Should We Wave the White Flag on Wind Power?

Sometimes I wonder whether all the people who profess to believe global warming is a crisis are just posturing for either political gain or social acceptability. The signs that we aren’t really serious about it are everywhere.

Or maybe the problem goes deeper. We are now shamelessly hypocritical; demanding sacrifice from others that we defiantly refuse to make ourselves. John Edwards wins the fall-down-laughing award for this tendency, telling a labor group that Americans should give up their SUVs, despite owning several of them himself, and openly using one during campaign stops.

Edwards is obviously pathological. He believes his lifestyle and his campaign are of such surpassing importance to the future of the world that we all would trust him that SUVs, private jets and other smoggy luxuries are essential to his divine mission. What the rest of us do is relatively unimportant, so our sacrifice should be easy.

So Edwards isn’t really the problem. He’s an egotistical buffoon; good material for right-wing bloggers and late-night comedians, embarrassing for the rest of us. He’ll be back in private life in a few short months.

But this column, from the NY Times’ TimesSelect (i.e. $$) service, strikes me as more insidious precisely because it sounds so reasonable. Stanley Fish, an author and law professor, can be eloquent and thought-provoking on a range of topics. That he doesn’t recognize the hypocrisy of his position suggests that millions of intelligent people will also not recognize it:

For five months of the year, I live in the very small town of Andes, N.Y. Each year has its signature event — floods, drought, road construction, caterpillars. And 2006 to 2007 has been the year of the wind turbines.

Like many of the other towns targeted by the wind turbine industry, Andes is a rural community that over the years has lost its economic base. At one time the hills and valleys were home to many small dairy farms, but most of them are no longer in operation, and no industry, light or heavy, has taken their place. Now the area relies for its revenue on retirees and second home owners who are educated, relatively well off and tend to be teachers therapists, lawyers, artists and social workers. In short, liberals. They are all soldiers in Al Gore’s army, into organic foods, hybrid cars, clean air, clean water, the whole bit.

They are also against wind power.

Their reasons are the ones always given by those who wake up to find the wind interests at their door. Even if large wind farms were in place throughout the country, the electricity produced would be a very small percentage of the electricity we use. Because the turbines are huge, 400 feet or more, installing them involves tearing up the ridges on which they are placed. Once in operation, they cast shadows and produce noise. Their blades cause a “flicker” effect, kill birds and interfere with migration. The outsized towers ruin scenic views and depress real-estate values.

These last two reasons are seized on by wind proponents who say that a few elite newcomers are putting their aesthetic preferences ahead of both the community’s welfare and the national effort to shift to green energy as a way of slowing down global warming.

It’s a nice line, but it won’t fly. The wind companies may advertise themselves as environmentalists, but they are really developers, which means that they do things with other peoples’ money — yours. Wind farms are attractive as an investment because the combination of tax credits, tax shelters and accelerated depreciation rates means that investors reap large profits in a few years. Meanwhile, those in the community pay twice for their electricity; once when their taxes go to subsidize the wind interests and a second time when the monthly bill arrives. And that bill will likely be larger than it would have been had the turbines never been erected.

It’s a “nice line?”

Well, if Fish’s arguments mean wind power won’t fly in Andes, N.Y., it won’t fly anywhere. In fact, if his position is widely adopted, you can forget about alternative energy, period.

Every wind project I know about — even those being sponsored by public agencies — has an element of profit-making in it. By definition, anyone who plans to alter a piece of land is “a developer.” Because this country says it wants to push alternative energy, the “developer” of any wind-energy project is offered various tax incentives. Without them, the lower current price of fossil-fuel power electricity would ensure the project’s bankruptcy.

But in the Stanley Fish/NIMBY style of argument, put those those words together, “profit,” “developer,” and “tax credit” and you create a bugaboo, which you can wield to shut down debate about any alternative energy project.

