July 22, 2009

Missing the point about wind energy development

Bradford Plumer writes in The New Republic's environment and energy blog about the action in North Carolina to ban structures taller than 100 feet from the state's mountaintops, which would effectively ban industrial wind energy turbines. His analysis consists only of showing a picture of mountaintop-removal coal mining and asking whether in comparison wind turbines can still be called "unsightly".

If mountaintop-removal is the issue, then the blog should ask why it is allowed.

If coal in general is the issue, then the blog should ask just how much coal would be saved by adding wind turbines to the grid. (The answer is: none.)

Having learned that wind energy does not reduce coal use, then the blog should ask if industrial wind's own adverse environmental impacts, including not just aesthetic but also on birds, bats, hydrology, and wildlife habitat, can be justified by other benefits. (The answer is: hardly. Wind is a highly variable, intermittent, and diffuse resource that only adds to the grid's burden of supplying steady energy in response to demand.)

Instead, the false and unexamined premise that wind turbines on the grid provide substantial useful energy, leading to the next false and unexamined premise that nondispatchable, unpredictable, and variable wind energy displaces coal -- generally a baseload supplier (wind preferentially displaces first hydro, second open-cycle natural gas [at a loss of efficiency]), leads to Plumer simply ignoring the actual debate about industrial wind energy development on the wild mountains of North Carolina.

What is gained and what is lost? Very little, if anything, is gained, and very much is lost. That is not to deny the horrors of mountaintop-removal mining or the pollution from coal burning. Those are irrelevant to the debate about wind. Adding industrial wind development will not reduce them in the least. Wind only adds a new insult to the environment.

So to Plumer's challenge, "There's nothing wrong with finding wind turbines unsightly, but the relevant question here is: Compared to what?"

Compared to a wild mountaintop teeming with flora and fauna -- without heavy-duty cut-and-filled roads, blasted-in turbine platforms, 400-ft-high machines grinding around day or night, flashing lights, acres of tree clearance, miles of new transmission lines, substations, etc. Duh.

wind power, wind energy, environment, environmentalism, animal rights, human rights