The value of wind

Our view: Turbine debate in Balto. Co. should turn on environment, not aesthetics

February 04, 2010

Overhead power lines aren't aesthetically pleasing. Neither are utility poles. Asphalt roads? Ugly, too. Add to the list sheds, fences and drainage ditches.

Yet we seem to happily accept them all -- even in the most bucolic of settings -- because people require these things to live comfortably. Utility poles bring telephone services, roads enable travel in all kinds of weather, ditches make it possible to control the run-off from rainstorms.

The latest such convenience to draw the ire of local elected leaders is the residential wind turbine. The Baltimore County Council is considering legislation to set standards for their use instead of allowing them only as a special exception. The county's planning board has recommended allowing one wind turbine no taller than 60 feet per 1-acre property.

That hardly seems unreasonable given that wind energy may be one of the most attractive (at least from a policy standpoint) energy options available to the United States. It is pollution-free and produces no greenhouse gases, and the technology is established and available.

But from the reaction of some County Council members, one might think Baltimore County was contemplating the end of green spaces altogether. Councilman T. Bryan McIntire is against their use in the rural areas of the county, while Councilman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley isn't enthusiastic about their use in residential neighborhoods. That doesn't leave much.

While it's certainly reasonable to set standards for turbines, it is outrageously shortsighted to ban them from residential areas altogether. Wind power isn't the sole answer to Maryland's energy needs, but how can it be so quickly rejected altogether?

The U.S. has already set a goal of wind producing 20 percent of the nation's electricity needs by 2030. That can't be met solely by large-scale "wind farms out west," as Mr. McIntire suggests. A vital part of that effort is so-called "small wind" projects where individual homeowners install systems to provide electricity for their own homes.

The cost of such systems can be fairly high -- about $40,000 for one that can meet most of a family's needs, according to the American Wind Energy Association -- so the county probably won't be inundated by applicants any time soon. Generally, the taller the tower, the more effective it is -- although the county's 60-foot limit is far below the 200-foot-tall turbines that are common in large-scale operations.

Still, it's not unreasonable to set some restrictions, particularly to ensure safety. That appears to be what the county's planning board has tried to do.

The real beauty of a turbine, of course, is that it will preserve nature far better than overhead power lines that get most of their electrical supply from massively polluting, coal-fired power plants. As a coastal state facing rising sea levels, Maryland ought to be at the forefront of advocating for low-carbon energy and fighting climate change.

Rejecting residential turbines because they aren't pretty is not unlike saying no to fire trucks because they're noisy and bright red. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the ones with the clearest vision can see the beauty of a cleaner environment.

Readers respond

I completely disagree with McIntire's reasoning. It eludes me as to why this is even a debatable topic. All productive sources of renewable energy should be not only encouraged but required. To deny these sources based on aesthetics is unfathomable to me.

Notable M

Any resistance to residential wind turbines seems to me to be a bunch of hot air, most likely being generated by those forces who haven't figured out how to make corporate profits from personally produced electricity. If aesthetics were the main concern, we wouldn't be allowed to put those ugly satellite dishes on top of our houses.

Sean Tully

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