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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Alternative energy is coming, like it or not

The big surprise at the April 27 Planning Commission meeting is the Whalerock wind turbine project isn't going down without a fight. The crowd probably expected the usual Charlestown farce - pretending to consider the project on its merits while its fate is a foregone conclusion.

The Planning Commission wasn't expecting Larry LeBlanc's lawyer to call them out for their blatant bias and questionable process. Kate Waterman was certainly not expecting to be directly challenged for her own past remarks even though they spoke volumes about her bias against wind power. The commssioners certainly weren't expecting a challenge to their legitimacy to reign supreme over what lives and what dies in Charlestown.

I doubt Larry LeBlanc's plan for the turbines on his 81 acres straddling the moraine north of One will ever go through, so can we skip all the drama? Mr. LeBlanc wants somebody (like the town) to buy those 91 acres as he has for years. The wind isn't good enough in that spot to make the project actually work, so let's all cut the crap and deal with the bottom line. I.e. how much will it take to buy him off, and who's going to have to pay?

I don't support Whalerock simply because I don't believe it's a serious and viable project. But I do believe in wind power. I also believe we - Charlestown, RI and the rest of the country - really need to get moving on alternative energy.

Unless Charlestown and the rest of the US plans a return to wood stoves and whale oil lamps, we are going to develop alternative energy sources. Fossil fuels are becoming more scarce, more expensive and more damaging to the environment to continue to be our principle energy source much longer.

Through our rates and our taxes, we will pay to develop new sources such as wind, solar, tidal and geothermal, as well as biomass and a variety of still experimental sources like devices that convert normal motion into energy. That's what we have always done to get the energy we need.

Developing new energy sources will be subsidized, as will on-going production. And that should not be a shock either because we still subsidize oil, gas and coal and we keep the nuclear industry alive only through heavy subsidies and legal protection. We will do for alternative energy what we have always done for fossil fuels and nuclear power.

All new energy technologies will be expensive at the beginning. That's how it is with new technologies. Remember how much the first personal computers and cell phones cost? Once a technology takes hold, it reaches economies of scale, prices drop and the technology itself improves. Again, think computers and cell phones.

Some new energy technologies aren't going to work out. We will spend a lot on research and development only to discover they don't work or aren't practical. Think Betamax. Arguably, we reached that point with nuclear power decades ago but won't admit it.

The other reality, to be honest, is that I can't think of one form of energy production that doesn't have some catch, some negative aspect that will cause concern or bother someone. I happen to like the look of the turbines. Others don't. I also don't like the look of oil refineries. I have been on strip mines in Appalachia and the West and they are not very nice. I have visited families in gas drilling areas whose tap water is flammable. Solar can be ugly. Some people will be leery of messing with ocean currents. Biomass can smell. And we all have come to understand how some people feel about wind.

Charlestown - consider this: we have US Route 1. We have telephone and electrical poles and a few cell towers. We have heavy vehicle traffic in summertime. We have aircraft flying overhead, sometimes pretty low. We have powerboats in our waterways. We have plastic mailboxes and fiberglass flagpoles. We have many things that would have been shocking to consider, never mind see, just a few generations ago. We got used to it because we had to.

Author: Will Collette