Thinking creatively about energy

By Jeffrey Lewis | Jan 08, 2009

I was sorry to hear that talk of a wind power project in Rockland ran out of wind so soon. No doubt, there are real hurdles and concerns about the feasibility and practicality of any wind power project, anywhere. As promising as wind power may be as a partial solution to our very real energy needs, wind projects are not suitable everywhere. And while wind may be a wonderful energy resource, wind power projects are not powered on magic.

Obviously, there must be wind -- enough to produce enough power to sell at a price that makes the investment make sense in dollars and cents. But next to a quantifiable wind resource, there must be community support and goodwill, measured largely in emotions.

Human emotions around wind power projects blow in many directions. I have friends who see wind turbines as elegantly beautiful machines in their streamlined functionality. They would be happy to see them anywhere. I have other friends who only want to see them in pictures, preferably in places far way -- or out to sea beyond the horizon. Who is to say if they are ugly or not? Who is to say if they are noisy or not? (Please refrain from sharing your certain answers right now. I am absolutely certain of the answers too, but I am less certain that we would agree on them.)

Our “feel good” motivations to build green energy projects are no excuse to avoid the very real work of determining the economic feasibility of a project, and the very real acceptance of the facts if the data do not support our noblest wishes. Many of us understandably get excited about clean, green or “free” energy produced close to home. But free energy simply does not exist anywhere. And close to home is not the same as in my backyard. Our desire to do something more ecologically responsible in how we produce electricity could also come into conflict with our related desire to be good stewards of our environment. Studies could show that putting the turbines too close to bird life, or too close to human life, would be a problem that our values or our political will would not bear.

Ultimately, any data is just data -- facts. Our reason, values and emotions will determine what we will decide and how we will proceed. Premature fear around a project, fed often by emotional or simply false assumptions can kill a potentially promising project before the complete feasibility work can be done. This fear is something to take seriously and be on guard against. It can lead to throwing in the towel too soon, before a community has the chance to be as responsible and creative as possible in its feasibility work. So we should be wary of fear, but we should also be wary of a lack of creativity.

Our energy issues are serious enough that creative thinking is in fact a responsibility for all of us. I am convinced that we can all benefit from some more creative thinking. No, let me say that a different way: All of us are responsible to become more creative -- and less fearful -- in our thinking about how we use energy now and how we will use (and produce it) in the future. The world, and how we power it, is going to change.

This energy issue is big. It is big on the world level. It is big on the national level. And it is big on the local level. (And it’s going to get bigger.)

There are so many renewable energy projects in the world now, that there is plenty to learn about what has worked and what has not worked from one place to another. But one lesson I think is coming clear. In communities that have come together to see their energy issues as a collective problem with a shared solution, with shared burdens and shared rewards there are some inspiring stories of success. Do yourself and our community a favor: Google Samso Island in Denmark, or the city of Hull in Massachusetts, and then go talk to someone about it.

It is possible that we could someday tell similar stories if we dare now to think creatively, assess data rationally, and act like a community with a shared mission.

Jeffrey Lewis is a Camden resident and will begin serving on the town's energy committee later this month. The opinions expressed in this column are purely his own and do not reflect any town position.
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