July 2, 2005

Park Slope Food Co-op falls for wind spiel

Down in Brooklyn, a correspondent tells me that the Park Slope Food Co-op has decided to pay an additional charge on their electricity bill so they can say they are wind powered. Here is an article in response.

((((( )))))

Community Energy is a for-profit company. As pointed out in a recent Bar Association seminar, two-thirds of the value of a wind power facility is covered by federal tax breaks and subsidies (primarily a production tax credit and accelerated depreciation). Another 10% may be covered by state subsidies (such as property tax exemptions). Further, where renewable portfolio standards exist, they have a captive market for their unpredictable and variable output. Where a market for renewable obligation certificates, or green credits, exists, they can sell the output twice. The credits are much more lucrative than selling the actual power.

In addition to these highly profitable schemes, the companies then ask consumers to pay more for the conscientious choice of using wind power. In fact, it's the same electricity as before, the same electricity their less conscientious neighbor is getting. It is just one more subsidy for an industry already riding high on handouts.

Well, more profit is more incentive to build more wind turbines, which are clean and green, right? And though they are large, it's obviously worth it, isn't it?

Actually, the opposite is more obvious. Wind turbines don't produce significant electricity unless the wind is blowing steadily above 25 mph or so. The average output in the U.S. is less than 27% of their nominal capacity. And because production falls off sharply as the wind slows, two-thirds of the time their production is well below their average. The fact that a facility's output can surge to full capacity or drop to zero at the whim of the wind makes it practically useless to the grid, which must dispatch generation by the second to match fluctuating demand. That means that if they are forced to accommodate wind power, the grid needs equal back-up sources that can respond quickly to the fluctuating wind-generated input. These would typically be fossil-fuel powered, and the frequent ramping up and down is very inefficient, thus increasing emissions and costs.

The bottom line is that large-scale wind power does not move us away from fossil fuels. It does not reduce acid rain, improve air quality, or slow global warming. Denmark, which claims 20% of their electricity is generated by the wind, still reports rising greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, almost all of their wind energy has to be exported because it is generated when it is not needed.

And the negative impact of large-scale wind power is large. The effect of the moving blades and the noises and vibrations they create is a serious problem for people and wildlife. The industry says that the blades move slowly. In rpm terms that is true, but they are so long (spanning more than the wings of a jumbo jet, as GE boasts, cutting through over an acre of air) that they are moving at around 170 mph at the tips. Studies of bird and bat casualties at existing sites are rare and unreliable because the companies control access as well as the release of the data.

The turbines can not be close to each other (because they slow the wind up to 3 miles away), so the typical wind power facility requires around 50 acres of clear space for every megawatt of installed capacity. With actual generation only a fourth of capacity, that's 200 acres for every megawatt of average output. Each turbine requires a large cement and steel foundation. The roads to access the site must be wide and straight and strong. Each facility needs at least one transmission substation and, of course, new high voltage lines to the grid. The effect of such industrial installations on forested mountain ridges, where each turbine represents the loss of around 8 acres of interior forest habitat, is obviously very destructive.

On the Scottish island of Lewis, some 340 giant turbines will disturb ancient peat beds, releasing more carbon than the developers claim they will save over 25 years, and completely surround protected bird sanctuaries. But considering the money to be made in green credits, the Council for the Western Isles easily overcame such arguments as well as overwhelming local opposition and approved the projects.

The destruction of wild places, the massive industrialization of rural landscapes, and the exploitation of economically desperate communities -- for no real benefit to anybody except the developers, manufacturers, and a few recipients of trickle-down pay-offs -- is what support of wind power is really helping to achieve.

The modern wind industry in the U.S. was created by Enron, whose innovative schemes for milking profits out of a deregulated electricity system are legendary (and often criminal). Today's brokers, such as Community Energy (or NewWind Energy, as they also present themselves), are Enron's heirs in every way.

See www.aweo.org for more information.

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