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Will wind blow enviros apart?

Would you like to live next to a garbage dump? Power plant belching black smoke? How about a 24-hour-a-day factory noise machine?

Over the last three decades, green groups have paired with citizens fighting against these proposals in their communities. While local chambers of commerce and statewide business lobbies have nastily branded these guardians of home NIMBYs —for “not in my back yard” — and accused them of standing in the way of public necessity, their battles have resulted in some major policy gains for clean air and water.

Lois Gibbs, the homemaker turned activist by the discovery of toxic wastes in her Love Canal neighborhood in New York state, once memorably said that the way to force industry to generate less hazardous waste was to “plug the toilet.” By stopping new hazardous waste dumps and burners in their back yards, she said, so-called NIMBYs were driving the private and public sectors to rethink old assumptions about industrial processes and the hazards they create. To Gibbs, NIMBY was a badge of honor.

Now a new community-level movement is arising in Michigan and across the Great Lakes region. This time, established green groups may be separating themselves from it. As Michigan and other state and provincial agencies move to authorize wind farms in the Great Lakes, enviros outside the affected communities are not likely to join offshore wind opponents in any significant numbers.

Although the two camps generally agree wind power beats coal and other traditional electricity sources on environmental grounds, the gap between NIMBYs and professional green groups is growing fast for several reasons:

• Citizens facing offshore wind farms view them as an aesthetic blight and greens see beauty in their clean energy.

• There are unresolved scientific questions about the effect of offshore wind turbines on birds, bats and fish that opponents cite but the greens largely dismiss.

• The suddenness and lack of openness as some government-developer coalitions develop in Ontario, for example, have affected citizens sniffing collusion — and preordained official approvals.

These and other conflicts over offshore wind have the potential to get ugly. The former environmental alliance may soon be at war against itself.

Sherri Lange, an Ontario citizen, is a fierce opponent of dozen of offshore wind proposals emerging in the province’s Great Lakes waters — from Lake Huron to Lake Ontario. “For the tiny bits of power there would be thousands of turbines. These would be obsolete in 10 to 15 years.” She adds, “There’s no question that land-based or water-based, there are myth busters that need to be applied to the turbine industry. I can't even use the word ‘farm’ about it anymore. Too bucolic. To allow this array of economic and environmental destruction into our Great Lakes will be a tragedy that many generations will regret, on both sides of the border.”

Sandy Bihn, a respected western Lake Erie advocate from a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, says she’s watching the scramble toward offshore wind guardedly. A crusader against polluting utility and industrial facilities at the western end of the lake, she says, “I want to get rid of coal as much as anyone, but if ever there was a place to say no to wind because of the birds in the Great Lakes, it is here.”

Michigan is confronting its first major test case, a proposal by Scandia Wind Offshore and Havgul Clean Energy to set up scores of turbines in two Lake Michigan farms, one four miles off Mason and Oceana counties and another six miles off Ottawa and Muskegon counties. One Pentwater resident responded to the northern proposal’s feared impact on tourism and lakeshore property values: “Pentwater is going to be a ghost town. It’s gonna fold if this happens.”

To its credit, the Granholm administration has done a thorough and open job of exploring the potential of Great Lakes offshore wind and associated issues. An offshore wind council appointed by the governor has mapped high-potential wind zones and suggested some areas be off-limits to development. But the official position is to move ahead.

“It’s understandable that coastal communities have some reservations regarding their scenic vistas,” says Stanley (Skip) Pruss, director of Granholm’s Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, “although some find wind turbines aesthetically pleasing. What we have to take into account is that clean, renewable wind energy complements our long-term efforts to protect our lakes from pollutants from fossil fuel combustion and climate change.”

The Michigan Environmental Council’s James Clift, who served on the offshore wind council, points out that the manufacturing of wind turbine components could put thousands of Michigan’s unemployed back on the job. Anchoring the turbines in deeper water, he adds, may reduce local resistance.

Both sides are genuine, and both have sound arguments to make. But there are two points to keep in mind. First, few if any staff members of the green groups supporting offshore wind turbines will live near them, or see them everyday — unlike residents of the affected communities.

Second, as Ontario advocate Lange argues, to her knowledge, not one coal-fired plant has closed in the world since the inception of wind power. That is, new wind farms are not offsetting dirty power, but adding supply on top of what coal furnishes. The tradeoff between wind and coal, so far, has been no tradeoff at all — it’s a partnership.

Maybe that should be a factor in the decision-making process before the environmental community's divide becomes a canyon.

(Dave Dempsey, who served as environmental adviser to former Gov. James Blanchard, is the author of “Superior Shores: A Novel of Conservation.” E-mail dempsey@ lansingcitypulse.com.)

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