Often lost in the debate about the pros and cons of developing new sources of energy production is the critical importance of conserving our existing energy reserves by promoting conservation and altering personal consumption habits. Energy conservation — increasing the efficiency of energy use to produce more output for the same consumption — must be part of the conversation if we are to overcome the unprecedented energy challenges we face globally and locally.

But where does conservation intersect with the debate about wind energy development in Vineyard waters? The Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS) believes that the planning process now underway for developing wind farms off our coast must find creative ways to harness the power of conservation. Our view is that if we can conserve more, we can develop less of our ocean environment. The reasons for doing that are obvious. The ocean is an irreplaceable resource that deserves a healthy dose of respect. It surrounds us and helps define what is special about this place.

At VCS, advocacy around energy conservation has been part of our identity for a long time. In 1976, we formed the Energy Resource Group (ERG) to promote energy conservation. For a decade, ERG advocated for renewable energy, sustainable practices across economic sectors, and increased awareness about energy consumption.

More recently, during the polarizing battle over Cape Wind, VCS advocated for integrating conservation into the plan review process, and proposed a formula for dedicating a percentage of developer profits for energy conservation programs on the Cape and Islands. During last winter’s hearings on the Oceans Act management plan (which identified wind farm development zones off Cuttyhunk and Noman’s Land), we again called for linkage between new energy production and enhanced energy conservation and efficiency programs.

Today, more wind farms are planned. One involves a collaboration between Massachusetts and Rhode Island, aimed at developing a 400-square-mile area located 12 miles southwest of the Vineyard. Concurrently, our “locally-grown” Vineyard Power cooperative is working on a mix of solutions — probably starting with several solar energy projects, and possibly involving 17 offshore wind turbines — to achieve the goals outlined in the Vineyard Energy Project’s energy plan. That plan calls for a 50 per cent per capita reduction in energy consumption on Martha’s Vineyard by 2050 through efficiency and conservation. This reduction of energy use is a goal that VCS wholeheartedly supports.

Energy conservation is fundamental to addressing the environmental gorilla in the room: global climate change. There is wide consensus in the scientific community that carbon emissions from fossil fuels are disrupting the climate. To stabilize atmospheric carbon, an almost unimaginable global effort will be required over just a few decades.

Because the time horizon for action is perilously short, it makes sense to use strategies for reducing carbon pollution that are immediately deployable and most effective. By those two measures, wind falls short. In contrast, conservation and efficiency improvement programs can and must begin immediately. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, conservation programs cost 60 per cent less than building renewable energy facilities to achieve the same benefit. Most significantly, nearly 40 per cent of the reductions in carbon emissions in the U.S. needed over the next 20 years can come from energy efficiency and conservation alone.

Because of this promise, attention should rightly be directed at a massive effort to improve energy conservation and efficiency. But it is largely being eclipsed by the captivating vision of developing new renewable energy production from wind. That is why we are trying in every way possible to link discussion of wind development to the urgent need for action on the conservation front.

Wind energy could certainly contribute in a modest way to addressing the environmental challenge posed by carbon pollution. But it will produce a small benefit at a large cost in an ineffectual time frame. For that reason, many argue that now is not the time to expend limited resources on wind turbine development off our coast.

Some tens of thousands of turbines currently exist worldwide, producing less than one per cent of total electricity. With a Herculean, resource-intensive effort, several hundreds of thousands of additional large turbines could conceivably be constructed. Together with a modernization of the transmission and distribution elements of the electrical grid, this effort could eliminate as much as a billion tons of carbon emissions per year. This would be equivalent to about 15 per cent of the reductions needed over the next 20 years to head off climate catastrophe. This is not negligible, but it represents a fairly small contribution for an immense investment of capital and resources.

But if wind can’t be a major player in the short-term struggle to curtail a climate crisis, what about harnessing wind to simply meet energy needs in the longer term? People will still expect to be able to turn on their electric lights, and at some point in the future that electricity will not come from fossil sources. As former Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger bluntly stated in reference to depleting fossil fuel reserves, “If something cannot be sustained, it will eventually not be sustained. Ultimately, it will shrink.” The question is, what balance between conservation, on the one hand, and new renewable resources such as wind, on the other, can provide us with a sustainable power supply?

