We all use energy in our day to day life, but we often forget where it’s coming from. There are many different types of energy that are used, however determining which energy is best is a controversial issue all over the world, mainly because all forms of energy have their benefits and flaws. There are ten major energy sources that we use, including solar energy, wind energy, geothermal energy, hydrogen energy, tidal energy, wave energy, hydroelectric energy, biomass energy, nuclear power, and fossil fuels. These can be broken down into two categories: renewable energy and non-renewable energy. Renewable energy means that the energy is fueled by natural sources, such as solar energy, wind energy, biomass, geothermal energy, biofuel, hydroelectric energy, and tidal power. These sources never run out of energy, and they have a lower impact on the environment than non-renewable energy, therefore posing a better future for the Earth. Non- renewable energy refers to fossil fuels, this includes oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy. Fossil fuels continue to be a major contributor to the growing problem of climate change over the past years. Non-renewable energy sources always face the possibility of running out of energy to use, as the energy can’t always be replenished. Burning fossil fuels messes with Earth’s carbon budget and will continue to contribute to climate change, which is negatively impacting a great amount of Earth’s natural systems.
Different governments, organizations, and individuals have various opinions on which kinds of energy are most beneficial. A generalized opinion from pro-renewable energy believers would be that we need to move to away from fossil fuels in order to reduce climate change, and shift to using as much renewable energy as we can. Many would say that renewable energy is the most efficient and more environmentally friendly. That being said, many citizens have strong opinions about which renewable energy sources work best. Wind energy happens to be one of the most controversial energy sources among pro-renewable energy citizens. Although Vermont produces just a microscopic fraction of the wind energy in the world, it is still relevant and an important subject for Vermont to discuss and be aware of.
Wind energy usage can be traced back all the way to 5,000 BC, where it was used to move boats along the Nile River. Over time, technology advanced in China and the Middle East and people began using wind energy in the food production industry using wind mills. Wind energy continued to spread throughout the world and in the 1850’s, Daniel Halladay and John Burnham began the first wind energy company in the U.S. By the 1890’s, wind pumps were being used to pump water, mainly for farmers, and to generate electricity for businesses and homes. Wind energy has only grown, and when oil prices went way up in the 1970’s, people’s interest in wind energy was heightened. As climate change has quickly become more of a concern, wind and other forms of renewable energy is starting to look like a better alternative than non-renewable energy for the Earth. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter passed an act which required energy companies to buy a certain amount of renewable energy with hopes of moving away from non-renewable energy. Soon after, many wind farms grew in popularity all over the country, and although there were definite benefits to having them, they also proposed some conflict for the people and environment that surrounded them. Although there were flaws in the design, energy companies decided that renewable energy, including wind energy, was the way to go. The U.S. Department of Energy published the report formally known as the 20% by 2030 Report. Part of this agreement meant that the wind turbine numbers would have to increase in large quantities- at least 7,000 new wind turbines a year. As of 2018, the United States produces 89 gigawatts of energy just by wind energy, which is enough to give power to power over 20 million homes in the U.S. This says a lot about how big a deal wind energy is in the U.S. and how it will continue to play an important role in the future of renewable energy.
Few people know it, but Vermont plays a large role in wind Energy’s history. In 1941, the first one-megawatt wind turbine was installed in Castleton, Vermont. It was unique because it was the largest one in the world, until 1979. Many renewable energy companies predicted that wind energy would play an important role in the future of Vermont’s energy. Ben Edgerly Walsh, the Climate and Energy Program Director at VPIRG (The Vermont Public Interest Group), says in an interview, “right now we have about a 150 megawatts of wind in the state, and I’m forgetting the exact number, but it’s pretty substantial- less than we have solar, but the second most significant renewable resource as far as in state…. Right now, we’ve really only scratched the surface on renewable energy and we ultimately need to get to 100%, from a climate standpoint….”
