September 4, 2006

Charles Komanoff is two with nature

Charles Komanoff rhapsodizes again on "the increasing viability of commercial-scale wind power" and the beauty and need that this unproven belief inspires him to see. His long article, meant to look reasoned, thorough, and balanced, in the September-October issue of Orion has been getting a lot of notice. But it's just more of the same misguided and misinformed pablum he has already foisted on readers many times elsewhere.

First, to make defense of a single ridgeline from industrial wind development look puny, he proposes replacing three-fourths of the electricity in the U.S. (the portion generated from fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas) with wind-generated energy. He pretends to admit that his figure of 400,000 2.5-megawatt turbines to achieve this goal is hypothetical. In fact, it totally ignores reality. Without large-scale storage, wind cannot -- even in theory -- provide three-fourths of our electricity. It can only provide as much power as there is excess capacity on the system from other sources to cover for it when the wind drops. One-third of the time, a wind turbine is typically idle. Forty percent of the time, it produces at well below its average rate. By its nature, it can't replace other sources on the grid, which must work all the harder to balance the fluctuations of the wind.

Then he pretends a concern for birds, evoking the disgrace of Altamont Pass only to dismiss it as an aberration rather than a warning. He raises the myth that "the longer blades on newer turbines rotate more slowly and thus kill far fewer birds." But as he himself notes, it isn't the faster-rpm smaller turbines that are the reason for Altamont's toll on raptors -- it's the fact that it is in a major flyway. The fact is that the longer blades on newer turbines are just as deadly. They rotate at a lower rate, but because the blades are so long they are moving just as fast (150-200 mph). And those giant blades sweep a vertical air space of 1 to 2 acres.

As he has done before, Komanoff tries to minimize the undeniable noise of the giant rotating machines with gearboxes the size of a van. But first, describing his visit to the Fenner facility in New York, he again betrays his ignorance of the technology:
It was windy that day, though not unusually so, according to the locals. All twenty-seven turbines were spinning, presumably at their full 1.5-megawatt ratings.
Wind turbines are designed to spin even before they start producing electricity as the wind speed approaches around 7 mph. This is done by drawing power from the grid until there's enough wind to do it. Although the rotational rate of the blades remains constant, the turbine does not produce at its full capacity until the wind speed reaches around 30 mph.

Ignoring the fact that the machines were obviously far from their noisiest state, Komanoff, used to the unceasing roar of Manhattan, not surprisingly finds them "relatively quiet." At distances between 100 and 2,000 feet from a tower, he takes noise readings ranging from 64 down to 45 decibels. Remember that the turbines were not as loud as they are with a full wind and that the noise continues -- and is carried farther -- at night.

Noise is the most common complaint wherever giant wind turbines are erected. It is indeed relative. In rural places, a noise level of 25 decibels is normal at night. A level of 45 decibels is perceived as four times as loud, 65 decibels as 16 times louder. And the additional noise is not natural but a rhythmic mechanical noise. There is also a low-frequency aspect to the noise that seriously affects a significant proportion of people. As pointed out elsewhere, Charles Komanoff doesn't know the sounds of nature, let alone the quiet of a rural night.

Komanoff also resumes his attacks on Green Berkshires, the environmental group in Massachusetts suing the state to protect the undeveloped Hoosac Range from French and Scottish energy companies. He pretends to acknowledge the group's contention that "wind turbines are enormously destructive to the environment" but accuses them of not making "the obvious comparison to the destructiveness of fossil fuel–based power."

A tired trick, Mr. K, but the issue is industrial-scale wind power. The obvious response you need -- and are unable to muster -- is the evidence that it provides actual substantial benefits that make development of wild mountaintops necessary. The destructiveness of fossil fuels does not in itself justify the destructiveness of industrial wind power.

Thus unable to disprove the arguments from Green Berkshires that wind energy is ineffective as well as unenvironmental, he changes the subject again to that of climate change, claiming to find "no mention at all of the climate crisis, let alone wind power's potential to help avert it" on anti-wind websites. Yet he notes that many opponents argue that wind power displaces little, if any, fossil fuel burning. He even quotes Green Berkshires concerning the climate crisis, that "global warming [and] dependence on fossil fuels ... will not be ameliorated one whit by the construction of these turbines on our mountains." Similarly, National Wind Watch, a network of groups throughout the country and the world, says in one of its FAQs:
Do you deny global warming?

Not at all. We recognize, however, that wind power has and will ever have only the most minimal ability to mitigate the human causes of global warming.
Komanoff calls such "notions" "mistaken," despite their being backed by solid evidence (see the "Key Documents" page on National Wind Watch's website). His own "notions" of wind power's benefits have not beeen shown to actually occur anywhere. Despite substantial wind power installation on the grids of several countries (i.e., Denmark, Germany, and Spain), there is no corresponding record of reduced use of other fuels. That's the simple fact. Ladling on patronizing indulgence while insisting that "the greater good" requires local sacrifice can not hide the fact that the benefits remain only a fantasy.

And again, our K evokes real environmentalist David Brower (who is dead and can't protest this abuse), twisting the defense of wilderness to justify trammeling it because of the threat of global warming. This is just like George Bush trashing the Constitution to protect it from "Islamic fascist terror." It is not just wrong, it is truly frightening. Unable to show any effect of industrial wind on global warming, Komanoff finally throws off the shackles of reason.

He closes with reference to Yuriko Saito and the aesthetic chic of industrial wind turbines and to David Orr and the necessary ugliness that is in fact beauty on a "higher order." The destruction of nature and communities for an idea -- a "notion" that is easily shown to be wrong -- Komanoff calls an act of love.

He wants it to be so. The strength of his belief justifies it. Reality be damned. The natural world doesn't stand a chance with "friends" like Charles Komanoff.

wind power, wind energy, environment, environmentalism