Renewable Energy: Not Cheap, Not “Green” (1997) – Part 5

August 27,1997

by Robert L. Bradley Jr.

Other Environmental Drawbacks

A distinct air-emission problem of wind capacity is created when a new project is built where there is surplus electricity-generating capacity. Because wind farms require hundreds of tons of energy-intensive materials, virtually all of the air emissions associated with the gas or electricity used to make the materials (such as cement or steel) must be counted against the “saved” air emissions once the farm comes on line and displaces fossil-fuel-generated output. For a recently announced wind farm of 45 effective MW, for example, the emissions associated with 10 million pounds of materials must be calculated. [99] If there were not surplus capacity, on the other hand, only the incremental emissions associated with constructing a wind facility instead of a fossil-fuel facility would be used. Although not calculated here, the air emissions associated with the construction of wind capacity that is not needed to meet either peak or baseload demand would be substantial enough to create an environmental externality from the viewpoint of its proponents.

Wind power’s land disturbance, noise, and unsightly turbines also present environmental drawbacks, at least from the perspective of some if not many mainstream environmentalists. Yet at least one well-known environmental group has a double standard when considering wind power versus other energy options. In testimony before the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council argued against opening the electricity industry to competition and customer choice because of the

development of significant new transmission and distribution lines to link buyers and sellers of power. In addition to the visual blight of additional power lines on the landscape, these corridors can displace threatened or endangered species. [100]

Christopher Flavin of Worldwatch Institute applies the same rigorous standard to gas development that “at least for a time, mars the landscape with drilling rigs, pipelines, and other equipment.” [101]

Yet Altamont Pass’s 7,000 turbines (located near Cavanagh’s San Francisco office) have a record of sizable avian mortality, large land-use requirements, disturbing noise, and “visual blight.” [102] The irony of visual blight was not lost on environmental philosopher Roderick Nash, who, referring to the Santa Barbara environmentalists, asked, “If offshore rigs offend, can a much greater number of windmills be any better?” [103]

Wind (like solar) “mars” the landscape all the time, not “at least for a time.” [104] Environmentalists have raised concerns over erosion from service roads cut into slopes (an important problem for California, where mud slides are a hazard), [105] “fugitive dust” from unpaved roads, [106] flashing lights and the red-and-white paint required by the FAA on tall towers, [107] rushed construction for tax considerations, [108] fencing requirements, [109] oil leakage, [110] and abandoned turbines. [111] The “not in my back yard” problem of wind turbines may seem a trivial nuisance for urbanites, but for rural inhabitants, who “choose to live in such locations . . . primarily because the land is unsuitable for other urban uses,” [112] there is an environmental cost.

The ancillary environmental problems are not minor, even to wind power’s leading proponents. Gipe, author of Wind Power for Home & Business and Wind Energy Comes of Age, in an October 15, 1996, letter to the chairman of the CEC, called for a moratorium on new wind subsidies until the problems of previous construction were addressed. Stated Gipe,

I am a longtime advocate of wind energy in California and my record in support of the industry is well known. I have chronicled the growth of California’s wind industry for more than twelve years. It therefore pains me greatly to urge the Commission to . . . recommend to the legislature that no funds from the [California Competition Transition Charge] be distributed to existing or future wind projects in the state. Funds that were destined for this purpose should instead be deposited in a wind energy cleanup fund to be administered by the Commission. Money from this fund could then be used to control erosion from plants in California, to remove abandoned and nonoperating wind turbines littering our scenic hillsides, and to mitigate other environmental impacts from the state’s wind industry. [113]

As Gipe has reminded his audience elsewhere, “The people who build wind farms are not environmentalists.” [114] The Union of Concerned Scientists also has been quick to point out “environmental concerns” with wind power, stemming from “not only avian issues, but also . . . the effects of road construction, tree felling, and visual impacts.” [115]

Another problem of wind farms appears to be fire and smoke. Summarized one article,

Wind farm operators are feeling the heat from the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection over blazes in Altamont Pass. Causes range from electrical shorts to exposed wires to flaming birds. [116]

Wind farms also fail the land-use test compared with fossil-fuel alternatives. A wind farm requires as much as 85 times more space than a conventional gas-fired power plant. [117] Gipe estimates the range to be between 10 and 80 acres per megawatt–from 30 to more than 200 times more space than needed for gas plants. [118] Wide spacing (a 50 MW farm can require anywhere between 2 and 25 square miles) is necessary to avoid wake effects between towers. [119] The world’s 5,000 MW (nameplate) wind-power capacity in 1995 consisted of 25,000 turbines [120]–little bang for the land usage and visual blight buck.

The argument that the actual space used by wind towers is much smaller than the total acreage of wind farms (“as little as 1 percent of the land is actually occupied”) [121] is the “footprint” argument that eco-energy planners refuse to consider for petroleum extraction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. [122] Consistency aside, “the visual impact of wind turbines on the countryside is one of their most contentious issues.” [123]

Another environmental consideration with wind projects is created when they are combined with gas turbine backup to lower the weighted average cost of power and to achieve reliability as a firm source of electricity. Gas-wind hybrids (or gas-solar hybrids) blur the distinction between renewable energy and fossil fuels and beg two questions: why not have a gas-only project, and is the project really needed at all given existing overcapacity?

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