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For sailors and other lovers of the sea, a dirty side to clean energy

2011 April 1

This is a can't-miss column. It can't miss irritating someone.

That's not my intent, of course. I want everyone to have saccharine thoughts about my words. It's just that I'm writing about one of the most contentious subjects in contemporary American society-the environment.

Don't ask me how the environment became controversial, but you know it is when SAILING's Green Issue each year infuriates several readers enough to give us a good flogging in letters to the editor.

And here I thought we were on safe ground, or water, devoting one issue of the magazine each year to visiting some of the world's most pristine sailing environments and to protecting the universal aquatic environment whose beauty is so essential to the enjoyment of sailing.

But merely using the word "green" offended a few readers who saw it as involving SAILING and sailing in a political movement. And an article suggesting that sailors consider using non-traditional cleaning products formulated to minimize harm to water quality was viewed by one reader as something lifted from an eco-terrorism manifesto.

Let's just call these isolated minority opinions a sign of healthy diversity among SAILING readers. I'm pretty sure the great majority of readers, and sailors generally, believe that protecting the glories of the natural world is good for sailing.

Now, though, I am wondering what these enlightened folks are going to think when I say this: It's time to rein in wind farms at sea.

Wind-driven power plants are spreading to our waters like a full-moon tide. There are plans for wind farms to sprout in Atlantic Ocean coastal waters from South Carolina to Maine. America's first offshore wind farm, approved last year by the federal government, will sprawl across 25 square miles of Nantucket Sound with 130 turbines taller than 40-story buildings. Wind farms have been proposed for every one of the Great Lakes.

We are supposed to be thrilled that these machines will produce a small part of the electricity that powers the world without putting carbon and other bad things in the air, and part of me is. But another part knows that this is not necessarily clean energy. Making this energy at sea can pollute as surely as does a plume of smoke from a coal-fired power plant on land.

It pollutes by damaging the aesthetics of the sea, contaminating ocean and lake views with massive machines, cluttering the once infinite space of seascapes with permanently placed manmade objects.

It will hit sailors literally between the eyes. What many of us love about sailing is that it lets us experience the vastness of the oceans and the inland seas of the Great Lakes, which are among the few remaining places where you can behold the face of Earth unsullied by the hand of man.

We are brethren in this loss with everyone who appreciates the sea from the perspective of the shore. There is a reason sea views are prized, why seaside property is dear, why government at all levels takes pains to provide public access to the shore, why seaport communities attract enough visitors to support tourist economies. It is the value, cherished by so many, of viewing the majesty of the sea.

We can get a sense of the effect of wind farms on this majesty from an incident in the village of Pentwater, Michigan, a pretty port across Lake Michigan from the offices of SAILING.

Townspeople gathered at a public hearing to learn about a proposed offshore wind farm that would erect as many as 200 turbines in a 10-square-mile area of the lake. When the project developers displayed a large digital image showing what a lake view would look like after construction of the farm, a collective gasp rose from the audience, according to reporters covering the meeting. The picture showed the deep blue of the lake extending from the Pentwater pierheads, the azure of the cloudless sky and the crisply defined horizon. It was a rendition of a view generations of Pentwater residents and visitors had admired, but with something added-ranks of towering turbines interrupting the once pure horizon from edge to edge of an image many miles wide.

The gasp is still audible along that coast of Michigan in a vigorous wind farm protest movement involving boaters, fishermen, lakeshore land owners and others who treasure lake views.

The lakes and the oceans are favored sites for wind farms because wind is steadier and stronger when it's not interrupted by land features. A map that charts wind resources shows some of the strongest wind off the country's left and right coasts and on the entire surface area of the Great Lakes.

Water is also prime wind farm territory because wind farms are fast becoming anathema on land. They are, after all, power plants, and people are saying we're all for wind power but-Not In My Back Yard. It's a NIMBY issue at sea too. For sailors, the water is our backyard.

Aesthetics aside, wind farms bring other negative baggage as navigational nuisances, new hazards to be avoided. Making sizable areas of the sea off limits to mariners diminishes the freedom to roam the sea.

I don't need to list all the good things about generating electricity with wind, nor the bad things about doing it by burning fossil fuel. We all get it.

But before the rush to install thousands of wind machines in American waters gains unstoppable momentum, the costs should be weighed honestly against the benefits. Those costs include the damage to the timeless beauty of the sea. We know that a healthier environment has to come with a price. But this price seems too high.