My Turn: Managing the message
My interest in cooperatives as a positive means to achieving a sustainable life brought me to an April talk about European Energy Transition, Energiewende, at Greenfield Community College.
Those attending the talk sponsored by GCC Renewable Energy Program and The Green Campus Committee heard from two European renewable energy experts — Dirk Vansintjan the manager of Ecopower, a rural electric cooperative in Belgium and co-founder of REScoop.be, the Belgian federation for renewable energy cooperatives and Dr. Andreas Wieg the manager of the “New Cooperatives Working Group” of the German cooperative associations based in Berlin.
Vansintjan opened comments by stating that his job as a manager has had a lot to do with managing “angry people” and suggested that is now less true for his expanding role in managing energy cooperatives.
The speakers noted with some emphasis that “perceived environmental, health, noise and property value problems and concerns with wind energy and select other energy alternatives simply do not exist when a majority of people agree on a course of action cooperatively.” This comment suggested that complaints about wind health and other impacts must be “fabricated” for them to disappear so simply.
Despite my finding otherwise, Energy Transition, The German Energiewende website referencing the speakers work says “Health effects are not an issue in the debates in Germany and Denmark, the two countries with the greatest density of wind turbines.”
The collective suggestion is that any negative concerns and response to wind turbines is NIMBY response no matter the individual’s earnestness of complaint. Vansintjan specifically identified the NIMBY response as one of the first hurdles to be overcome and he suggested that “obtaining finance money was not really the problem but rather getting groups to cooperate and gaining consensus was the larger issue.”
In the Community Power Report issue of Jan. 4, Vansintjan states: “Flanders is one of the most densely populated regions in the world, therefore it is very hard to find sites to install wind turbines. This means that we really have to get the people on our side. First they have to be convinced that this is necessary, and also be allowed to participate in renewable energy generation.
“We have seen a lot of demonstrations against wind turbines, and our goal with the ‘Yes In My Backyard’ petition is to mobilize our members in every village in favor of co-operative wind farms.”
Wieg suggested in his comments that of the 122 turbine permits sought in 2012 in his jurisdiction in Germany only seven were granted.
The articulation of “our side,” I submit, suggests a need to wonder if one must sign away the ability to legally intervene should they be adversely affected by industrial turbines as is true in this country?
Wieg also points out that: “the turbines are normally planned to be paid off in ten at most 12 years” so that they can then begin to make return on the considerable investment. This is investment that still needs governmental or corporate financial backing because it is to “excessive for a small community.”
At the recently capped 8 percent profit (20 to 30 percent-plus previously) we must presume that this pay back will take considerably longer. The demonstrated fact that the turbines are not mechanically lasting the planned 25 years, and their energy production falls off appreciably after even the first few years, has to be a concern for financially fragile cooperatives most of which are just two or three years old.
Although several sources of electric generation were cited in the talk as being complementary, solar production is a noted prime choice for these cooperatives. The technical, financial and permitting for wind is much more complex and few have been constructed.
Most alarming for me was the candid response to an audience question about noise impacts from turbines. Weig, pointed out that the noise limits from turbines was voluntarily limited to 39 dB nighttime with “considerably more allowed” daytime.
I have learned that rural ambient sound in New England is often in the low 20 dB and as with Ashfield only rarely or slightly exceeds 30 dB. I also have learned that a change of 10dB (or less) is acknowledged to be an equivalent to doubling of the audible sound to the human ear.
Studies show multiple complaints come from up to two miles when turbine noise exceeds even 33 dB. The more health invasive issue of infrasound is not even being discussed here.
My conclusions from this presentation:
∎ cooperatives remain a great idea but require legal, financial and other incentives to form and survive.
∎ industrial wind is not now and cannot be a large part of the rural equation despite the “sustainable energy” emphasis.
∎ Germany, Belgium and other parts of Europe are fighting resistance to industrial wind by not acknowledging and dismissing negative impacts.
In North America, we also have the European referenced hurdles against forming cooperatives and possibly other unique huddles of our own. Despite our hope otherwise, cooperatives, a most worthy idea, will unfortunately probably make only slow headway.
Walter Cudnohufsky, who lives in Ashfield, is a landscape architect and land and community planner.