The Mohawk Trail crosses what passes for wild terrain in northwestern Massachusetts. The trail, actually State Highway 2, starts in Greenfield at I-90 and continues west to the NY border. Along the way, the road wends its way along beautiful meadows, past northeast versions of raging rivers, and across some credible mountain passes. The trail’s defining moment is the “hairpin turn”, a sharp highway switchback descending from the village of Florida down to North Adams, a small Berkshire city.
Hairpin Turn on Route 2 in North Adams, MA
The Mohawk Trail is notable and appreciated for its wildness, or at least its sense of wildness. Massachusetts is one of the most densely built-up states and is not known for its frontier. But when travelling on the Mohawk Trail, you get to journey out in the woods. It may not be the Yukon, but the towns are widely spaced, and the terrain is surprisingly rugged. What really sets the tone for the place are the ridges. Some of the surrounding hills are pretty steep, approaching the status of mountains. Forested ridge lines rise sharply from the green valley floor. The overall effect is of a place that is remote and far from civilization.
Except that now when you drive east from North Adams, you are greeted by large windmills. As you ascend to the hairpin turn, a series of futuristic windmills churn atop the ridge over the town border in Florida. Here, the hill tops are no longer covered by trees and inhabited by bears, but they have been subdued by mechanized civilization. The wilderness is no more.
Windmills Viewed from Mt. Greylock
With the understanding that civilization needs power, it should be hard to object to windmills. Consider the alternatives. Coal plants have a long list of environmental objections. The burning of fossil fuels in general is thought to contribute to greenhouse gasses. At some point all fossil fuels will not be renewable, although that date has receded further into the future with the recent success of fracking.
Fortunately, nuclear power doesn’t rely on fossil fuels, but when it goes wrong, it goes very wrong. Nuclear power risks are debatable: very small risks of very large negative impacts. The debate focusses on how small the risks really are related to how big the impacts.
But windmills, who could object to that? They may not quite be cost effective without tax subsidies, but there is no risk of nuclear Armageddon or irreversible overheating of the earth. They provide renewable power with no pollution.
But some have objected. A website sponsored by residents living near the Florida windmills states:
“The Friends of Florida and Monroe is a group of concerned citizens who question the wisdom of building a project like this. We are concerned about what life will be like for us living in close proximity to the turbines. We question whether or not the millions of dollars of public subsidies really benefit the public or is this an example of successful lobbyists lining the pockets of wealthy corporations? Will there be health effects from the turbines, and will we see a reduction of our property values? Do industrial scale wind turbines really help with global warming and help us get off fossil fuels? Or is this a wrong turn on the path to a sustainable energy future.”
Similar objections have been raised for the proposed wind farm project in Nantucket Sound. It’s not obvious at first how an expanse of water can be compared to wild, forested ridges. But the sentiment of objectors is that the expanse of water provides a similar experience, that of natural, non-despoiled space. Plunking a farm of industrial-looking windmills in the middle of the Sound wrecks the visual impression of open ocean.
In addition to visual impacts, windmills can be noisy to people living next to them, and they can result in the death of birds. It is possible to find objections to any approach for power generation. Overall impacts can be understood and compared in terms of costs and benefits. This evaluation uses an approach that engineers know well and appreciate. But others are not as well versed in the engineering method. Everyone, more or less, wants lights to turn on when you flick the switch. But then the conversation degrades into a more narrow debate about issues like the lost visual wilderness, without focus on the bigger picture of keeping the lights on. How to compare the different drawbacks and impacts is difficult and can be like comparing apples and oranges: birds dying versus long term storage of nuclear power waste. But compare and decide we must, or ultimately the lights won’t turn on.