Wind turbines: source of energy and controversy

Our view: Wind turbines are a flawed but necessary part of the energy solution

August 03, 2010

Like them or not, wind turbines are coming to Maryland. If the wind turbines are in your backyard, or in your line of sight, you probably oppose them. If they are not, it is probably easier to regard them as a clean way to produce energy.

This week, as the first of 28 wind towers was being erected on Backbone Mountain in Garrett County, environmental groups were contending the turbines would likely harm federally protected Indiana and Virginia big-eared bats. Their challenge mirrors an action in West Virginia where a federal judge temporarily halted construction of a wind farm, finding it would harm Indiana bats. Complying with the judge's order, the developer of the West Virginia wind farm scaled back its size.

Meanwhile, at Monday's Baltimore County Council meeting, a pilot wind power program was withdrawn after community groups complained that the turbines would be eyesores, create noise in residential areas and drive down property values.

More and more, the question of how we generate the electricity we need to run our lives comes down to tradeoffs. Getting energy from coal-fired plants has been our traditional practice, but it pollutes the environment. Nuclear power is an option, but building nuclear plants is expensive, and there is the nasty question of what to do with the spent fuel. No one wants nuclear waste in their backyard.

Given this situation, a solution that relies on Mother Nature to generate power would seem, well, like a breath of fresh air. It is, unless you live near a turbine.

The turbines can be massive. The ones going up in Garrett County reach 415 feet off the ground, almost as tall as Baltimore's World Trade Center. To opponents, they are ugly. To proponents, they are an engineering masterwork.

Despite the setback at the Baltimore County Council, the wind turbine issue is not going to go away. Allowing wind turbines no taller than 60 feet on Baltimore County farms, and in manufacturing zones and at institutions, makes sense. We suspect the Baltimore County Council will come around to that view, once the fall elections and the heated rhetoric that accompanies them have blown away.

Over in Garrett County, the fate of the wind project, the state's first, may hinge on the welfare of the bats. Officials for Constellation Energy overseeing the project say it is unlikely to harm the bats. But Constellation said it will belatedly seek a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allowing for any "incidental harm" that may be done to the bats.

Groups opposed to the turbines, including Save Western Maryland and the Maryland Conservation Council, want the construction to stop until the welfare of the bats is assured, something Constellation is not willing to do. Opponents have threatened to file a lawsuit to stop the project. We hope the bats are safe and the project goes forward.

Wind power, as this page has noted before, is not the solution for all our energy problems. But it can and should be a part of our alternative energy future. We might not like the look of the wind turbines, but they do provide nonpolluting energy, and that is a trade-off we should be willing to make.

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