Sometimes it’s a good idea to go back to school.

On Earth Day, which was a week ago Monday, I spoke to a seminar class in the natural sciences at our local college, Lyndon State. It was fun talking to the students, and I was reassured to see how committed they are to doing something about global warming, which was the main subject of my talk. I learned the most, however, from a professor who sat in on the class, who changed my mind about wind power.

I had met physicist Ben Luce by chance at a lecture in St. Johnsbury over the winter. We enjoyed speaking to each other and decided to get together again sometime. I was surprised during that first conversation when this obviously intelligent person, an alternative energy and even wind activist who seems to have all the numbers and regulations at his fingertips, came out strongly against wind power, not only in our home state but pretty much anywhere on land anywhere in the Northeast. (He believes it makes sense in the Midwest, where the resource is “two dimensional,” that is, it can be spread out over a plain, rather than along a one-dimensional mountain ridge. Ben’s advocacy of wind in New Mexico helped lead to the installation of several hundred megawatts of wind generation there.)  He fears that industrial wind development of a magnitude that could make any significant contribution to the Northeast’s energy needs would set us back years if not decades by giving alternative energy a bad name, both politically and economically.

That short conversation had me intrigued but not convinced. I’ve been aware of the resistance to the ridge line wind projects near my home in northern Vermont, Lowell and Sheffield in particular, but I assumed it was motivated by NIMBY-ism or knee-jerk environmentalism in people who aren’t aware how important it is to cut  greenhouse emissions.  But last week when Ben sat me down and walked me through the numbers, he convinced me that economic and scientific logic comes down strongly on the side of resistance as well.

In a nutshell, wind power is not only highly destructive to Vermont’s lovely and iconic mountain ridge lines, it also loses hands down to solar, technically and economically, while solar is nowhere near as destructive to the landscape. This would appear to be a no-brainer. It would take wind development on half the state’s ridge lines to supply our small state’s relatively modest electrical needs, while it would only take 1 percent of our already existing farmland to do the job with solar. Furthermore, Ben writes in an e-mail, “Focusing on just Vermont’s energy demand is irrelevant to the climate issue (its a red herring so to speak): VT’s consumption is only a few percent of the overall region’s demand. … What really matters is how the overall region is going to significantly reduce emissions, and this is where wind falls down badly.” If ALL of Vermont’s ridge lines were dedicated to wind, they would supply only about 1 percent of the Northeast’s energy demand. This is down at the noise level.

“Blasting and bulldozing ridge lines for wind power in Vermont is therefore analogous to cutting down a forest for a garden when there is already a large field prepared adjacent,” Ben writes elsewhere. “It just doesn’t make sense on scientific grounds, even from the standpoint of combating climate change.”

Wind advocates tend to emphasize the potential for Vermont alone, conveniently neglecting to point out that solar could do the job much less destructively and also be capable of supplying a large fraction of the Northeast’s needs and therefore having a real impact on the entire region’s greenhouse emissions. The advocates also “hide the fact that we are not supplying wind energy to Vermont for the most part anyways,” writes Ben, “because we are selling most of the credits to utilities in other states (while we double-count the same power towards our own ‘renewable energy targets’). This latter part is basically just fraud. … The real reason there is a wind rush on is simply that people haven’t studied it much, it became somewhat cheaper more quickly than solar, and because utilities despise distributed generation.”

This brings up another of wind’s drawbacks: transmission lines. Owing both to the small capacity of the local electrical grid and the fact that it’s not a “smart grid,” the Sheffield wind project (I’m tempted to call them “wind factories,” as the performers at Bread and Puppets did last summer) actually has to discard power when its output exceeds local demand. A wind project is a centralized power station–in this respect it’s like a fossil fuel-burning power plant–so significant wind development leads to the need for more transmission lines. Conservative goals for wind power in the Northeast over the next fifteen years would “carry transmission costs of between $7 billion and $12 billion” and require four thousand miles of new lines! These costs are not often mentioned by advocates. Even ignoring them, while the cost of wind dropped until about 2000, it has been increasing ever since, mostly due to the commodity costs associated with the enormous metal infrastructure involved. And in Vermont there is the added cost of massive road building in inhospitable terrain. Meanwhile, solar is by its nature distributed and less capital intensive, and its cost continues to drop. It’s already competitive with wind on its face, while the future costs of wind from transmission corridors and so on remain hidden.

