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Tilting at Windmills

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This is my first political post.  I promise to keep them rare.

The encapsulating moment in Cervantes’ Don Quixote comes near the end, when our titular hero, having come upon a field of windmills, exclaims to his loyal vassal, Sancho, that they have encountered a hoard of vicious giants.  He attacks, he’s konked on the head by a giant, rotating blade, and the whole episode I guess says something about fighting impossible battles and confusing fiction with reality.

I wonder if Jon Wellinghoff, newly appointed chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), has read Don Quixote.  Probably not, because who the hell does anymore?  But anyway, I wonder if, considering his recent remarks about the future of wind power in America, he might gain a fresh perspective from reading the first novel.

Here’s a little somthing:

At a Nov. 18 briefing on Capitol Hill, Wellinghoff showed that he’s been thinking extensively about how to upgrade the grid to connect renewable energy produced in remote areas to population centers on the coasts. “In the whole Midwest of this country there are virtually no high- voltage transmission lines,” he said, displaying Google’s proposal to wean the U.S. from fossil fuels by 2030. “If you overlay where the wind is, all the wind is in the middle of this country — all those areas where we do not have sufficient transmission. Hopefully we can get the structure to put renewables on the grid and improve the grid to make it a smart system that can ultimately deliver these resources in an efficient way.”

Which sounds, like, really awesome.  And an altogether smart way to think of it- for implementing sustainable energy on a mass scale to be even remotely feasible it should be conceived as a matter of infrastructure rather than “alternative energy,” which practically insists triviality.  Yet there is one problem with the whole idea: Wellinghoff is lit up on crack cocaine if he thinks Midwesterners won’t bust a fucking valve over this.

And that is not to knock the fine people from this great nation’s breadbasket.  Though the fact that they on the whole gun-toting, free-market-loving, “get-off-my-damn-land”-style hardcore Republicans does play a role in this story.  See, I’m from Massachusetts, arguably the most blue-blooded liberal state in the country, and quite recently a big ol ruckus was kicked up over a plan to erect a few wind turbines in the Cape Cod Sound.  The generators would offset the consumption of 113 million gallons of oil annually, a huge deal for the Cape not just for the normal reasons of saving money and not killing polar bears, but also because there have been a few relatively serious oil spills in the area in the past.  Now, you’d think that the citizens of a state that voted Dukakis (bless his fair soul) in 1998 would be gung ho for such a plan.  Well, not so fast:

Kennedy has fought the Cape Wind project for eight years, arguing it would kill birds and endanger sea life while imperiling the scenic area’s tourism and fishing industries. The turbines would stand 440 feet above sea level when the tallest blades are pointing straight up. The Kennedy family’s oceanside Hyannis Port, Mass., compound would have a clear view of the project to be located 4.7 miles offshore, but Kennedy says it is not why he opposes the project. (Yeah, that Kennedy.  Not the mousy one who wanted to play New York Senator.)

Of all the wedge issues that people are warning Obama to not get mired in, its amazing that nobody has mentioned sustainable energy.  The reality is this: people want clean energy.  But more importantly they don’t want their lives to change even the slightest bit.  Have you ever watched how people react to the subway not running normally?  Have you ever stopped and thought about how you respond to the subway not running normally?  Well imagine that, instead of a that grating loudspeaker voice at Grand Central announcing in a barely decipherable mumble that your train won’t be stopping at your stop and you’ll have to walk a few extra blocks (just today!), the voice is now telling you that the views and sounds and flow of your community and your commute are going to change forever.  But hey, its all cool cus these changes are gonna help out people in major population centers, which by the way (now ignoring the whole subway metaphor) isn’t you.  The whole Not In My Back Yard explosion of grass roots outrage that took place in Massachusetts could easily arise with ten times the ferociousness in the heartland.  If I’m a bible belt Republican politician, I am just salivating at the idea of the Democrats trying to push this on my constituents, because this (lo! a gift!) is the kind of wedge issue that galvanizes a base.

So going back to the whole Quixote thing…who’s tilting at windmills here?  Is it Wellinghoff for proposing the plan?  Is it Obama, for making green energy (something everyone likes to see on paper, but I bet fewer will like when they see what its gonna mean) a central piece of his new administration?  Or will it be, assuming what I’ve detailed all comes to pass, those who oppose a temporarily jarring change that we all, in the end, need?

(Blog Bonus!: A Times article on the proliferation of “pay to publish” Printing companies, which I think is a preview to my next post.)

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Written by Peter Kelly

February 3, 2009 at 3:40 pm

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