There are very few environmentalists who would argue against the importance of reducing our economic dependence on fossil fuel with renewable alternatives. Yet the implications of this priority often place us in opposition to strategies and policies which would have regional benefits (economic as well as ecological) at the expense of locally valued resources. This situation often sets up a dichotomy between the needs of biodiversity conservation and the needs of economic development. It also puts us on the defensive, for quite often what is proposed as the greatest public benefit is often imposed on those who must bear the burden of its localized negative impacts and who have limited political influence. Ask an ovaHimba pastoralist in Namibia about a proposed hydroelectric dam on their ancestral land, or an Appalachian landowner in coal country about the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal for examples of the power dynamics that are often at play.
The fact remains that we cannot wean ourselves from fossil fuel without finding viable alternatives to fill the void. None of these alternatives is without cost and all of them - even solar - involve some environmental impacts as well as benefits. Whatever policies we adopt, everything hinges on changing individual and collective behavior, and that puts us squarely in the realm of competing interests.
In Massachusetts, the Patrick Administration has made renewable energy generation a top priority. It has embedded this mandate within the reconstituted Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, which means that the same state agency that houses a division with a mandate for providing clean water and protecting rare species also has one with a mandate to promote renewable energy development. Whether this creates synergies or silos is a matter of debate. but it certainly sets up situations where the needs of one give way to the other. When it involves the use and management of state owned lands, all of these intersecting interests come into play.
A 2009 Commonwealth report found the potential for 947MW of renewable electricity generation from wind on state lands. A map included with the report identified 86 MW of potential at three sites in north, central and south Berkshire County, but downplayed the potential for offshore generation because - surprise - these far more productive areas are offshore and not on state owned properties. Furthermore, places like Mt. Everett Reservation may indeed have 15 MW of wind generating potential, but are also extremely ecologically sensitive and there have been bloody battles fought there for decades to prevent the industrialization of the mountaintop.
I have a dog in this fight both as a longtime Berkshire resident and a landowner of coastal property in SE MA. I am aware of the noise, nuisance, aesthetic, landscape fragmentation, habitat destruction and bird strike concerns, as well as the need to be able to find some sites where the proximate impacts can be mitigated. I have come to feel that offshore wind generation in Buzzards Bay and Nantucket Sound could have fewer negative ecological impacts and greater benefit than mountaintop development of wind installations in the Berkshires.
I place a lower value on the aesthetic concerns of wind turbines and a greater one on the biodiversity impacts. I would prefer a few large industrial generation installations offshore to many of them in the mountains. This is how I add up the costs and benefits of wind energy siting in Massachusetts as I understand them. I represent one reasonably well informed and pragmatic perspective, and there are countless others who bring their own values and perspectives to this question. They deserve a place at the table.
Yet the state senate of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has found it expedient to bypass local regulations and pass the Wind Energy Siting Reform Act in February, 2010. Local government oversight can be messy and inefficient, but it also is part of the bedrock of New England-style government. We recognize that even the town crank has the right to speak her mind in open forum, and that those who live closest to the resource have valuable perspectives that may be completely undervalued at the macro level. It can be frustrating for investors and can make for a more complex business environment, but the alternative is top down, high power politics that undermines individual communities.
Since the Commonwealth has demonstrated a low level of environmental oversight for its forest management actions on state owned lands, it is naive to think that it will weigh the costs and benefits of the local environmental impacts of wind generation on state lands with any greater sensitivity. There must be a way for environmentalists and renewable energy developers to find appropriate sites and design the best installations with the least negative impacts to meet our energy needs and safeguard existing environmental and community values. This cannot be done by state government and private industry in a vacuum. Governor Patrick will lose environmental voters he can ill afford to alienate if he signs this bill into law, and environmentalists will continue to be branded as NIMBYs unless we make it clear that we want to be part of the solution and deserve seats at the table to find them.