Wind will certainly produce some of our renewable electricity in the future. One of the things that makes wind most attractive is its directness: wind turns turbine; turbine makes electricity. It offsets the combustion of three units of fossil fuel, and — once constructed — avoids the “externalities” associated with mining, health impacts, transportation, and combustion. Every kilowatt hour produced by a wind turbine offsets one to two pounds of carbon dioxide emissions from conventional sources. Wind also offsets other harmful emissions components like sulfur and nitrogen oxides, mercury, and particulates from the fuel cycle like coal ash.

Wind’s role will also be assured because governments are stimulating the fledgling wind industry through legislative policies, mandates and incentives. These include Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) laws that require utilities to provide an increasing percentage of their power from renewables like wind. With extensive development of our land and offshore environment, electricity from wind could some day represent 15 or 20 percent of our energy portfolio.

But what about public policy and incentives designed to stimulate conservation? Massachusetts has an array of excellent energy efficiency programs. But they currently serve to fend off only about one-third of the annual growth in electricity demand. Even though the strategy of exponentially improving conservation and efficiency to limit climate disruption is straightforward and clear, conservation remains the poor cousin, lost in the rush to encourage development of new renewable energy generating capacity.

In Massachusetts, unlike other states, conservation is not even listed as a qualifying form of so-called green power in the renewable portfolio. Several other states give utilities the flexibility of buying equivalent kilowatts saved through conservation and efficiency by, for example, investing directly in residential energy savings programs. If our legislators changed that, the effect would be to more effectively exploit the power of conservation to fight carbon pollution. The bonus would be that conserving more would conceivably allow us to develop less of our ocean environment with wind turbines.

Inevitably, new technologies are costly. And since Renewable Portfolio Standards and similar programs allow these increased costs to be passed on to ratepayers, electricity is almost certain to become an increasingly expensive and precious commodity in the foreseeable future. This will be an aggravating reality for consumers accustomed to leaving on the lights, but it may be the only incentive that will jump start a societal commitment to conservation and efficiency.

Not waiting for sticker shock is what VCS is advocating for. We must immediately fund and deploy a combination of creative motivators to change consumer behavior around energy use. Examples include installing devices that measure real-time electricity consumption, providing direct financial incentives for conserving, and appealing to consumers on behalf of future generations and the health of the environment.

Almost one third of the energy used each year in the U.S. is consumed by residential buildings. Improving the efficiency of our homes to conserve energy therefore represents a huge opportunity. It is also a welcome antidote to the helplessness many people feel when faced with the sheer size and scope of global environmental woes. Our homes are something we actually have control over. The simple act of shutting off lights and improving insulation is empowering, and can make a real difference if consumers understand the stakes and embrace conservation on a society-wide scale.

And if our ocean environment hosts wind turbines, planning review must be rigorous, and wind profits should help pay for those conservation incentives. We know that when excellent wind-profile areas overlap with high visibility natural areas like the Vineyard there will be environmental, visual, and other impacts. Addressing those impacts in the regulatory review process will require great attention to siting, and compensatory mitigation offsets. Underwriting regional energy conservation programs should be high on the list of such offsets.

It is argued that, because nearly 80 per cent of the nation’s electricity is used by states located on the coasts, places like Martha’s Vineyard should “take one for the team” and accommodate wind turbine development without hesitation. It is easy to understand why this doesn’t sit well with everyone. Many Vineyarders feel they are already doing their share by taking personal responsibility for conserving energy and making their homes more energy efficient. Others feel they have been responsible stewards — in some cases for generations — of the natural areas now targeted for energy development.

Still, the community has no choice but to grapple with these difficult issues and move forward constructively. On the regional planning level, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission is providing outstanding leadership, and needs continued community support. Incentivizing conservation and efficiency should be a requirement exacted from wind farm developers. On the non-governmental level, the Vineyard Power cooperative has developed a site selection method that recognizes public acceptance as a major factor in project viability, and is inviting the community to specify the factors that will be used to weigh various options.

And on an individual level, we all need to elevate the importance of conservation and efficiency in our personal decision making at home and in the community.


Brendan O’Neill is executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society.