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Windmills, wind and hot air

Ryan Sutter
Vail CO, Colorado

The windmills are up! For a month and a half they will stand as a symbol of Vail’s commitment to wind energy and environmental stewardship. There are 2,700 pinwheels lighting up 2,700 symbolic lights, each representing the decision by the Town of Vail to join Vail Resorts in offsetting 100 percent of its energy use through the purchase of wind credits.

As the current environmental movement gains momentum, wind credits have become an increasingly popular option for offsetting energy use. The problem, however, is that wind credits themselves do not offset energy use. They don’t directly reduce carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide emissions, either.

Wind credits are meant to be the last option. When all efforts have been exhausted to reduce energy consumption and develop renewable energy sources, wind credits can be purchased towards the development of future wind power. When properly understood, wind credits are not the environmental answer they are portrayed to be. Their purchase is certainly not cause for a $100,000 celebration.

All the energy produced in the United States goes into a giant pot called “the grid.” Whether wind-driven, coal-fired, or nuclear-fused, it all goes to the same place and is distributed to consumers as needed. Purchasing wind credits does not mean that the energy you use comes directly from wind, it still comes from the mostly coal-powered grid.

Purchasing wind credits therefore does not directly reduce any climate altering emissions.

Right now, wind power makes up about 2 percent of the total energy produced in Colorado. Clearinghouses like Renewable Choice Energy in Boulder purchase that energy from wind farms then re-sell them to individuals or companies like the town of Vail and Vail Resorts. The money paid to the energy companies subsidizes future wind power development.

Remember, these are power companies, not nonprofit organizations. They receive taxpayer-funded government subsidies from both state and federal governments specifically for wind power development and are bound by Colorado Amendment 37 to increase renewable energy sources from 2 to 10 percent. Do we really need to provide them additional free financing by purchasing wind credits?

In addition, the clearinghouses that buy and sell these wind credits profit off their sales and are not strictly regulated, meaning that there is oftentimes no guarantee that the clearinghouse won’t turn around and re-sell your wind credit to someone else.

So in effect, by purchasing wind credits, The Town of Vail is paying a third party to provide free financing to energy companies so that they can meet the new energy standards they are required by law to meet anyway. This would be like the town cutting me a check for an unspecified, but substantial amount. I would take my cut and send the rest to General Motors to help fund the production of a new hybrid vehicle that GM would in turn sell back to the town at full retail price. Then we would all celebrate by spending nearly a hundred grand on an exact, but miniaturized replica of the vehicle made entirely of recycled car tires and nontoxic adhesives to be rented and displayed for a month or so on the top of the mountain for all to see.

It just doesn’t make much sense.

Don’t get me wrong. I am all for doing whatever possible to reduce the footprint that society has on the planet. If wind credits are your best option then by all means, buy them.

In this case, however, I believe Vail is taking the easy way out. Taxpayer money would be better spent developing an environmental policy or by purchasing a couple of real windmills to power the 50 miles of Christmas lights the town uses in its annual winter light displays. These options would actually pay for themselves in the long run and provide generations of ecological symbolism through the preservation of a healthy environment.

The artistic display of 2,700 mini-windmills on the golf course creates a false impression and is less a statement of environmental stewardship that an anesthetic meant to numb a conscious heavy with huge empty houses, heated streets, polluted rivers and dying trees. We can do better…

Ryan Sutter of Avon writes a biweekly column for the Vail Daily. Send comments or questions to editor@vaildaily.com.


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