A quiz about wind power:
The answers are BP and Indiana. BP? The company whose thirst for oil may have polluted the Gulf of Mexico for decades? And Indiana? I just assumed the best place to harvest the wind was on gusty, barren height out West. Not so; they're creeping up on Chicago.
Ride south from Chicago for a couple of hours on Interstate Highway 65 through the flatlands of Indiana and you'll see the future as envisioned by advocates of wind power: hundreds of wind turbines, as far as the eye can see. They rise some 260 feet to the turbine's hub and, when the rotor is fully extended straight up, they hit almost 400 feet -- at least the height of a 35-story building.
Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, they are whirling away, scarring what previously had been an awesome sight in itself: absolutely flat Indiana cornfields running uninterrupted to the horizon. Of course, it's relative. To some, it's a boring sight. But for me, the idea that in a universe of curved lines nature could have produced something so flat and uniform is a powerful reminder of Mother Earth's exceptionalism.
What we have here are miles and miles of visual pollution. Those who imagined that a wind farm would consist of a half dozen or so wind turbines scattered about in the boonies should take the drive. By some estimates, the hundreds of wind turbines in the I-65/Benton County corridor produce enough energy to power a city of 250,000. Imagine what it would have to look like to power a city of 3 million, like Chicago, or its metropolitan area of 7 million.
Indiana plans to rush even more wind turbines on line, making it one of the fastest-growing wind generation states in the nation. Among the Indiana providers is Orion Energy LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of BP Alternative Energy, which proclaims its Benton County facility to be the nation's largest. Its Fowler Ridge Wind Farm, when completed, could become the world's largest. Businesses and many farmers welcome the developments for the cash they bring.
But one part of the story doesn't get much attention: the dissension that the gigantic wind farms sparks within the environmental community. Wind turbines are considered by many environmentalists to be a safe, environmentally friendly source of power that will help control global warming. But not always.
Environmentalists last week sued to halt a 130-turbine wind farm off Cape Cod arguing it could endanger protected migratory birds and whales. The late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., as green as they come, had for years fought the farm.
Sharen Trembath, an environmentalist writing in the Buffalo Evening News in Buffalo, N.Y., was testy about plans to install 40 to 120 turbine "behemoths" in Lake Erie. She describes an assortment of safety and environmental horrors: ice floes crashing into the turbines, fishermen dragging their anchors across the electric cable, nighttime navigational dangers, exploding turbines, drinking water risks, electromagnetic fields leading tomultiple sclerosis and cancer. "Wind energy is not green," she said. "It is unpredictable and variable. In 10 years, when the incentives and tax subsidies end and the developer moves on, what will we be left with?"
Similar questions are asked about an Evanston proposal to put enough wind turbines in Lake Michigan to generate power for the city's 30,000 homes. Undoubtedly, residents of Chicago and its North Shore suburbs will be concerned not just about environmental questions but also about how lines of waving rotors off shore will affect their property values.
DeKalb County residents have sued to have 126 existing turbines torn down because of complaints about sleep disturbances, illnesses and vertigo from the rotors' strobelike flashes.
Environmentalists who considered wind to be an unending source of safe power now are finding that it raises the same kind of environmental questions that they had used to stymie traditional utility and public works projects. In this, there's poetic justice.
This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune