My wife and I spent the last week of July relaxing at the southwestern tip of Prince Edward Island. There’s not much there except a small harbor filled with lobster boats, a lighthouse, an inn, a restaurant (we stayed in a sweet little apartment above the restaurant – from our balcony we looked at the beach, the harbor, and the Northumberland Strait), endless cropland stretching to the horizon in every direction, and 55 giant wind turbines towering over the fields.
We didn’t do much except walk on the beach, ride our bikes (on the main road one car passes every 10 minutes or so),read books and PEI history, eat fresh food, and talk to the locals about the turbines (and the lobsters).
The West Cape wind farm is by far the largest of three on PEI. The 1.8 megawatt (MW) Vestas turbines are all located on farmland, neatly interspersed with rows of potatoes and corn, fields of oat and wheat, and pastures full of cows.
It turned out he lives within a ¼ mile of one of the turbines. “No, not for me. Some people grumble about ‘em, but they’re mostly over 60.”
He was about 50.
We never found any of the grumblers – all the people we spoke to were pleased with the turbines that have changed the landscape of their homeland. Or they were neutral. Most thought they ”make sense” and “haven’t caused any trouble.”
In fact, in a survey conducted by the Tourism Research Center of the provincial government, it was found that 72% of islanders and 75% of visitors agreed or strongly agreed that the government should encourage more wind farms. That’s 72% – get that – who want more of these machines in their midst, on their land. We’re not talking about miles away out in the water – we’re talking about right close at hand, in their back yards!!
Can you remember anything on the Vineyard, or in the U.S. for that matter, that three quarters of the people agreed about?
I stopped by the operations center of the wind farm, housed in a metal building located off a two lane road, surrounded by potato fields. Four people are employed in administration and another 16 in data gathering and maintenance. One of the administrative tasks is issuing checks to the local farmers on whose land the turbines are located. The farmers get paid for the easement, they get paid annually for the small amount of cropland that is taken out of production, and they receive a percentage of the energy production, paid in quarterly checks. Right now this adds up to $8-10,000 per turbine. The jobs and the royalties add up to a big boon to the local economy.
For us, here on the Vineyard, I think offshore probably makes more sense, but I couldn’t help but think what a good source of steady income this could be for our conservation groups that own large tracts of Vineyard land – locating turbines on their properties would help them to serve their missions in two ways.
The people I spoke to at operations said they’ve had very few complaints. They said there are some people who still don’t like the way they look.
They constantly study bird kills, but they admit that they don’t really know how many are killed because dead birds get carted off by coyotes and foxes. But they chuckled about the bird issue and said wind turbines do kill a few birds, but very few, whereas cats kill hundreds of millions, windows kill even more, and oil spills are a worldwide plague to bird and aquatic life.
The 100 MW of capacity in this windfarm is part of a provincial system that currently generates 18% of PEI’s electricity (in addition to significant amounts exported to New England) and is part of their goal of achieving 500 MW of capacity by 2013. If they achieve their goal they will be making a quantity of electricity sufficient to power 200,000 homes and equivalent to taking 160,000 cars off the road or planting one million trees. The island, with its population of 141,000, has a peak demand of 220 MW. They can use 100 MW and will export the remainder. But they are also looking beyond 2013 to a future in which all transit buses and passenger cars are powered by electricity generated by wind (for more information click here )
The PEI commitment is similar to that of governments in many parts of the world. They’re doing this because they are thinking long term about the welfare of their people and their region. In the U.S., and on the Vineyard, we’re not there yet, but we should be leading the way. In PEI they’re thinking beyond potatoes. They’re diversifying their crops.
Many of those who oppose wind development have never experienced what we just did – they have never stopped by the side of the road on their bicycles and watched, and listened, day after day. Standing 100’ away, these huge slow-moving blades make a whooshing sound just like the wind – no hum whatsoever, no clanking, no nothing. At 1000’, our bicycle tires turning on the blacktop wiped out all sound. We were bearing witness to, as author Bill McKibben has said, “The slow, steady turning that blows us into a future less hopeless than the future we’re steaming toward now.”
Ultimately, I’m certain, we’ll be steaming toward that more hopeful future. But for now, it’s like turning a ship around in a sea of molasses. In PEI they’re doing it easily and gracefully – harvesting potatoes and energy from the same land.