Like, for example, solar power. Solar energy is a pretty good investment nowadays. So much so, there are “developers,” seeking “profits” who are getting into the industry. Because solar panels are still so expensive to make, however, there is general agreement that there need to be “tax credits” to help offset the upfront costs.

To be sure, passive solar panels on rooftops and swimming pools don’t kill birds. But wind-power advocates say their latest designs also protect birds, and further point out that if protecting birds is the surpassing goal of society, we should be more worried about glass windows, house cats and electric transmission lines that kill hundreds of millions of birds each year.

But what about solar power plants? Passive solar projects won’t be enough to offset the energy we get from fossil fuels. We will need to harvest large amounts of solar power if we’re really going to convert our economy away from oil, coal and gas.

Solar power plants can look like this:

Solar Two 2003.jpg

A parabolic solar collector concentrating the sun's rays on the heating element of a Stirling engine. The entire unit acts as a solar tracker.

And they need to exist, somewhere. Somewhere, probably, where someone like Stanley Fish lives. And they won’t necessarily like it. Like Fish, they will declare their fealty to “Al Gore’s army,” and then go on to explain why this project, this technology, this location is wrong wrong wrong. Someone’s making a profit, you see. A “developer.” And he’s using our money! A tax credit! This must be stopped!

To the credit of the New York Times’ readers, Fish’s column did not win universal praise; far from it. Here is the most eloquent example from the comment thread:

It is astounding to read Mr. Stanley Fish’s usually thoughtful column making an embarrassing litany of unscientific assertions disparaging wind power. “Everyone I know”, is not a good enough substitute for citations so the reader can review their basis.

There are scientific literatures refuting many of the clichés that have sometimes been reported as facts in the press and are echoed in Stanley’s column:
1. “Even if large wind farms were in place throughout the country, the electricity produced would be a very small percentage of the electricity we use”

However, Dr. Willett Kempton of the University of Delaware and Dr. Jacobson from Stanford University argue otherwise. They recently presented at the University of Rhode Island conference “From Local to Global: the Rhode Island Model for Harnessing Wind Power Worldwide” that in the US eastern seaboard we have enough wind to generate 150% of our electricity needs. This means we have enough wind if we install 54,000 wind turbines to generate sufficient electricity for our electric cars as well as meeting our electricity needs. They also addressed how long it would take to implement such an ambitious goal and examined if we had ever attempted a project of this magnitude in the US. During WWII we manufactured the Liberator fleet of bombers in four years, a project of similar scale to developing the eastern USA wind potential.

Denmark already produces over 20% of its electricity from wind and both Germany and Spain that have surpassed the 5% mark are fast approaching double digits with no sign of slowing down to meet similar ambitious goals as Denmark.

I am surprised Stanley did not raise the so-called “intermittency” of wind concern – when there is no wind there is no electricity, which has been reported by Nicholas Wade in the Science Times. However, scientific studies from Spain where wind electricity is a significant percent of the generated electricity proved that when wind electricity is distributed over a very large area there is statistical certainty that there is always a minimum level of wind electricity. Dr. Jacobson also reported this study at the Rhode Island conference. For complete proceedings and citations of this conference, that disproves many of Stanley’s economic, environmental, and aesthetic objections please visit http://windri.org/conference/content.html .
2. “And that bill will likely be larger than it would have been had the turbines never been erected.” However, a detailed economic analysis by the US Army Corps of Engineers for the Cape Wind project estimated $25 million savings to the New England ratepayers based on 2001 natural gas prices. We all know what has happened to natural gas prices since then. In fact, the main reason that General Electric has already sold out every wind turbine that it can produce through the end of 2008 is the desire to lower electricity costs. Environmental benefits of averting pollution are a magnificent and happy coincidence.

