Sunday, April 24, 2005

Tilting at windmills

Shortly after my parents retired to Palm Desert in the Coachella Valley I took my first ever drive on the I-10 east from Los Angeles. After passing the San Bernardino county line and the fast-food haven of beautiful downtown Beaumont, the two highlights of the trip are the dinosaur park at Cabazon and the windmill farms of the San Gorgonio pass.

And of the two (trust me on this) the windmill farm is by far the most impressive. Acres upon acres of immense white windmills whirling in the breeze that squeezes through the pass on its trip from the Pacific Ocean to parts east. Clean, renewable energy, and they're really cool looking too. What's not to like?

Well, apparently my impressions while zipping by at 80 mile per hour (er, um, I mean 70 mph officer) are not the end of the story.

Today's Christian Science Monitor looks at some of the issues surrounding a more controversial mid-western windmill development:

Birds, including threatened and endangered species, are at the center of a dispute over a $250 million wind-turbine complex that a Chicago company wants to build in east central Wisconsin. Invenergy Wind LLC hopes to erect 133 turbines, each standing 389 feet tall, across 50 square miles of farmland just east of Horicon Marsh, a federal and state wildlife refuge described by bird experts as one of the largest and most important wetlands in the Midwest.

But birds are not the whole story behind local opposition. And perhaps I'm being cynical, but since the project is heavily favored by farmers in this predominantly farming community, I suspect this dispute would be much less heated were it not for the other source of opposition: the windfarm may lower property values in adjacent properties.

The rising exurbanites that moved to the country don't want enormous windmills blocking their view of the countryside.

In fact in many areas where windfarms represent relatively little environmental impact simple NIMBY mentality is their worst enemy.

Elsewhere, resistance has been stiff. In Massachusetts, a citizens group has been fighting since 2001 to stop 130 turbines from going up in Nantucket Sound. In New Jersey, acting Gov. Richard Codey in December imposed a 15-month moratorium on coastal wind-energy developments while a commission studies their effect on marine life, tourism, and views. "There are many people who live along the coastline that are concerned about the aesthetics of these things," says Kelley Heck, a spokeswoman for the governor.

As a citizen of a state who's long battled to protect its coastlines from off-shore oil exploration, I have some sympathy for such concerns. But I have to ask, given America's increasing need for domestic energy resources, wouldn't a shiny non-polluting windmill be rather an improvement over an oil (leaking) derrick?

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