Clean energy’s image problem

February 25, 2013

One thing that has been a constant companion during a combined business and pleasure trip to Hawaii has been wind…a luscious, thick, wet lick of a wind.

In some places, this abundant resource is being put to work. On the pleasure part of my trip, my son and I took a hike up the Waimea Valley on Oahu’s North Shore. It is a botanical reserve with plants from across the Pacific. Above the rustling philodendron and banana leaves, the mighty blades of a wind turbine churned the tropical air. A line of turbines spun on a ridge top outside the park. They made a subtle whirring sound as if a hummingbird was following us up the trail.

I made a comment to my son about how cool it was…this clean energy being pumped out right above our little carbon sink of a valley. His response was…”Dad don’t you think it sort of sucks! Don’t you think they ruin nature” In his mind, the turbines were not much different than a poorly placed billboard or a carelessly tossed drink cup.

A few days later I landed in Molokai for the business part of my trip. The headline in the local paper was that, for the second time, plans for a major wind farm on the island had been killed because of local opposition. There were many subtexts to this controversy, not the least of which was the fact that none of the energy generated at the wind farm would be used on Molokai (it would all be sent to bustling Oahu, with its high rise hotels burning power all night long across the straight). But, after talking to my taxi driver, I concluded the heart of the opposition was not much different than my son’s reaction. Looking at all those spinning turbines on this largely empty green island…would suck.

Indulge me with one more stop on my tour, one with no whirling blades. Pearl Harbor is an immensely moving testament to heroism and sacrifice. It is also a stark reminder of the cost of ignoring warnings and choosing to remain unprepared. The exhibits make no bones about that lesson. Those of us who see beauty and validation in a working wind turbine can also see them in the context of a global challenge on the scale of World War Two to defeat the calamitous effects of carbon-induced climate change. We are heeding warnings. We are trying to be prepared.

But most people still don’t see large-scale renewable energy projects as today’s victory gardens. They don’t yet link them to American self-reliance and knowhow. They are still somehow foreign implants on our landscape. This is a major framing challenge …one that will be all the harder if our community makes the same mistake I did on my walk through Waimea Valley…assuming that everyone responds to the image of a wind turbine converting an ample breeze into electricity the same way I do.

Scott Miller

Photo courtesy Chersland, Flickr Creative Commons