Furthermore, wind electricity saves money by displacing electricity whose generation emits unhealthful air pollution. The cost of electricity is not only what we pay directly to utilities but also costs for hospitals, doctors, pharmacies and lost work due to bronchitis, asthma, and other respiratory diseases. Dr. Levy (also a presenter at the RI conference) and Dr. Spengler of the Harvard Department Public Health have quantified these costs and it is now possible to calculate how many dollars in health savings will result from a wind turbine installation in addition to the direct savings.
3. A most amusing antiwind statement was the fear that developers will sell interest in aging turbines and move to the next town. Unlike oil and coalmining wind is inexhaustible and there is no motive to move away from sites that have been selected because of they have the best wind speeds. Small, fast turning, and therefore noisy and dangerous for birds wind turbines installed in California a quarter of century ago are now being replaced with huge slow turning and therefore safe for birds and quiet wind turbines. One of these giant wind turbines makes more than 50 to 500 times more electricity than the little wind turbines of the 1980’s. By the way, Stanley you need to drive near a wind turbine to appreciate how quite they are. You can carry a normal conversation right under one of them, a fit that is impossible next to many air conditioners in our neighborhoods.
4. At the Rhode Island conference mentioned above Dr. Thomas Kjær Christensen, presented a recently published study monitoring wind turbines with radars sensitive enough to detect moths flying in their vicinity. After six years monitoring the movement of native and migratory species of birds flying through and around wind parks they concluded that modern wind turbines are not a threat to birds. In fact, wind turbines save birds lives by displacing electricity generation that causes acid rain and mercury pollution. According to a Cornell study, acid rain kills snails needed for birds diets to lay hard eggs. Soft eggs do not mature. Mercury a neurotoxin ingested when birds eat fish in waters polluted by coal burning power plants makes birds such as loons fidgety to roost long enough to hutch their eggs, causing local bird extinctions.
5. Finally as a professor of architecture, I could argue that aerodynamic form and slow mesmerizing movement of wind turbines are an aesthetic asset in the landscape. However, I will not indulge as some of the vociferous opponents who insist that they are ugly because they do not like them. Instead, I defer to surveys that found huge support for wind turbines. In Rhode Island when we asked the direct question are wind turbines beautiful, attractive, neither, unattractive, or ugly – 10 people found them beautiful for every person that found them ugly and 10 people found them attractive for every person that found them unattractive. By the way, the survey’s numbers were confirmed with a subsequent referendum.

We too have organized around the issue of wind energy. The Rhode Island Wind Alliance has members from almost every Rhode Island town to support our governor and legislature in their goal to install 15% of our electricity from wind in the next couple of years. We have been tirelessly dispelling misinformation such as that reported by Stanley.

In our efforts, we have discovered that one of the most persuasive arguments in favor of wind turbines is visiting them. People simply fall in love with their looks and love the idea that we do not have to import expensive and dangerous fuels from out of state.

— Posted by Lefteris Pavlides

Stanley Fish might think he is a member of “Al Gore’s army,” but if so, he’s a fifth column. What we need are leaders who are willing to own up to the trade-offs, and argue for them on the merits. Instead, we have John Edwards. Oy. Pass the sunscreen.

2 thoughts on “Should We Wave the White Flag on Wind Power?

  1. Something I find slightly comical is how so many people will say that it isn’t worth it to add

    solar energy to your home because it takes too long for the system to “pay itself off”. If you

    save up the money and have a system installed you suddenly have a tiny utility bill, if any

    bill at all. To me it’s a simple cash-flow equation.

  2. I sit here, stumpted, as to why so called “educated” people can’t understnd the basics of electricity. I live in “windmill Country” near Palm Springs where the 4,000+ windmills only generate 100+/-MW PER YEAR. CA uses 67,500+MW per year. And this will do what? But, only 6% of this is generated at peak need time , intemittently and you think that wind power will do anything? Please… lets hear some inteligent conversation about this… you all seem as if you haven’t even gotten beyond kindergarten. I have actual production records from Edison, if you really want to educate yourselves, just e-mail me at bobweit@msn.com and I’ll be more than happy to send them to you.

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