Sunday, November 28, 2004

To the editor, The New Republic

Some opponents of wind power may be initially NIMBY, as Gregg Easterbrook says they all remain ("Cape Hope," November 29), but once they examine the claims of the sales brochure they quickly deduce that utility-scale wind turbines should not be erected anywhere on the grid. As Easterbrook's article only echos the developer's own material in defending the Cape Wind facility proposed for Nantucket Sound, a response is warranted.

He repeats the claim that modern turbines don't kill many birds. Ongoing studies in Spain and Belgium, however, find that a single turbine kills an average 20-40 birds per year. A study at the Mountaineer facility in West Virginia is following up the finding that over 2000 bats were killed in just 2 months last fall. The blades of new turbines are indeed slower in terms of revolutions per minute, but they are so large (typically sweeping over an acre of air) that the speed at the tips is well over 125 mph.

His unqualified claim of "zero greenhouse gas emissions, zero air pollution, zero waste product" also is typical. The parts have to be manufactured and transported (using dirty energy), each foundation requires tons of cement (a major source of greenhouse gases), access roads typically have to be built or widened or strengthened, trees have to be cleared and vegetation kept down with herbicides, each turbine contains hundreds of gallons of oil which has to be periodically replaced, new high-voltage transmission lines have to be built, and the turbines themselves use power from the grid.

Typical, too, is Easterbrook's dismissal of aesthetic concerns. He admits that they are well over 300 feet high (over 400 feet in Cape Wind's case) and usually sited on prominent ridgelines and in open spaces. These are places any sensible person would be appalled to see industrial development. They are not just big (and include roads, transformers, and power lines), they add significant and disturbing noise to rural environments and must be lit with flashing lights day and night.

Easterbrook says all this is necessary to help resolve the problems caused by our thirst for power. He fails, however, to question the developer's claim of the project's potential contribution of an average 170 MW (which represents a whopping five one-thousandths of one percent of our energy use). That projection is based only on the generous formula from the wind industry, which says -- despite all evidence -- that the output of an off-shore turbine will be 40% of its rated capacity over a year. Existing facilities -- when they're working at all; it is still a very problematic technology -- produce at 20-30% (the figure is even lower on-shore). The wind data from Cape Wind's own measurement station in the Sound suggests that its output will be at the lower end of the range.

And because 20% is the average, two-thirds of the time output will be less than that. A lot of the time, such as the day I am writing this, the whole 24-square-mile installation wouldn't generate enough electricity to make up for its own consumption. It certainly wouldn't be replacing any more reliable source on the grid if Mr. Easterbrook wants the light to go on when he flicks that switch.

As the experience of, for example, Denmark (20% wind) and Germany (4% wind) shows us, large installations of wind turbines would not reduce our use of any existing source of power. This is not to dismiss the very real energy issues that Easterbrook has elsewhere written about. It is only to recognize that industrializing our land- and seascapes with wind towers (it would require hundreds of thousands to produce just a few percent of U.S. electricity needs) is a highly destructive (however profitable) folly.