“If you add in all the impact and cost issues, then wind looks really crazy,” Ben concludes.

Makes sense to me, and it is also refreshing to see such clear thinking and explaining. There is no easy answer to the daunting challenge of global warming, and dogmatism simply won’t work. We need all the clarity and level-headedness we can summon.

There’s been a lot of talk about the ill effects of loosing touch with nature, but most has focused on how it affects the spirit or leads to behavior that damages the natural world. Now, here’s a physical health reason to drop the smartphone and take a walk in the woods. Reminds me of a remark my quite healthy dairy farming neighbor made the other day: “You’re not a real Vermonter unless you’re knee deep in shit.”

From the Editor’s Choice section of the 8 June issue of Science:


Hygiene Can Hurt

As human societies urbanize, chronic inflammatory disorders become more apparent. The hygiene hypothesis suggests that individuals exposed to infection in childhood are less likely to develop inflammatory disease because exposure to microorganisms is important for stimulating responses that maintain epithelial cell integrity. Hence, in urban environments, reduced contact with the full diversity of the microbial world may be leading to the increased incidence of inflammatory disorders. Hanski et al. took a random sample of 118 adolescents from towns, villages, and isolated dwellings in eastern Finland, tested their immune function and allergic responses, surveyed their skin microflora, and investigated the biodiversity within their homes. They found several significant correlations, not least that low biodiversity was surprisingly strongly associated with atopy, and concluded that humans need to interact with natural environments for their physical health, not just for their peace of mind.

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 109, 10.1073/pnas.1205624109 (2012).

With apologies to T. S. Eliot, I have to say that in northern Vermont right about now the answer seems to be yes.

Even “real Vermonters” are getting sick of winter at this point; they have been for a few weeks now. We’ve had persistent cold, quite a few mornings below zero — one just this past Thursday when it went down to -15 — and lots of snow. But last Tuesday, March 1st, was Town Meeting Day, always a harbinger of spring, and things really began looking up on Saturday, which was Losar, the Tibetan New Year, and the end of the inauspicious dön season. Yes, it rained, but it was warm, and so was Sunday morning, which brought more rain. The mountain of snow at the back end of our door yard shrunk noticeably and a pile of wood that I never thought we were going to need, but now I’m pretty sure we will, began peaking out from under its white cover in the wood yard.

Chatting with our neighbor, Marilyn, as she was picking up her mail last week, I learned that Town Meeting Day was when they always tapped their trees when she was a kid. Her father would go to town meeting and the rest of the family would go out and tap. She also reminded me that many folks start their seedlings about now, since it is traditional to plant on Memorial Day, although she often delays both the seedlings and the planting for a week or two, as frosts remain a possibility into the second week of June.

And so, on Sunday afternoon, the day we first noticed the red of new buds on the trees around our fields, Wendy and I tapped two sugar maples — in early spring sunlight with that special silvery hue that is unique to New England. What an amazing experience for two city slickers. The sap began dripping before we could hammer the tap in, and those two trees began gushing faster than we could keep up, about ten gallons of clear sugar water between them every day …

That night a storm hit, one of the five snowiest ever to hit the state, according to the newspapers. It raged all day Monday. When I went out to plow with my medium-sized tractor, a 30-hp John Deere 870, at about 11 am, it was coming down so fast I couldn’t keep up. About 18″ fell altogether.

But the trees kept producing. And then, of course, mud season began on Thursday. You have to roll with the punches around here …

Winter is beginning to feel long here in late February, as the temperature dropped below zero for the umpteenth time again last night. Today’s crisp, clear, still weather does elevate the spirit, though. We took a walk in the sunlight to start the day — a good way to fight seasonal affective disorder at this time of year.