Most people in Vermont believe in climate change and think that the solution is to move towards renewable energy, with the ultimate goal of 100% renewable energy. However, just because many Vermonters have this set of beliefs, there is still a lot of discussion and disagreement on which type of renewable energy is best to use for the wellbeing of the environment. Wind energy is something that has historically been, and continues to be, a controversial topic in Vermont. For many individuals and organizations, it is not straightforward and people tend to see both sides of the issue or think that a combination of energy sources is key, however, there are many citizens who have strong opinions around this topic.
Lori Scott, a Calais resident, states in an interview that she is frustrated with many regulations and rules surrounding wind energy in Vermont. Like many others, she would like to see more wind energy being used locally. “It is clean, green power and constantly renewable,” she says. Many Vermont residents would agree with this opinion. Renewable energy ensures that we use less fossil fuels which makes for a healthier and less polluted environment. Reducing climate change rates is important to many people, especially in the Vermont area, and they believe using wind energy is a good way to move in that direction.
For some people and organizations it is a little less straightforward. Ben Edgerly Walsh states that wind power is best when complemented by other renewable energy sources, such as solar energy. In an interview he says, “The wind still blows at night, the sun isn’t out. Often times you have more solar when there is less wind, like storms bring in both clouds and wind, and you have less solar, so they compliment each other well.” Ben makes it clear that when you have a healthy combination of energy sources, you end up with a more effective and efficient system. “If you jump over a line for either wind or solar, you end up having to have a more expensive and less reliable system,” he says. “If you have a mix of both of them you have a less expensive more reliable system. And so, that’s one of the key reasons why we see wind as essential.”
VPIRG also believes that wind energy is essential to Vermont because although other renewable energy sources can produce energy, wind farms can produce a lot of energy which overall makes them more efficient and a better option. Ben states that “it’s really tough to imagine building that much small-medium solar, and not counting some wind in the mix.” Toward the end of the interview, Ben says that VPIRG believes that wind has an important role to play in the future of renewable energy in Vermont, and that they would like to see more wind turbines installed.
For many individuals not involved with an organization, they feel that wind energy is a good option only if it is “small wind”, and not “industrial wind.” A Calais resident, Annie McCleary, believes that small wind is a good option in places where it won’t disrupt animals, humans, and the environment. “Small wind towers on homes, homesteads, and farms do not require disruption of the environment to anywhere near the degree that industrial [ones] do. Small wind may be a nice supplemental energy source in windier places,” she says.
Although many Vermont citizens and organizations believe that wind energy is a healthy option when it comes to renewable energy, there are many barriers that are in the way of following through with having wind energy as a large part of Vermont’s renewable energy sources. A major contributor to this is the Vermont Legislature. During 2016 in Vermont, new regulations about wind energy were passed. They largely focused on how close wind turbines could be to neighboring communities depending on how much noise they produced. The regulations forced wind companies to make estimates on the noise levels their products would make, and they would have to modify the location of the turbines depending on how close by homes and communities of people were. These rules were made to protect communities from the noise the turbines produce, which can be disruptive for many people. Many renewable energy organizations, companies, and individuals in Vermont were not pleased with these regulations. Many think it limits the area they can put turbines and wind farms, and it makes wind energy less accessible. Ben Edgerly Walsh from VPIRG is unhappy with the regulations that are currently in place: “We are going to need some policy changes, to make wind viable again. Right now it really isn’t. You might see one or two small projects here or there, but because of some policies it really isn’t feasible to build large wind in the state right now.” However, he states that VPIRG and similar organizations are making a real push towards changing these policies so wind energy will be more accessible in Vermont.
Not everyone is pro-wind energy though. Many Vermont citizens believe that renewable energy is a good solution to climate change and they support it, however there are a variety of reasons why people often don’t think that wind is the best form of renewable energy.
