Volume 12, Issue 46 ~ November 11 - November 17, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Tilting at Windmills
When All the Oil Is Used up, the Wind Will Still Blow

They objected to the way they looked on the mountain; the new people said they came here to get away from things like that. I think if they thought about the electricity that could have been generated, they would have had second thoughts.
—MiMi Brush

Aunt MiMi spoke those words shortly before her death last April, as we took a morning drive in the valley below Mt. Equinox in the southwest corner of Vermont. I had looked up toward the mountaintop, and, noticing the windmills were missing, I wanted to know why. The “new people,” MiMi replied.

You can never be a Vermonter unless you were born within the borders of the Green Mountain State. If your parents were residents, but your mother crossed the state line to give birth at a closer and more convenient hospital in neighboring Massachusetts, New Hampshire or New York, you’re not Vermont born. Vermonters covet their heritage.

Something else about Vermonter Yankee: In real estate and buildings, new can designate a possession for perhaps 50 years. The country folk thereabouts use new when referring to a building that replaced another — no matter how far back. Tradition dies hard.

To understand how hard tradition dies, you’ll find the perfect example in Vermont poet Walter Hard’s free verse about the aging farmer who referred to his old barn as the new barn, though it had been on the farm from goodness knows when. As old age caught up with him, the farmer thought about selling the farm and moving into the village. So he placed an ad.

A response came quicker than expected — or wanted. A real estate man arrived with a fellow from the city who promptly decided to buy, which shocked the farmer. Moreover, the buyer mentioned that the new barn would have to go. It ruined the view.

Flabbergasted, the farmer protested, explaining the history of the barn, his part in its creation, its usefulness and soundness. As for the view it blocked, why there wasn’t “nothing behind that barn but a bunch of mountains.” That’s typical Vermont thinking. Residents take their beautiful green mountains for granted; they’re everywhere, and in the old days before farmers had the means and time to travel much, they assumed those in the rest of the country also enjoyed such picturesque surroundings.

Mimi’s Wise Ways
Having been born in Virginia, MiMi could never be a Vermonter. Still, she lived there for perhaps 75 years and loved the state, its mountains and traditions as much as any real Vermonter. Yet with old-fashioned values, she combined a modern way of thinking. She had been a school teacher and had traveled much; in some things she accepted change — as she accepted the newcomers.

Newcomers were welcome by her— as long as they accepted Vermont and its real Vermonters.

Until the end, she kept up with current events, and she appreciated that the world, especially the U.S., had energy problems. So when a row of windmills was erected on Mt. Equinox, she wasn’t happy to see them, but she understood why they were there. Progress has to come even in Vermont, she reasoned.

Newcomers didn’t think so; they had come to get out of the rat race where locales are degraded by utility lines, unsightly developments, freeways and such. Windmills on Equinox didn’t fit in with their views of views. So, like Don Quixote, they charged the windmills — in their fancy, gas-guzzling SUVs. Unlike Don Quixote, they prevailed. The windmills retreated from Equinox.

Double Dipping
That’s Vermont. This is Maryland, and the Don Quixotes hereabouts are picking up their lances to do battle with windmills.

Not long ago and on the same day, both The Sun and The Wall Street Journal ran prominent stories about the revival of interest in windmills with the renewal of a federal tax credit for those who delve into development of alternative energy sources. What better place than in Western Maryland, where the wind blows?

Coincidentally and curiously, a professional man of my acquaintance griped to me about the idea of windmills ruining the mountainous scenery of Garrett County, which is undoubtedly the best location in the state for wind. He had on his belt a cell phone he uses frequently; he is also the driver of a mammoth SUV.

That’s a double whammy. The proliferation of cell phones can be blamed for all the phone towers we now see littering the landscape. The fuel-hungry SUVs play a significant role in the energy woes we face today. Methinks one can’t have it both ways.

The citizenry wants alternative energy — as long as it isn’t in their back yard. It’s like the situation at Long Island, N.Y., where plans are underway to construct 35 to 40 windmills two and a half to six miles offshore. No one wanted them near all the expensive waterfront homes on Long Island. But I’ll wager the electricity will be welcome in those homes.

It’s time people give some serious thought to trade-offs, acknowledging it’s impossible to have things their own way all the time. Such thinking is part of the reason we’re in such an energy mess today. Most befuddling is that so few people in these times seem to acknowledge the bottom line, which is the consequences of all the petroleum-based electricity-generating facilities overworked trying to keep up with demand.

Think of the contribution all that fossil fuel makes to global warming. Think of the cold, hard fact that one day all the oil down beneath the surface of this earth will be gone. How can we pin our hopes on a quick fix from alternative energy sources when so many of us object to windmills — a clean, efficient, practical and relatively inexpensive alternative?

A few years back, I watched the windmills turn on Mt. Equinox, and I didn’t see them as eyesores — though my evaluation was probably tempered by my positive thinking about alternative energy. Contrary to what many think, the arms of windmills don’t spin as fast as do the arms on the tiny version that kids wave around on sticks. They don’t have to twirl rapidly to do their work. After seeing windmills at work generating power, it seemed to me they would not account for nearly so much mortality among migrating birds as claimed by some who protest their use

As for the towers that hold the blades high enough to catch the wind, they are no more imposing than the cell-phone towers proliferating today. Several decades ago, when cell phones were mostly in the planning stage, there were hopes for another clean energy source: harnessing the tide, especially at places like the Bay of Fundy, where tides can rise 30 feet or more. But the barriers that were needed to guide the flow through turbines interfered with the travels of aquatic life.

Here we are with windmills churning out power effectively and cleanly to bolster production in some prairie states and a few others. Yet gripes rise about doing likewise here. What is the gripers’ energy plan?

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.