June 26, 2007

Cape Wind insignificant player in energy future

To the Editor, New Yorks Times Book Review:

The subtitle of Wendy Williams and Robert Whitcomb's book about Cape Wind claims that it is a "battle for our energy future." But wind will never be a significant -- let alone major -- player, for the simple fact that the wind is inconstant and can't be called up on demand.

In his June 17 review of their book, Robert Sullivan repeats the misleading impression that Cape Wind's 468 megawatts of capacity would also be its contribution. In fact, its average production would be only a fifth to a third of that, much of the time when it is not needed (at night) and often idle when demand is at its peak, as on hot summer days.

In other words, the grid would still have to depend on the same sources as it did before, with very little impact on conventional fuel use. In fact, the company behind Cape Wind is also trying to build a new quick-response diesel-fired plant, which would be sorely needed to balance the variable and intermittent production of its wind turbines. An offshore wind energy facility proposed in Delaware would be tied to a new natural gas plant for similar reasons. Thus wind drives a need for more fossil fuel use, not less.

Citing wind's rare peaks, as Sullivan does, only underscores its inconstancy. Wind development in Denmark has virtually halted since 2004, because even there its benefits appear to be elusive.

Yet the impacts are substantial and increasingly documented. Cape Wind would fill 24 square miles of shoal -- an important ecosystem -- with 440-feet-high moving machines. Each set of "slowly" rotating blades (made of petroleum-based composites) would be sweeping a vertical air space of 2.4 acres at tip speeds up to 200 mph. There is no question that such a machine would creates noise and vibration (despite the hundreds of gallons of oil in each housing). Inevitable impacts are obvious -- not just aesthetically, but especially on bird and sea life.

Sullivan says that criticism "has been mitigated by increasingly efficient turbines and more bird-sensitive placement." That is industry spin. Wind turbines have simply got bigger, not more efficient. Their space requirements and blade area per megawatt remain essentially constant. Last month, the first-year report of bird and bat deaths at the sprawling "Maple Ridge" facility on the Tug Hill plateau in Lewis County, N.Y., was released. Even that company-backed study estimated that 2,200 to 4,094 birds and bats were killed in 5 months by 120 turbines. That would extrapolate to 8,580 to 15,967 birds and bats killed by the currently operating 195 turbines over a whole year. Efficient indeed.

The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound regrettably opens itself to the NIMBY charge by trying to promote other locations. But many of its members and others fighting Cape Wind recognize that the substantial negative impacts of wind energy facilities anywhere cannot be justified by the very small benefit they may provide.

NIMBY more typically describes the developers and facilitators of these facilities. They are not the ones whose peace and quiet is destroyed. They are not the ones who can no longer sleep in their own homes or enjoy their back yards, who develop migraines, dizziness, and worse from the strobing shadows and noise. A team in Portugal is currently studying evidence of vibroacoustic disease in people who live near wind turbines.

Cape Wind is unique in threatening an enclave of the rich rather than the usual rural poor or otherwise disenfranchised (such as indigenous peoples of Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, India). But the reasons for opposing it are the same. This battle is being fought in thousands of communities around the world, for very good reasons. Giant wind turbines are a symptom of our energy problems, not a solution.

wind power, wind energy, wind farms, wind turbines, environment, environmentalism, human rights, animal rights, vegetarianism