Listening to the Scenery

Driving on Route 1 from the Midcoast toward an island meeting Downeast when you are dealing with an implacable ferry schedule on the other end requires careful calibration. First, of course, you consider the season and the condition of the roads. In late spring, you can generally count on avoiding delays from the icy roads of winter and the frost heaves of mud season; in June, you are unlikely to be frustrated by long lines of summer trailers or sedans of fall leaf peepers. But then, of course, there is road construction to worry about. You recall the expression—“The tourists are coming, quick, tear up the roads!” —a perennial spring occurrence, so you add a good 20 minutes to your two-hour travel time each way for the half-day you will spend in the car. Which is OK, you think, because you can use the time to return voicemails your computer has helpfully forwarded to your smartphone, which has more features than most college graduates before 1990 can master.

But the otherwise smartphone is where the careful calibration comes in. Your calls will be randomly interrupted in what we have come to call the Lincolnville Dip between Camden and Northport, and in certain blank spots on either side of the mighty Penobscot River near Bucksport, and, of course, on much of Mount Desert Island’s roads, where scenery outranks the mere pursuit of commercial intercourse. These are the places where you enter Maine’s infamous cell hells—an eerie twilight zone of sudden interrupted communications.

When this happens to imperious summer visitors who come from Very Important Places, we take grim satisfaction in our timeless way of life. But when it happens to us permanent residents, if you are like me, your thoughts begin to migrate toward such issues as the dilemma of our democracy—which we recall from our civics lessons (is there such a thing still taught?) —is a question of the one and the many. Or when should we protect the rights of a local minority over the demonstrable needs of a large majority of a community?

This used to be an easier question to answer. Back in the dull days of conformity, before self actualization, Web searching, automated social networks and the echo chamber of the blogosphere, governments at all levels routinely permitted infrastructure improvements without too much problem—or too much public input. No more. Today, a small number of activists can instantly organize a campaign of complaint against virtually any public improvement almost faster than the speed of light.

Because we so nearly universally distrust the media, government and big business (not entirely without reason), more and more of us put our trust in the “voice of the people.” Meaning that anyone who can spare a half-hour to assemble expert opinions from the Internet can mount a campaign to stop something like a cellphone tower, where the benefits accrue to some ill-defined majority, but where the costs are born by a few. So back to Route 1. When is scenery more important than commerce? Answer: when the scenery is in your backyard and the commerce is “from away.”

If you think siting cellphones has become difficult, you can multiply by a factor of 10 the challenges of siting wind turbines. There is a veritable cottage industry of blogospherists around Maine (and the country) who spend a lot of time—and I mean a lot of time—dedicated to exposing the evils of this new form of alternative energy. If you did not know, for instance, that wind turbines do not reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, you clearly have not spent enough time corresponding with “experts” on the Internet, where anything that is repeated three times is automatically true.

I might have a whole lot more patience with those who oppose wind power development in Maine as a form of mountaintop removal if they suggested where else we ought to secure our electric energy in the future. Right now, anyone turning on a light in Maine is relying on generating facilities that burn either natural gas from offshore drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, which have a long history of really unfortunate environmental and safety track records, or from coal-fired plants, which have the most problematic environmental side effects, such as real mountaintop removal, stream and aquifer pollution and the highest carbon dioxide emissions of any energy source used in the world. And even though a portion of Maine’s electric energy comes from renewable hydropower, one does not sense a groundswell of support from local activists to build more dams on our free-flowing rivers.

Last year, the Maine Legislature passed a bill inviting proposals to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) for a “stepping stone” offshore wind farm of five to seven turbines, which would be required to be at least 10 miles from any part of the coast or inhabited island. According to the University of Maine, at least one very serious international energy company, StatoilHydro of Norway, has responded with a detailed plan they have submitted to the PUC When the PUC releases details of the offshore wind farm proposal(s) to the public, we will learn whether a 10-mile buffer, which was suggested in large part to reduce visual impact, will be sufficient to mollify those who might believe their property values may be damaged, or their businesses that depend on uninterrupted views of the Gulf of Maine will be threatened, by this new form of energy. The 10-mile buffer is also, not coincidentally, beyond the most intensely guarded grounds of coastal fishermen.

In the meantime, our current approach to public infrastructure siting leaves us in the position of asserting that other people’s backyards, being less pristine than ours, are where our energy supplies should be developed so we can continue to celebrate Maine’s clean environment. This might make good local politics, but it chains us to very bad energy choices.

June 22, 2011