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Blowin’ in the Wind

How many times must a bald eagle die?

Sep 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 04 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
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Craftsbury, Vt.
In their seemingly quixotic efforts to reduce emissions, energy companies have increasingly tilted towards windmills. The United States now houses some 45,000 wind turbines on nearly 900 wind farms. That’s enough to power about 1.6 million homes, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Despite the much-hyped natural gas boom, wind is now the number one source of new power generation in the country; 43 percent of the generating capacity that came online last year was from wind.

A Palm Springs wind farm

A Palm Springs wind farm


The main benefit of wind power is obvious: It generates no air or water pollution, and none of the carbon emissions that are thought to contribute to climate change. What’s more, wind itself is free, meaning that over the long term, wind farms should prove profitable for utility companies. It also doesn’t hurt that energy companies benefit from a bevy of federal subsidies and tax credits for investing in wind farm projects. 

Wind turbines come with undeniable drawbacks, though. Many are aesthetic. Today’s wind turbines aren’t the picturesque, gentle windmills that one associates with, say, the Dutch countryside. They’re more like something out of Blade Runner: monstrous, dystopian-looking things that can stand as tall as a 20-story building and carry 200-foot-long blades, utterly dominating their typically bucolic surroundings. They’re murder on birds, killing more than a half-million each year in the United States alone, according to an Associated Press analysis. They’re noisy, generating upwards of 50 decibels when they rotate. (Quiet, rural areas, where most wind farms are located, average about 30 decibels of ambient noise.) And worst of all, because wind is inherently unreliable (sometimes it blows, sometimes it doesn’t), backup power from other sources​—​usually fossil fuels​—​is a must. The power grid cannot live on wind alone.

Wind power’s unfortunate side effects have splintered typical ideological alliances, with many greens finding themselves in the odd position of opposing what’s usually cast as the greenest of green power supplies. Consider Craftsbury, Vermont, a New England village so idyllic it looks more like cliché than reality (white wooden church, lovely town green). The view of a nearby ridge has been despoiled by 21 monstrous 459-foot turbines. The noise has also been a problem. Despite the fact that the project is limited to 45 decibels, local resident Shirley Nelson has kept a “noise diary” since the project opened, and has recorded “sleep loss, ringing in the ears, headaches and lapses in memory, which she attributes to the turbines,” reports the Burlington Free Press. Snow and ice buildup on the turbines, meanwhile​—​hardly uncommon in northern Vermont​—​makes them even louder.

It’s not only the local human population that’s suffering as a result. According to Steven Wright, former commissioner of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, the project required clearcutting 134 acres of forest filled with “bear, moose, bobcat and deer.” Wright also notes that the emissions reductions will be negligible. As he wrote in the New York Times a couple of years back, “Only 4 percent of [Vermont’s greenhouse gas] emissions now result from electricity generation. (Nearly half come from cars and trucks, and another third from the burning of heating oil.)” 

As one Vermont progressive wrote in a local newspaper, wind turbine projects on ridgelines amount to “corporate vandalism.” The writer has a point: The ridgelines are being defaced by wind turbine projects. (To be sure, she also lamented that wind power is serving to enrich “War profiteer Halliburton.”) And building wind turbines on ridges is a particularly shortsighted move for a state like Vermont, which is dependent on tourism and whose primary natural resource is its justly renowned natural beauty. What’s the sense in trashing your environment for what amounts to only a minuscule reduction in greenhouse gas emissions?

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