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Columns

A Mighty Wind

We can outsource wind but should focus on local offsets and conservation

By Adam R. Gold

Anyone who has walked from Mather House to Northwest Science in the heart of winter knows that Cambridge is a very windy place. In fact, Boston is the windiest major city in the country. So it makes sense that Harvard announced a plan last week to generate 10 percent of its energy from wind over the next 15 years.

Of course, the wind won’t be generated here—we’ll get it from Maine, which has increasingly positioned itself as a provider of green energy for the region, though not without controversy. It may seem hypocritical for Harvard to go green by pushing the noisy, unsightly turbines out to a poor rural community far away, as if we’ll only help save the planet provided it doesn’t block our view of the Charles. However, the university has little choice but to outsource to the countryside, and though this commitment is short and limited, it should be commended as an important first step.

Boston may be windier than most places, but our planet as a whole is practically covered in wind. It has to be—we’re rotating, after all. It is this natural abundance that makes wind energy such a useful technology—as well as among the cleanest. Wind energy isn’t perfect, however, since wind is somewhat inconsistent and turbines do cause minor ecological damage. Yet, while wind turbines do regularly kill birds, so do glass windows, tall buildings, car exhaust, and coal plants, and all of these in much greater numbers. The newest state-of-the art wind turbines are larger and rotate more slowly so that birds can avoid them more easily, and they’re often intentionally built outside of migratory flight paths.

Wind technology is also more cost-effective than solar, both in terms of production costs and energy produced. Other alternative-energy sources are either too inefficient, such as biomass, impossible to capture in this region, such as geothermal, or too dangerous, such as nuclear.

Harvard’s plan has the potential to transform the way energy is produced in the entire region by helping pave the way for similar institutions to partner with regional farms as well.

The vast majority of local electricity in Massachusetts comes from burning scarce fossil fuels, so swapping out even a small percentage of Harvard’s sizeable consumption may make a significant difference.

But why Maine? Couldn’t Harvard build the wind farm in its own backyard? The so-called “small wind” movement, which advocates putting small-scale wind turbines on homes, office buildings, and family farms, aims to do just that. But the wind in cities is turbulent, the turbines are noisy, and projects suffer from economies of scale.

Harvard seems aware that a confined urban campus is not an ideal site for energy production. The small wind turbines recently installed atop the Holyoke Center and Soldiers Field parking lot have been called a “statement” and “symbolic”—rather than a long-term solution—by professors and spokesmen for the university. Even if we placed turbines on every inch of campus, we couldn’t generate enough power to run the place, although perhaps Harvard should consider putting wind turbines atop the Leverett Towers as an aesthetic improvement.

Harvard’s plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 30 percent below 2006 levels over the next seven years will likely also involve offsets, and local options can be of most use there. Offsets allow an institution to claim carbon neutrality by funding actions that reduce emissions elsewhere, and Harvard can certainly pursue this by funding retrofits of schools and other buildings in Cambridge and Allston. Retrofits could involve providing better insulation, switching to compact-fluorescent light bulbs, or installing motion-sensor lights and more efficient temperature regulators.

In addition to alternative-energy sources and offsets, however, all long-term sustainable solutions require a healthy dose of conservation. If reducing greenhouse gases and foreign imports were as simple as shelling out for a few turbines, we wouldn’t be in this mess today. Harvard and the people who live and work here must continue to find ways to use less energy.

Harvard could easily eke out huge energy savings if it took drastic steps, like limiting regional travel for sports teams, lowering dorm temperatures during winter, or even charging students for energy. But these options remain culturally unpalatable, and many simpler solutions exist.

For instance, even late on weeknights, much of the campus north of the Science Center is still lit up like a Christmas tree. Some graduate students may study into the late hours, but the majority of lit rooms are empty. Similarly, undergraduates who don’t properly close their windows end up wasting energy through their heaters during the entire winter, and nearly everyone is guilty of charging laptops throughout the night. Certain buildings could implement policies of mandatory outages after midnight, or at the very least install motion sensors.

If nothing else, I’m hoping that every bit of wind converted to energy lowers the miles per hour of gusts rushing between Thayer and Canaday on the way to the Science Center.

Adam R. Gold ’11, a Crimson editorial editor, is a physics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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