Exploitation and destruction:
some things to know about industrial wind power


Eric Rosenbloom, October 31, 2006 [revised August 8, 2007]


First, by industrial wind, I mean facilities of large wind turbines meant to supply the grid, the "pool" of electricity that must constantly balance supply and demand. "Large" is the first thing that demands attention. The 2.5-megawatt machines proposed for Sheffield and Sutton [Vt.], for example, are 418 feet high: a 256' tower plus a 162' blade radius (with a vertical sweep area of 1.9 acres and a tip speed of 168 mph!). Several of them have to be lit by strobes day and night for airplane safety. The strobing effect of the lights is increased by reflections off the turning blades.

Not only are the height, turning blades, and lights visually intrusive and incongruous with rural and wild landscapes, the blades, generator gears, motors (that turn the machine into the wind and pitch the blades to maintain a constant rpm), and electrical transformers all make substantial noise, adversely affecting both wildlife and human neighbors. From a ridgeline and especially at night, that unnatural noise can travel quite far. The French Academy of Medicine and the U.K. Noise Association both say that large wind turbines should not be closer than a mile from any residence.

Along with the readily audible (and artificial) noise that is many times louder than normal rural noise levels, there is a low-frequency aspect that has driven people from their homes. It doesn't affect everyone, but many people complain of headaches, insomnia, and nausea -- enough that several researchers are documenting the phenomenon as "wind turbine syndrome." A team in Portugal studying "vibroacoustic disease" caused by low-frequency noise and infrasound -- which is typically not considered in regulations -- has found causative conditions inside homes near wind turbines.

Even as the wind companies deny that these and other impacts exist, their leases and "forbearance" easements with neighbors forbid the signers from complaining about them (or even telling anyone about the terms of the agreements).

The destruction of wild places and rural quality of life includes the wide strong straight roads necessary to transport the massive parts, the hundreds of tons of steel and concrete in each platform, the clearcutting of several acres around each machine, and new transmission infrastructure (substations and power lines). It follows an all-too-familiar pattern of heedless exploitation, opening more of the diminishing landscape to industry and sprawl, degrading and fragmenting more natural habitat and refuge.

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UPC (now called First Wind), the "Massachusetts" company targeting Sheffield and Sutton, is in fact backed by the Italian UPC Group. Enxco, which is still fishing for landowners in New England, is part of the consortium Electricité de France. PPM Energy, which bought Enxco's interests in the Hoosac Mountains of Vermont and Massachusetts, is owned by Scottish Power, which is owned by Spanish energy giant Iberdrola. Horizon Wind (now EDP Renewables) and Noble Environmental Power, both active in New York, are owned, respectively, by Energias de Portugal (who bought Horizon from Goldman Sachs) and JP Morgan. Noble has now teamed up with Enxco's former agent to target sites in Vermont as well. Community Energy, currently targeting Lempster, New Hampshire, is also owned by Iberdrola. Vermont's own Catamount Energy (which also does business as Laurel Hill Wind Energy) is an international operation owned by Marubeni Power of Japan and Diamond Castle Holdings, a group of investors whose experience includes Enron's glory days. Australian investment giant Babcock & Brown (now called Infigen) is another heavy player, most notably in the U.S. in Texas.

The major U.S. manufacturer of industrial wind turbines is General Electric, who bought the business from Enron. Another war profiteer and nuclear power pusher getting into wind is Halliburton, whose Kellogg Brown & Root division boasts of being a leader in offshore wind construction. One should be more than a little dubious about "alternatives" or "solutions" offered by the same people who created the mess in the first place. What excites these companies is not so much the window dressing that hides their main activities, though that is indeed important: Think BP's "beyond petroleum" and GE's "ecomagination." Enron, along with their friend George Bush, helped set up a web of subsidies, market support, and tax schemes that created and almost completely pays for today's wind industry -- moving ever larger amounts of public money into private bank accounts. Enron even invented "green tags" to sell the electricity twice!

The developers creep into a poor community, make deals with landowners, woo the local officials (who are also often the leasing landowners) with gifts and promises of cash, flatter them as forward thinkers, and only then make their plans public. Even if a quickly mounted grass-roots campaign against them succeeds, a divided and bankrupted community is left behind. Damage is done in any case. And despite the limited number of places that can accomodate and "fuel" a giant wind energy facility, no developer has to compete with another to provide decent financial and other terms to the hosting landowners and affected communities.

Rural America is no different to these companies than indigenous communities or "third-world" countries. Enrich a few of the natives, persuade others of your "progressive" intentions, pay for a school or firetruck, pit the rest against each other, and take what you want. In Australia, the Point Pierce Aboriginal community lost 40,000 years of Dreaming (which is, like Vermont's ridgelines, otherwise protected) to the construction of an industrial wind facility. Similarly, in New Zealand the Maori protest the desecration of sacred mountains. In India, the forests of the indigenous Adivasis are being taken for wind development. Besides the offense of allowing industrial wind development in protected forests, the new heavy-duty roads are opening them up to illegal logging. In Mexico, wind companies -- led by Spain's Iberdrola -- have divided the Zapotecas on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the most important bird flyway on this side of the world. Some of the Zapotecas wrote about the wind companies to a Scottish bird protector who lives in Spain, describing "the imposition of neoliberal megacorporations destroying nature and our cultures." That is what is happening right in our own back yard.

Minuscule benefits

It is all the more galling because industrial wind turbines on the grid bring no benefits that can justify this destruction. They generate an average of only a sixth to a third of their rated capacity. They generate at or above that average rate only 40% of the time. The output is highly variable, so other sources on the grid must work harder (burning more fuel less cleanly) to balance it. In most places, the times of high wind do not correspond to times of high electricity demand, so much of the already small production is wasted. The evils of coal and nuclear power are undeniable. Unfortunately, wind will never threaten the steady base supply they provide -- no matter how many giant turbines and interconnected high-voltage transmission lines we fill the landscape and seas with. Nor has a single peak supply plant ever been shut down because of wind on the grid.

Even in the industry's own promotional material, wind remains a marginal source. All they can boast of (using self-servingly inaccurate formulas) is a small reduction of the growth of carbon emissions. Conservation and efficiency easily surpass it in actually reducing fuel use, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions -- and they don't require industrializing our remaining rural and wild places to enrich a few multinational companies and investors and impoverishing (not just financially) the rest of us.

The people of Denmark have not allowed a new turbine to be erected in years, and the only thing compelling the government to keep trying is the need to support turbine manufacturer Vestas, Denmark's second largest company (after Lego). Construction has also dramatically slowed in Germany. Spain and The Netherlands recently halted subsidies to big wind. Australia is starting to balk at continuing support. Because opposition only grows in their own countries as the useless and wasteful destruction becomes ever more clear, overseas companies have moved into the U.S. market -- they hope we'll ignore Europe's mistakes just as much as we ignore their successes.

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