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McQuiston: The Cost of Wind

(Host) As editor of Vermont Business Magazine, commentator Tim McQuiston has been trying to calculate the relative costs of producing electricity by different systems, but the recent vote in Newark has him thinking about something else entirely.

(McQuiston) The good people of Newark essentially voted down a local wind farm development. And, get this, they voted it down BEFORE they knew how much they would have been paid for it.

Here they were on the verge of getting, quite literally, a windfall in revenues and they opted out because they were concerned with sightlines, and the impact on wildlife. And, it seems to me, they weren't persuaded by the argument that they should shoulder the burden of taking one for the team and saving the world from global warming.

I think it's fair to say that the Northeast Kingdom has been a target of wind farm developers because it's sparsely settled and doesn't have a great deal of political influence. But it does have a lot of independent thinkers. The townspeople of Lowell, for instance, wanted a wind farm; those in Newark did not. Local control at its best.

So now I'm thinking that the real cost of an energy source may simply be measured by how much it's being fought over.

Except for spots of contention here and there, people don't seem to be fighting much over solar; and to me that suggests that solar is fairly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Likewise, there's been a lot of saber-rattling over nuclear. But no one really seems to mind the Green Mountain Power deal with the once-vilified Seabrook. And despite calls in some quarters for more nuclear plants, I very much doubt there'll be a rush to build new ones, like there was in the 70s. So frankly, both solar and nuclear seem rather innocuous at the moment.

But there are big battles over tar sands from Canada, which would be turned into gasoline. And although coal is cheap, it's strip- mined and jam-packed full of carbon and a whole lot of other stuff. So it seems that everyone has an opinion when it comes to coal.

Natural gas heats our homes, keeps the lights on, and it's been made cheap with the help of hydro fracking - a controversial technology. Cheap and controversial make for a good fight and I think that clearly identifies natural gas as an important energy source.

Then we come to wind.And if wind were not financially viable, developers wouldn't be working so hard to build turbines across ridgelines and people wouldn't be getting arrested trying to stop them from doing it.

But it would take roughly a thousand wind turbines to supply the equivalent of Vermont's electric use. And no matter how cheap it could be, no one in Vermont would want anywhere near that many. To date, there are only 52 in operation or currently under construction.

Still, make no mistake, wind isn't pie-in-the-sky hippy talk. There's money being blown around in the Kingdom and people want to catch it. The protests in Lowell and the town vote in Newark are likely to be just beginning of a long fight over an increasingly important energy source.

Tim McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.
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