A large contributor to this is the amount of noise wind turbines make. They are noisy and can be very disruptive to communities, homes, and businesses surrounding them. “The noise and flickering light is extraordinarily unhealthy for humans, and I would guess, for animals as well,” says one Calais resident. This perspective is most understood by those who have actually experienced the disruptive noise. Neveah West, a high school student says; “I only see them when I go driving out to like other places. I don’t see them that often, maybe like near Stowe or Newport I think I’ve seen them…I feel like they’re not loud.” Does this show that it is easy for people to be oblivious to different perspectives when discussing this topic?
Another reason why many Vermonters don’t support wind energy is because they feel it isn’t as efficient in Vermont as it is in other places, because Vermont is not a very windy place, especially not compared to other places in the US. The windiest places are at the highest point, meaning mountain tops and hilly areas. It can be a very long and destructive process to get wind turbines installed in these places. Paths must be made so construction vehicles can carry supplies up the mountain, and then the construction process can be hard on the environment. It has a large effect on animal habitats, and some will say that it ruins the natural look of Vermont. Annie McCleary, a local resident, discusses the harms wind turbines can have of the environment and animal habitats. “To place huge wind towers on mountains in Vermont,” she says, “huge roads were built in otherwise pristine areas. The environmental devastation is horrendous. The blasting caused critters great distress. Erosion is rampant. Plant and animal habitats were destroyed. Watersheds flow in entirely different ways after such an enormous disruption, causing flooding down-hill in large-rain events (personal communication from Jack Lazor at Butterworks Farm, located below an industrial wind project). Animal corridors were disrupted. To destroy natural habitat in the name of looking for ‘renewal energy’ only creates more problems than it solves.” Nevaeh West, a 10th grade student at U-32 talks about what she knows generally about wind energy: “I think that it destroys a lot of the environment, and there’s a lot of like, logging. Birds hit everything, birds don’t know where they’re looking, they just fly out anywhere. So when it’s going, it’s just going to die.”
Money is also a problem for a lot of people when it comes to wind energy because installing wind energy is expensive. Ben Edgerly Walsh talks about the financial challenges wind companies have to face.
“You need to build a road up to the top, you need to make sure you’ve got power lines going to the hill or mountain, and you’ve gone the additional expense of trucking out all the turbine parts out there. So, you can’t really build small wind on mountains, because the cost of the actual wind turbine itself ends up being dwarfed by all the associated expenses. And so, instead we have to build kind of the smallest viable economical wind projects in Vermont on a hill or mountain is gonna be maybe at the smallest you can imagine about one or two large wind turbines. But really, unless you’re into like 3, 4, 5, or bigger, the overall expense of the project from watt to watt generated is too high to make it worth building.” In conclusion to that, many Vermonters think that wind energy isn’t worth it because of how much money it costs compared to the amount of energy it produces. Many Vermonters support the idea of renewable energy but don’t think that wind energy is necessarily the most effective or efficient way to go.
The controversy around wind energy is a big one, and there have been many occasions in our recent and far past where opposite sides have butted heads. One of the largest disagreements took place in Lowell in May, 2011. The Vermont Public Service board agreed to the Green Mountain Power Project which meant installing new turbines in the area. The town was divided on this issue. Some wanted to endorse this project, while some strongly opposed it. This was an important example of how wind controversies can cause major divides in communities.
So why does this topic matter? As climate change is becoming more of a problem, it is important for us to think about which types of energy will be best for the wellbeing of the Earth. However, it is complicated, as we want to ensure safety for our environment and animal habitats, along with the our own communities. Because everyone is involved with energy in some way or another, we are all affected and we all have a part in this. It is important that we all form our own well-supported opinions so we can make smart decisions when dealing with topics about in the future. Because there are so many individuals and groups involved with this issue, there are always going to be disagreements around wind energy and how to deal with it. Different people see different futures for wind energy depending on their own personal opinions. So what is fair in this situation? What are Vermonters priorities when it comes down to renewable energy and more specifically wind energy? And how can different opinions weigh into the issue?