueled by oil and millions of pounds of explosives to blow up the mountains, steel from China fueled by coal, shipping parts, etc. providing huge profits for corporations, and until someone provides a valid grid integration study showing what is actually happening with wind in the regional grid, we don’t really know what kind of difference Vermont wind is or can make in reducing GHG emissions.

    I agree that the Lowell project has been a setback for the wind proponents.  But I don’t know what makes you think it will be any different with other mountains.  I’ve asked 5 wind developers now to do it differently and engage in community-based stakeholder processes instead of forcing their plans on communities.  The first words I ever spoke in public about wind in 2009 were to ask the developer of the Ira project to do it differently.  Not one of them has agreed, even after the DOE sponsored a workshop at Harvard Law School last year where the wind developers were told they need to change how they engage with communities because all they are doing is upsetting people and not getting their projects built.  

    The wind developers say to me “even if we do that, it won’t eliminate the opposition.”  They are right.  In the three plus years I’ve worked on this issue, my observation is that the more people learn, the more opposed they become.  We now have three projects in process or operating, and they all involve the same issues.  There is no question that Lowell Mountain has been the scene of the greatest environmental destruction anyone has seen anywhere in the world for a wind energy project, but every wind mountain site requires turning the mountain into a rock mining operation, changing hydrology, fragmenting critical wildlife habitat, removing trees that are important for carbon storage, killing birds and bats, diminishing the quality of life of neighbors without compensation, and putting people’s investments and health at serious risk.  

    If you can figure out a way to sell this technology and all that goes with it to Vermonters, be my guest.  Telling people they have a moral imperative to sacrifice while providing no compensation and no evidence that if they do sacrifice it will make any difference is not working, that’s for sure.  Nor is a process that requires the innocent victims who live around these mountains to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to participate in a process that ignores them working.

    You have laid out good arguments, to a point.  But they fail because they are based on your “belief” that building a lot of wind energy in Vermont is going to make a difference.  I’ve been looking and asking for more than three years for evidence.  So please keep going, and provide some convincing evidence that doing what you want and believe is necessary in Vermont is going to make a difference and offset the damage that is required to achieve your goals.  

    Regarding mountaintop removal in West Virginia, a WV resident recently offered these reminders about their reality:  

    –There is a robust market for Appalachian coal overseas, so coal will be mined as long as there is a market.

    –Appalachia has the world’s highest-quality, low sulphur metallurgical coal (coke) and as long as there is a need for steel, Appalachian coal will be mined to fill that need.

    I will also note that studies I’ve read indicate that there are benefits to wind energy in areas where the wind blows strongly and where there are both natural gas and coal plants, the wind energy can displace the coal.  To be most efficient, it will require expensive new natural gas peaker plants, relying, of course, on fossil fuel extraction.  So there may be some hope for reducing those coal emissions that are coming to New England from those mid-west plants, having nothing to do with the choices we make in Vermont.

    Advocating for using less does make a lot of sense, and will genuinely make a difference.  Perhaps what you are advocating for, if you listen to all of what the Dalai Lama said (the full video is available on Vimeo) is really about more, more, more, and fueling consumption.

  8. Wind and other non-constant power sources are nowhere near as “unstable” as sources when the grid is capable of sensing very specifically where power is being fed in and in what quantities. In Europe, they’re finding that they don’t need to add peaker plants when wind is in an area with a smart grid – because the wind is always blowing somewhere. As a matter of fact, in those places, they do not need to run the peaker plants as often. In those places, renewables are replacing more fossil-fueled energy than originally estimated, because capacity planning had to be done based on worst-case scenarios for the renewables, but with the smart grid, things are actually working out better than the theoretical best-case scenario.

    A smart grid is able to evaluate in near-real time the location of high wind, and do its routing to ensure that power is directed toward the area with high demand.

    A smart grid is absolutely necessary for adding renewables to the mix – any renewables, without simultaneously having to build non-renewable plants. NO renewable energy source will make a sufficient dent in our fossil fuel problem if we do not also upgrade the grid.  

  9. I agree that people need to simplify (which is why I choose this user name). Life is much more satisfying – and results in far less waste – when one lives in concert with the earth.

    There is no more valuable unit of energy than the unit of energy that isn’t used. It is the only form of energy that costs nothing and has infinite environmental benefits.

    A friend likes to say, “there is no magic bullet, only magic B-Bs.” We have to hit all fronts to win the race against catastrophe.

    We must reduce our use, which includes everything from adding insulation to our homes, to not buying another hunk of random plastic junk from the nearest big-box store, to growing and buying our food locally and organically, to changing our energy sources.

    Energy use is a massive system, with many moving parts – one of the most significant of which is our consumption. Reducing consumption is a critical part of the solution. Sadly, with the amount of CO2 already pumped into the atmosphere, it is no longer possible for that to be the whole solution. We’ve already front-loaded a boatload of warming into the air – which means we no longer have the choice to keep burning fossil fuels. We must replace our fossil energy technology.  

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