Global warming concerns force local environmental trade-offs

For 23 years, Eva Villanova has lived the idyllic country life. She raised a family and made a name for herself as an artist. Her home on leafy Flagg Hill Road in the northwest Connecticut town of Colebrook was a perfect place to turn ordinary clumps of clay into extraordinary works of art-or so Villanova thought.

Much to her dismay, a Connecticut energy company is proposing to build as many as five 320-foot wind turbines just yards away from Villanova’s kilns. The project, proposed by BNE Energy Inc., would be the first substantial wind farm in the state. It would go a long way in helping Connecticut achieve its goal of generating 20 percent of its power over the next decade from renewable energy sources.

Although Flagg Hill residents extol the virtue of wind power as a way to combat global warming, they don’t want to see a wind farm from their front stoop. They say not only will the turbines be hazardous, ugly, noisy, and a danger to wildlife (read: birds hitting the turbine’s 115-foot blades), but they will sink home values. “I don’t have anything against wind power, but it should not be in a residential neighborhood,” Villanova says.

As the project slogs through Connecticut’s regulatory marsh, Villanova and other opponents can expect little support from environmentalists. As President Obama pushes the nation to develop renewable energy sources, those in the green movement are being asked to weigh whether global climate worries trump the concerns of local residents. In many regions, environmentalists are battling one another over this eco-paradox.

“We don’t want to put wind farms on the top of Mount Rushmore…but we have to support these projects somewhere,” says Roger Reynolds, a senior staff attorney with the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. “At this point we have not seen any reason to oppose this project.”

The call to use more renewable energy has become a political imperative as energy prices rise, our gas guzzlers sputter, and our dependence on foreign oil swells. The president says he wants the U.S. to generate 25 percent of its power using renewable resources by 2025. Not only would the president’s goal sharply reduce America’s reliance on foreign oil, but it would lessen America’s carbon footprint and create thousands of green jobs.

Connecticut also has goals for producing energy from renewable sources and programs for promoting conservation and efficiency, although those are threatened by the current budget crisis.

To achieve renewable energy goals, conservationists are becoming more open-minded to technological improvements in power generation and distribution.

“The big established environmental groups are more willing to compromise than they were once upon a time,” says Ralph Meima¸ who teaches business courses in energy sustainability at Marlboro College Graduate School in Vermont. “There’s more information out there on how energy dependent we are. They want to see more use of renewable energy.”

A case in point is an immense 370-mile power line that would bring hydropower generated by Canadian dams to power-thirsty New York City and southwestern Connecticut. The line would run under Lake Champlain in New York, and down the Hudson River. Part of the line would snake under Long Island Sound to Connecticut.

It wasn’t that long ago when environmentalists would have stormed the barricades to oppose such a project. In fact, environmentalists opposed a much smaller line under Long Island Sound in 2002 because it disrupted shellfish beds. Today, it’s a different story. The alternative to sinking the line would be to build huge high-voltage towers by clear-cutting vast swaths of forest through some of the most pristine areas of New York and Connecticut.

Environmentalists are cautiously enthusiastic about the trade off, although they need to see what the project’s impact will be before giving total support.

“Unlike traditional fossil fuels, when…renewable energy projects are pitted against Long Island Sound environment, there should be balance,” says Leah Schmalz, director of legislative and legal affairs for the environmental group Save the Sound. “If there are no other alternatives and if the impact to the ecosystem is minimized… then the benefit of the project when weighed with the potential harm should be considered.”

Still, the rush to generate more renewable energy has some environmentalists eating their young. One of the most famous-or infamous-cases is in Massachusetts where local and state eco-activists have decried a plan to build a 130-turbine wind-power project off Nantucket’s shore, while many national groups including Greenpeace support the project.

In Nevada, some greenies have broken ranks with their allies in the solar industry over a gargantuan solar power plant that would devour 3,400 acres of desert. In West Virginia, environmentalists and a Chicago-based wind energy company are locked in a legal death match over whether wind turbines should be built where an endangered bat lives. It is the first court challenge to wind power under the federal Endangered Species Act.

But nowhere, it seems, is the battle between the greens and their allies as vitriolic as it is in Maine. The recent growth of massive wind power projects has put Maine’s environmentalists at one another’s throats, divided communities, and pitted neighbor against neighbor. Many say the rush to install wind turbines on hundreds of miles of Maine’s scenic ridges is not only shortsighted but ecologically devastating.

At the center of the Maine controversy is a 2008 state law that fast-tracked the wind-permitting process.  Opponents say the law, which passed with little public comment, opens the door for large-scale wind developers to destroy rural landscapes and spoil the ecosystem. Others, like the Natural Resources Council of Maine, say the projects-if sited correctly-are needed to wean Mainers and everyone else off fossil fuel.

Fortunately for the green movement, such civil wars are infrequent. That’s partly because the nascent trend is to build small, highly-efficient renewable energy projects that are more eco-friendly and less controversial. “Most people have become pretty sophisticated in understanding that substantially large-scale solutions are not the answer,” says Marlboro College’s Meima. “The answers to our problems are not 100-turbine wind farms.”

That puts Colebrook and other communities in the crosshairs. Officials are considering several small-scale wind projects in Prospect, Old Lyme and other towns.

The Colebrook wind farm is needed, says state Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, who represents Colebrook. He is also the ranking member on the Senate’s energy and technology committee. The windmills would create jobs, increase the town’s tax base, and move Connecticut farther along the renewable-energy path, the senator says. Wind farms across the state would help decrease the amount of renewable energy Connecticut has to buy from its neighbors, Witkos says.

“Wind power is good,” Witkos says. “I’d like to see more of these projects. I’d put a wind turbine on my property.”

Villanova knows where Witkos can find one. There is already a 180-foot meteorological tower on the two-acre site. The tower measures the speed and steadiness of the wind that slices through a verdant ridgeline just off Route 44. The thought of several turbines, almost twice that size, haunts Villanova and her Flagg Hill Road neighbors.

“I love the house. I want to retire here,” Villanova says. “I see green as being the color of money.”

John Perritano is an award-winning freelance journalist, author, and editor. A one time staff writer for the Hartford Advocate, he has worked for National Geographic, Scholastic, and other publishers. He lives in Southbury.