Opponents of renewable power projects like wind farms and hydroelectric dams are missing the forest for the trees – perhaps air pollution from fossil fuel plants in neighboring states is obscuring their view.
The harm to Maine’s air, water, wildlife and human health caused by upwind fossil-fuel burning is well known. Opinion polls suggest that Maine citizens support, by a wide margin, renewable power such as wind, hydropower, biomass and solar.
State policies, such as a wind-power bill passed by the Legislature in April and the Department of Environmental Protection’s ongoing greenhouse gas project, encourage renewable power to combat air pollution, address climate change problems, and promote economic growth.
And yet, existing and proposed renewable power projects across Maine face opposition from special interests that have lost sight of the greater good clean power provides. Maine Audubon’s recent appeal of the DEP permit for the Mars Hill Wind Power Farm is the latest unfortunate example of the difficulty of developing and operating renewable power projects.
Renewable power producers face many challenges: competition from low-cost fossil fuels, transmission hurdles, fuel supplies dependent on Mother Nature, and high property taxes, to name a few. But one of the more frustrating problems for many renewable producers is trying to defend their projects from those who claim to support renewable power, but seem to spend a lot of effort opposing it.
The primary alternative to energy supplied by renewable sources is power supplied by the burning of oil, coal, or natural gas. So, every time existing renewable power is lost or proposed renewable power is rejected, the practical effect is to shift demand to one of these other sources of power. And that adds to problems like mercury deposition, acid rain, and climate and habitat change that are very serious threats to many of the same values (fish, birds, a clear view) that those objecting to renewable power seek to protect.
(And by the way, the notion that wind turbines are “visual pollution” is absurd; real visual pollution is the haze that blankets our region each summer thanks to electricity generated by means other than clean wind power and other renewables.)
It is difficult to understand how those who challenge wind power proposals or advocate for the removal of hydro dams can still maintain that they support renewable power. Taken as a whole, their efforts stifle progress toward a cleaner power supply for Maine.
We all like to have electricity when we flip the wall switch, and while increasing the efficiency with which we use it is necessary, in the end, electricity must be made to meet society’s demands. Given current technology, wind turbines, hydro dams, and burning wood wastes are the least environmentally objectionable ways of producing electricity.
I encourage those who are challenging renewable power projects to consider the larger picture of our energy supply and the tremendous costs (to public health, the environment, and public finances) of our nation’s current over-reliance on fossil fuels. I also suggest that if you can’t support a particular wind farm, hydro dam, or biomass plant, find one someplace else that needs support and throw your weight behind it. Otherwise, you might as well find a plant upwind and help them shovel the coal into the boilers.
Dave Wilby is the executive director of the Independent Energy Producers of Maine.