I’d guess that the creatures in the woods are having a harder time than we are. We and our neighbors have been seeing more of them lately; they seem to be getting hungry. Last Wednesday, as I was packing a bag for a short trip to Boston, Wendy called from her office, “Mark! Come quick! Come quick!” And there in the back yard was the first fisher cat I have ever seen in broad daylight, jet black against the snow. (I’ve seen them in the headlights before, skulking by the side of the road; they’re generally nocturnal.) He (she?) was healthy and chipper-looking, easily three feet long, a good portion of that length being a strong, shaggy tail, and he seemed to be snooping around for food, which, in a fisher’s case usually means flesh or blood, as I understand it. The first time we visited this property, we hung around admiring the place for a while after the realtor left, and the neighboring dairy farmer and his wife drove up the dirt road (they and their family are the only other inhabitants on this dead end) and stopped for a long chat. I’ll call them Bob and Marilyn. At one point, they began telling us animal stories, and Bob, who pastures a few heifers and grows hay and sweet corn on some of our fields, told one about seeing a fisher the previous spring trying to drown a baby fawn in the stream that runs through our property.

The fisher we saw last Wednesday looked beguilingly friendly, although I wasn’t close enough to see the icy weasel eyes. He was quivering with energy and intelligence as he checked out the empty chicken house in the backyard (where a squirrel and a vole or two are headquartered for the winter) wandered across the small frozen pond next to it and meandered downhill in the strip of woods that follows the stream where the attempted and perhaps successful drowning took place, checking out the trees for living inhabitants. Not finding any, he followed the stream across the road and down toward the Connecticut River.

That same day or the next, a bobcat nabbed a chicken from a neighboring friend’s coop. She happened to be outside when the cat came by the following day, hoping for another treat, and the cat was utterly unconcerned by her presence, even when she called to her roommate, who also came out to watch. The cat turned and stopped, looked them in the eyes for a while, and took its own sweet time wandering away.

It’s nice to know there are such healthy critters in the woods, but Wendy kept the cat inside for a day or two.

As of a week ago, this blog has taken on an entirely new look. This is to reflect a major change in my life circumstances–and interests–since I started this blog, just as my second book was being released, a few years ago.

That was a difficult time. The writing of that book was an unpleasant experience, and I am not overly proud of the result. It’s okay, but it’s basically a first draft. The publisher showed no interest in quality. My editor denied my request for just one rewrite, and he and his colleagues wrote the book off before it was released–which happened two days after Christmas, to give an idea of the marketing savvy involved. Anyway …

At the same time, a very important person in my and my children’s life was dying–and soon did. My younger child, a daughter, left for college the following year, so I found myself an empty-nester. And for reasons having to do with the death that had occurred, my girlfriend and I were compelled to move twice in the space of a year. A lot of upheaval.

The second move has taken us from suburban Boston to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The photograph in the banner above is a view of Mt. Washington that I took last winter from a spot near our new home. To me it is a unique perspective on the defining geographical feature of this region, for it is taken from the west. I had always approached the mountain from the south or east on the many rock and ice climbing trips I took to the White Mountains before we moved up here. Mt. Washington seems larger, more peaceful, and more majestic from this side, with the smooth slopes of the Ammonoosuc ravine descending nearly from its summit to its base.

As the sparse entries on this blog may indicate, I have also been pushed back on my heels by the public relations war that climate science and climate policy has become. I may try to explain my thinking on that more fully in a post sometime, but, basically, I am very pessimistic about our prospects for doing anything real about what will almost certainly become an unprecedented global crisis in which tens to hundreds of millions of people stand a good chance of dying, and I don’t see how I can contribute effectively to what has become a childish screaming match.

The old blog banner, which featured a quote by Jim Hansen about climate tipping points, seems restrictive. I’m interested in, and writing about, other things now. (I’m working on three books at the moment, only one of which has anything to do with science.) Since I’d like to feel free to write about anything in this blog, I’ve decided to give it a new look (with the help of John Lehet, a fine photographer and Web designer, to whom kudos and many thanks). I may come up with a new name as well. Let’s see what happens …

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