The Wind Power Debate — Ned Coffin

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(HOST) As our special commentary series on wind power continues, Ned Coffin considers voters who grant tax credits, neighbors who lose pristine ridgeline views and the question of who should benefit from this new technology.

(COFFIN) Some thirty years ago I helped start Enertech – a wind-energy company in Norwich, Vermont. We became the first commercial manufacturer of windmills to generate utility-grade electric power. When connected to a household electric system these machines made the electric meters run backwards in a high wind, and we sold hundreds of them across the country. Today, these machines are called wind turbines. Ours were small machines. Today’s machines are much larger, and generally clustered in groups called windfarms.

I believe that these large wind turbines, and windfarms, have a big future as their cost comes down and electric rates go up. Germany already has 16,000 wind turbines. 16,000!

And the stories about noise, and bird kills and blades flying off have all been proved to be myths. But I’ve reluctantly come to believe that big windmills and windfarms should be subject to some kind of regulation by state agencies such as our public service board.

My reasons are simple: first, almost all other types of electrical generating facilities are owned by public companies, so the profits flow to anyone who chooses to buy a few shares in them. And second, almost all other generating facilities are regulated by the states, so that the sales price of the electricity produced bears some relationship both to its cost of production and to the amount of investment involved.

By contrast, windfarms are generally privately owned by a small group of investors, and they are free to sell their electricity to the highest bidder, including industries or utilities hundreds of miles away. There is no regulation of the price; no opportunity for outsiders to buy shares, no opportunity for the neighbors to buy their output, and no benefit to local people except for property taxes paid. If windfarms are placed on public land,or on highly visible mountain tops, others should have an opportunity to share in the benefits.

If the windfarms are sited in a state where voters have given a big tax break to wind turbine owners, the absence of any regulation is unfair to a much larger population. All taxpayers in the state will have contributed to the farms’ success but they have no guarantee that they will receive any of the benefits.

For lots of reasons we have to reduce our dependence on coal, oil and gas. And I’m a strong believer that national and state legislators should actively promote the use of all promising alternative energy sources. Wind energy is one of the most promising.

Wind energy is free; wind energy is constantly renewable, and wind-generated electricity is becoming more and more competitive with fossil fuels in high wind areas.

But I do believe some kind of oversight and perhaps some legislation is required to be sure that those who contribute to a windfarm’s success will share in the benefits.

I’m Ned Coffin of Strafford.

Ned Coffin is a retired businessman, specializing in international trade.

Tomorrow our special commentary series concludes with Elizabeth Courtney, who says that wind power is just the beginning of the alternative energy debate.

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