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Click to see a simulation of the proposed wind plant atop Backbone Mountain in Western Maryland
Notable Quotes

"Not only are we sacrificing the beauty of our landscape, but our wildlife as well. As you are aware, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has expressed concern about the suitability of the Allegheny Front for wind farms due to its use by migratory birds and raptors as well as bats." High wildlife mortalities recently recorded at a recent wind installation in West Virginia "underscore the fact that this area has serious drawbacks as a suitable site for wind farms."

—Rep. Alan Mollahan, West Virginia, in a January 21, 2004 letter to the West Virginia Public Service Commission.

This was written in 2004 in the context of a spitting contest among environmentalists as a public riposte to the religionist Bill McKibben, who had just written a New York Times op ed piece urging the construction of many thousands of industrial wind turbines "all the hell over the place." Although McKibben remains at one extreme of the mainline environmental groups, his position is not that far removed from them today, in 2010.

Today, I know that conservation in the traditional sense is not going to replace the need for generation capacity. We can invest more in energy efficiency, both in the conduct of our lives and in our various gadgets, although the latter is a slippery slope. We've gotten much more energy efficient in our cars and our appliances over the last twenty years. The problem is that higher efficiency creates lower prices, fueling the demand for—uh—more. All this is a complicated, complex issue. But, to the extent I write about energy "conservation" today, I contend that it is a distraction from the real discussion we should be having about effective capacity.

Bill McKibben's Wishful Thinking About Wind

Bill McKibben's jeremiads on behalf of factory-farm windpower do no credit to informed environmentalism. In a recent NY Times op ed, the author of The End of Nature scorned opponents of a proposed windplant atop Gore Mountain as NIMBYs, and then ritually invoked an ends-justify-the-means homily to sanctify the project, sacrificing the site on the altar of renewable energy.

While his concerns about the future are valid—fossil fuel combustion and the toxins it produces no doubt greatly contribute to such alarming statistics as the rate of asthma doubling in the US every five years—his belief that more forty-story windplants in the uplands of the East equates to less fossil fuel combustion is demonstrably false. That he did not explain how wind energy would reduce air pollution and use of fossil fuels should be instructive. Contrary to his premise, the outsized Gore Mountain windplant would actually generate only about 5 megawatts of electricity, with an impact on global warming equivalent to removing one drop of water from a large tub that is still being filled.

McKibben does struggle with the idea of placing huge wind turbines in such wild places as the scenic "heart" of the Adirondacks, but sanctions the Gore Mountain case because the machines would be erected in already disturbed areas. However, his basic rationale for windpower deployment extends to places well beyond Gore Mountain. In reality, there are few disturbed sites on ridgetops with the best wind conditions, such as those which exist in the largest remaining tracts of forest-interior habitat in the Appalachians. In Virginia alone, ten percent of the national forests has sufficient resources to support wind energy development—170,000 acres, primarily on high-elevation ridgetops, very little of which is disturbed by mining or agriculture. Perhaps one day McKibben will detail how much forest-interior habitat he would be willing to destroy for each megawatt of wind energy generated; or how much national forest land he would turn over to wind developers; or what level of bird and bat mortality he would tolerate per turbine in the uplands of the eastern US, especially since each of the 64 West Virginia and Pennsylvania turbines which Bat Conservation International studied last year killed an average of 100 bats and birds.

McKibben's wishful thinking about windpower is ultimately reckless because it foolishly distracts from focusing upon the source of the problems he describes: the profligate wastefulness of our culture. His belief in the panacea of industrial wind energy avoids the heavy political lifting required to combat these problems effectively. Short of divine intervention, increased efficiency and conservation are the only meaningful tools at hand which can reduce the fossil fuel emissions responsible for endangering our world.

Jon Boone, Oakland, MD

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