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Windmills

09/12/02 12:00AM By Tom Slayton
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(Host) While climbing in the mountains of Maine, commentator Tom Slayton learned about a wind generation project that raised several questions for him.

(Slayton) Saddleback Mountain in Northwestern Maine is one of the most beautiful mountains in the Northeast. At the summit, after a hike of several miles, I am surrounded by an immense panorama of forest, lakes, mountains and more mountains, stretching away to the horizon on all sides.

I fall into conversation with another hiker, who happens to be there with his children. He's a completely likable man, easygoing and affable. But unfortunately, the more I chat with him, the less I like his plans.

This man I've met on the mountaintop is into wind power - seriously, and in a big way. He's planning to build windmills - big wind-generating towers - on the top of several of the mountains that surround us. The wild landscape I have been happily exulting in would be wild no more. It would sprout summit wind-towers and would become part of the nation's power grid.

I like the idea of clean power, alternative power sources - but the possibility of adding a complex of power-generating windmills to this immense, unspoiled view of lakes and mountains does not thrill me. It fills me with apprehension.

This isn't just about mountaintops or clean, alternative sources of electricity. It's about the dilemmas that seem built into our society and its continually growing thirst for energy: Every source of electric power has a downside, a cost.

Want your power from relatively inexpensive coal and oil-fired plants? Say hello to hazy skies and acid rain. Want hydropower, generated by water turbines and dams? Give up a certain number of free-flowing streams and some miles of trout habitat. Nuclear power? Prepare to accept long-term linkage to a hyper-sophisticated technology with more than a few doomsday overtones - and significant vulnerability to terrorist attacks. Conservation? A good choice, but get prepared to live a lot more simply, and to wonder if that new industry your town wants will be able to find the power it needs.

All of the choices are more than tough - they're all awful. Which do I choose? Which do you choose? For now, I choose not to choose. I want better choices.

I don't want to be shackled to a doomsday machine, nor do I want to put power dams on every sizable river. I don't want to create acid rain and haze every time I switch on the lights, nor do I want windmills sprinkled about the mountaintops, turning a wild landscape into another part of industrial America.

I want a society of limits. I want a human community that knows when to say, "enough." And yet, I want the lights to light up and the electric range to heat up when I switch it on. I want the modest income I have and - yes - a little more besides; for I too, have imbibed enough of the American Dream to believe that more - just a little more - can't be all that bad, has got to be better.

Like all the rest of America, I want to have my cake and eat it too. But most of all, darn it, I want better choices.

Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.
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