Gust lust

September 23, 2002

PEOPLE WHO DREAM of spinning a profit from the air hope to build wind farms in Western Maryland and off the coast at Ocean City. A wind farm is a flock of modern-day windmills -- reaching about 300 feet into the sky -- designed to catch the breezes and make electricity.

Wind power has one undeniable plus: It doesn't burn up fossil fuel. (Nor does it ruin rivers, the way its close cousin, hydroelectric power, does.)

Surprisingly, though, wind-generated electricity is expensive, considering that the motive force is free -- more expensive than the output of conventional power plants. That has to do with the high cost of construction, the relatively small output, and the fickle nature of the wind itself.

So what's the deal? Why does anyone want to build them, not only in Maryland but up and down the East Coast, which has seen a host of recent proposals? The answer: a federal tax break, which makes all the difference financially but happens to be expiring next year.

Nationally, wind power accounts for just one half of one percent of generating capacity. California has had wind farms for years -- since the 1970s -- and is the leader among states with 13,000 turbines putting out 1.27 percent of the state's electrical needs.

They make a solid and commendable contribution to the effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. What people don't like about them is that they have to look at them.

In the fading light of evening, you gaze from your country hideaway across velvet fields to the gently rising ridges in the distance, just catching the rays of the setting sun -- which highlight the way those ridges are studded with a couple dozen whirligigs tirelessly churning away.

Some are horrified at the thought. Yes, it's the Not In My Back Yard syndrome, but writ large, because ridge tops by their nature tend to be visible from a lot of back yards. Opposition, to proposed wind farms in Massachusetts and New York comes largely from well-to-do owners of second homes -- the sort of people who might otherwise be counted on to embrace green power, if only it didn't interfere with the view.

Looking out at purple mountains' majesty, or at the clear and deep blue sea, is better than looking out at a wind farm. Looking out at a wind farm is better than looking out at a coal-fired power plant. Looking out at a coal-fired power plant is better than living in the dark.

So -- it's a question of choices and trade-offs. Wind farms make sense where they're not overly obtrusive. But there comes a point where visual pollution outweighs whatever admittedly small benefits they might bring. Is that the case in Garrett and Allegany counties, or off the coast of Ocean City? Let's hear what the residents have to say. It's their back yard.

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