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The Scarlet & Black

The winds of change, finally

So the turbines cometh. To which I say: It’s about damn time. In the past decade, Iowa has become the national leader in wind energy development, surpassing California and second only to Texas in total MW installed wind capacity. Iowa ranks first in terms of percentage of total generation by wind, coming in at an impressive 15.6%. Grinnell, which prides itself on being a socially and environmentally progressive institution, should have expedited the funding process and got with the program a long time ago.

In the big picture, of course, this overdue development at Grinnell is but a drop in the bucket. Institutions of higher education as a whole compromise only a nominal portion of America’s energy use. What’s needed is support and funding for large-scale wind energy projects all across the country. And this is not easy to obtain, despite the widespread consensus at this point (among everyone who’s not part of the American right) that dependence on fossil fuels is becoming increasingly unsustainable and harmful.

I’m cynical enough to assert that goodwill alone will not propel the widespread deployment of alternative energy like wind. As of right now, wind technology is relatively expensive and ineffective compared to traditional dirty energy. While more and more energy companies are experimenting with wind, it’s still not as profitable as fossil fuels. Furthermore, in developing countries, dirty energy is bringing millions out of poverty, and that’s hard to give up. Ultimately, governments need to pour far more money than they are currently into research and development for alternative technologies to make them economically viable.

The other major obstacles to wind deployment in America right now are the current state of wind siting policy and public attitudes toward wind. The main problem is that in most states, the siting process is not set up to facilitate wind. While more states are turning to one-stop permitting, in most cases developers must consult the local zoning and siting authorities and the state zoning and siting authorities, as well as a variety of state regulatory agencies. Some of these restrictions are in place, justifiably, in order to protect local wildlife and ensure public safety (it is true wind turbines have been responsible for significant bird fatalities, spawning the term “condor cuisinart”). But for the most part, the current siting system (or lack thereof) hampers legitimate wind development.

Meanwhile, hostile public attitudes toward the “white monsters” can delay projects indefinitely. Some of you may have heard about Cape Wind, a wind farm off the coast of Nantucket Sound in Massachusetts that has been in the permitting process since 2001. Residents, who formed the formidable Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, contended the proximity of the turbines would ruin their views and diminish property values. Robert Kennedy Jr., himself, whose family owns a vacation home on the Sound, published an opinion in the New York Times criticizing the project for being “the right idea, but in the wrong place.” The Massachusetts Supreme Court finally approved the project in December.

Motivated in part by the Cape Wind fiasco, the Massachusetts legislature is attempting to pass the Wind Energy Siting Reform Act, which would streamline the siting process by establishing state-wind siting standards and one-stop permitting at the Massachusetts Energy Facility Siting Board. A key feature: It preserves “home rule authority” so that the community in which the project is proposed can veto the project. After that the only option for the developers is court. I think this is important because, while some of the opposition to turbines is pure NIMBYism (let’s call it what it is), it is a legitimate grievance that in the past big wind companies have neglected to consult locals, and I think this lack of communication is a lot of what causes the inevitable backlash.

I am optimistic that Massachusetts is just the beginning of a national movement to facilitate wind energy development with state siting policy. Meanwhile, I hope that President Obama, like Kington, will get with the program and invest in the future.

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  • J

    JayMar 12, 2012 at 10:32 am

    AMEN. The word always was that they needed funding… Yet a cement plaza on central campus, a new preschool, and big $ for a big prize somehow came first. All the funding talk has been tilting at windmills by the administration. I’ll believe it when we see the real deal.