There is middle ground to be found

Published 6:13 am Friday, May 7, 2010

By Dave Churchill

Herald publisher

There’s a saying that goes something like, “You can even get used to hanging, if you hang long enough.”

Email newsletter signup

Austin’s ongoing debate over in-town wind power turbines put me in mind of that phrase because even though wind turbines may be annoying, it’s not like the alternatives are all that pleasant. We’ve just become accustomed to them.

Take the fossil fuel with which we’re most familiar: Gasoline. How many other high explosives would we be willing to tote around in our cars and store in flimsy cans in our garage? Not many. Maybe not any.

And it’s tendency to create large fireballs isn’t gasoline’s only drawback. Frankly, it stinks. Its odor gets on anything it touches and isn’t easily removed. Then, when it burns, it turns into even smellier exhaust.

If we weren’t so used to it, would we really tolerate our neighbors idling their stinky, smoke-making cars next door? Wouldn’t we be up in arms the first time our evening walk was spoiled by a blast of exhaust fumes as we waited at a corner?

And anyone who has been wakened by someone’s un-muffled pick-up truck engine is enjoying the benefits of gasoline. It’s all those tiny explosions, after all, that make so much noise.

Noisy. Explosive. Stinky. If gasoline had just been invented today, it would never catch on.

Still, we have learned to love it.

None of which is to say that wind turbines are wholly good or that they belong in residential areas or even that they’re better than gasoline. A wind turbine that’s big enough and up high enough to produce any meaningful amount of power is definitely going to be visible. It’s going to make some noise.

But turbines are also going to get better, because there’s a lot money available to fund development. They’ll get quieter. Maybe they’ll be more efficient and smaller (to the extent the laws of physics allow).

In the best of all possible worlds, we’d all enjoy silent, non-polluting transportation fueled by electricity made from some quiet, non-polluting and, preferably, distant source. We’d heat our homes and mow our lawns with power from the same source. It would definitely be a better world.

And that day may come – just not anytime soon. Meanwhile, we’re going to be struggling through a period of uncertainty and change. We’re going to have to accept some new and different things, just like we learned to accept gasoline and – for a few decades – the fact that many homes had an ugly, 30-foot television antenna sticking above the roof line.

Now, if my (hypothetical) neighbor put up a wind turbine made with existing technology, I might not be pleased. But if my neighbor also quit burning gasoline – no more noisy Saturday lawn mowing, no more stinky exhaust – it might be an acceptable trade-off.

And it might be better than a break-even proposition if the turbine fit into some city-mandated rules about noise level and appearance. Even if today’s turbines can’t meet those rules, there’s no reason that future versions won’t.

The reality is that the way we energize our homes and cars is going to change, and we’re all going to have to get used to those changes. But it’s also possible to ease our way into what’s new. In-city wind turbines don’t need to be a yes-or-no proposition. There is middle ground to be found.