Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Not So Fast With Wind Power

An editorial:

Climate change, dwindling resources, and the geopolitics and ecology of fossil fuels and nuclear power figure prominently in today's worries. As part of any solution, most people unhesitatingly include large-scale wind energy. Wind power companies promise to break our dependence on other fuels and to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Teaming up with the American Wind Energy Association, the U.S. Department of Energy has promoted providing 20 percent of our electricity from wind by the year 2030.

With handsome subsidies and regulatory support, the U.S. thus faces a push to erect hundreds of thousands of giant wind turbines in the coming years. Does wind energy live up to such enthusiasm? Does it reward such generosity? A look beyond the hype reveals that wind's actual record does not come close to its claims. In addition, big wind has its own substantial adverse impacts on the environment and people's lives.

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In Denmark, where wind turbines already produce electricity equal to 20 percent of what the country uses, no conventional power plant has been shut down as a result, and it is hard to find evidence that they are using other fuels any less. In fact, according to the International Energy Agency, natural gas use in Denmark increased more than wind as the latter's turbines went in, and coal has been on the rise in recent years.

Wind turbines produce only 15 to 30 percent of their capacity annually and reach that average rate only one-third of the time. They are essentially idle another third of the time. Because wind is so intermittent and variable, much of its theoretical benefit appears to be cancelled out because the rest of the grid still has to provide electricity as needed in addition to the extra burden of balancing the unpredictable wind-generated supply. Or the spurts of energy from wind are simply tolerated as slight rises in voltage and eventually dissipated over a large grid as heat. Wind is only a symbolic add-on that replaces nothing.

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The real results of giant wind turbine facilities have been the opening up of rural and wild places to industrial development and the destruction of communities powerless to stop them. Today's wind turbines are well over 400 feet high, with a rotor span of almost 100 yards, cutting a vertical air space of up to 2 acres. The blades are connected to a bus-sized housing (the "nacelle") for the gears and generator (along with hundreds of gallons of oil) at the top of the tower. The whole assembly weighs 250-350 tons, requiring wide straight heavy-duty roads to transport the parts and cranes for installation and continued maintenance. A large underground foundation, often requiring blasting of bedrock, of hundreds of tons of steel-reinforced concrete, most of which would be left after decommissioning, is necessary to hold it all up. Each tower requires acres of clearance and cannot be close to other turbines, to avoid turbulence. New high-voltage transmission lines and pylons are needed to handle the potential surges and to carry the promised power to distant population centers (or to let it dissipate as heat).

The destructive impact of such construction on, for example, a wild mountain top is obvious: erosion, alteration of wetlands and watersheds, and destruction of wild habitat and plant life.

Other negative impacts follow from this physical reality. At their tips, the rotor blades are slicing through the air at 150 to 200 mph. Substantial numbers of bats (mostly, it seems, by high air pressure rather than collision) and birds (eagles and other raptors being of particular concern) are killed. For two recent examples, at least 2,000 bats were killed by turbines on Backbone Mountain in West Virginia in just 2 months during their 2003 fall migration. And the 195-turbine facility on the Tug Hill plateau in Lewis County, N.Y., will kill at least 8,500-16,000 birds and bats annually, according to data from its first year of operation.

Other animals are adversely affected as well. The breeding and nesting of prairie birds are especially disturbed by disruption of their habitat. Construction on mountain ridges reduces important forest interior habitat far beyond the extent of the clearings themselves. In 2005, several abandoned and dead seal pups were found off Great Yarmouth, England -- investigating biologists concluded that noise from offshore wind turbines disrupted feeding and nurturing. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society recently warned of the threat to cetaceans of low-frequency noise from off-shore wind turbines. In many places, people notice a drastic reduction of wildlife after the turbines go in.

Human neighbors, too, are victimized by the noise of the giant machines. Developers commonly get neighbors to sign gag orders in return for a small "forbearance" payment. Leasing landowners are also required to keep quiet. Thus knowing the problems that will arise, the developers set things up to allow denial of them.

Yet everywhere that people live near industrial wind turbines, they are shocked at the noise. It is unnatural and rhythmic, intrusive and unpredictable. People say they can never get used to it. It's typically worse at night, when not only is the normal noise level much lower but sound also carries much farther. Stress and lack of sleep -- and often more serious health problems, such as migraines, dizziness, and disorientation -- are common. Researchers in Portugal have found that conditions for developing vibroacoustic disease exist in homes near wind turbines. A set of symptoms called "wind turbine syndrome" has been extensively documented by Dr. Nina Pierpont in the U.S. Airplane safety lights at night and strobing shadows when the sun is low add to the turbines' invasive presence.

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If there were clear benefits from industrial-scale wind energy, the extra burden on our already diminished landscape, on wildlife, and on people's right to enjoy their homes would have to be weighed. Careful siting and nuisance regulations would have to be established and enforced to minimize the impacts. We sorely need such guidelines.

But as Denmark and other countries have already shown us, benefits from wind on the grid remain elusive. There is no meaningful benefit to weigh against the substantial negative impacts on communities, individual lives, and the environment. The destructive boondoggle of industrial wind should be roundly rejected wherever its promoters try to gain a foothold.

wind power, wind energy, environment, environmentalism