Is wind energy a faith-based enterprise? (Massachusetts)

Jul 31, 2010

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Cape Cod expert says it most certainly is

—Eric Bibler 7/28/10

Readers might be interested in a recent column by Brent Harold in the Cape Cod Times entitled “Not in Anybody’s Back Yard.” Mr. Harold, a resident of Wellfleet, MA, was until recently an ardent supporter of the wind turbine project there. Here is a link to his excellent piece.

Another useful resource for readers who wish to achieve a basic understanding of wind energy technology is a slide show presentation by John Droz, a retired physicist.

There are many websites which contain a wealth of information, including technical articles and first person testimonials, about wind energy. Dr. Nina Pierpont’s website does an excellent job of summarizing her research and also provides links to important articles by reputable acoustic experts which provide information about the specialized quality — and intensely disruptive nature — of noise from wind turbines.

Jon Boone is an expert on wind energy and one of the most thoughtful and articulate commentators on this issue. He recently reviewed an important book by Robert Bryce called “Power Hungry: The Myths of Green Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future” on this subject (see Amazon.com for his excellent review) and he provides much useful information on his website.  One article that might be of particular interest is Jon’s piece entitled “Why Wind Won’t Work.”

Readers might also have an interest in our website, which contains information which is more specific to the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Wind energy is a complex subject in many ways but, at the end of the day, the simple truth is that, contrary to popular perception, wind energy simply doesn’t work and never will. It is replete with adverse consequences, which are almost never acknowledged, and it is almost useless as a mechanism for producing electricity.

If everything that people believed to be true about wind energy were true, we would ALL support a massive build out of the technology. Who wouldn’t? But sadly, it’s not green, it’s not efficient, it doesn’t reduce greenhouse gases by any meaningful amount, it requires vast amounts of land, it’s environmentally destructive, it’s expensive and it doesn’t work and never will.

Furthermore, the implementation of wind energy (and solar energy, too, for that matter) requires the use of specialized metals called “rare earth metals”—prized for their magnetic and electrical conductive properties—and 90% of the available supply of these critical metals are physically located in Communist China. The rallying cry of “Energy Independence!” loses a bit of its luster when one considers that the implication of “replacing” oil (which we import, in a global market, from over 40 countries) with so-called “green” technology is that we would be completely at the mercy of Communist China for the necessary ingredients.

And guess what? China is starting to erect a framework of tariffs and surcharges on their exports of the raw material. In fact, what they’re basically telling their customers is that they’re not really interested in exporting the raw material anymore. They’d rather sell you the solar panels and the wind turbine components—and have us all completely dependent upon them for these items. There is much greater profit for them to sell us the value added components. Why would they ever sell us the scarce minerals to make our own?

Does that make sense to anyone as a “strategic” policy to free ourselves from foreign influence—to replace our “dependence” upon a global oil market, which no one controls, with a single supplier of irreplaceable “rare earth” minerals—a supplier that is our biggest global commercial and political rival, with whom we often do not see eye-to-eye on MANY important issues?

I don’t think you could get a passing grade for that thesis from any political science professor in the country.

Let me try to give you the short version of why wind energy doesn’t work and never will—although every politician gets a gold star for supporting it. In fact, it is a triumph of hope—and wishful thinking—over scientific analysis and the physical reality—and physical limitations—of the conversion of other forms of energy into electricity.

Wind turbines and solar panels are fundamentally unworkable technologies in terms of delivering meaningful amounts of usable electric power because they attempt to do the impossible: they both propose to convert unreliable, intermittent, unpredictable and diffuse sources of energy into a steady stream of electrical energy that we can access upon demand.

What is the hallmark of electric power—and the characteristic from which we derive such incredible social and economic benefit? The fact that it is predictable, available, constant and relatively cheap.

The bulk of our electric power is currently produced from coal (about 50%), natural gas, hydroelectric and nuclear power. Only 1% of electricity is generated from burning oil (so much for “freeing ourselves from dependence upon foreign oil”!). All of these methods of electrical generation have incredible “energy density” and “power density” which allows them to produce vast amounts of power with a relatively small footprint. What is more, they are reliable and predictable, which allows those who manage the electrical grid to closely match supply and demand, using these sources, and to provide a reliable river of electric current to users “on demand.”

Wind and solar energy are completely different. Both of these technologies attempt to gather energy that is relatively weak and diffused (i.e. wind and sunshine); to concentrate it; and to transmit it for use.

Think of what that means conceptually. In practice—to build a huge industrial mechanism to “gather” weak energy and concentrate it—this means that you must have a HUGE footprint of wind turbines or solar panels to derive a SMALL amount of energy.

Did you know, for example, that to replace a medium sized conventional power plant burning relatively clean natural gas, we would require a “wind farm”—in a nice windy area like Cape Cod—of OVER 1300 windmills, each over 400 feet tall, covering a territory of over 125 square miles—to produce an “equivalent” amount of energy? And I put the word “equivalent” in parentheses because the QUALITY of this power (it’s reliability, predictability and usefulness) is not nearly as good as the output from other sources.

Would you vote in favor of converting all of Cape Cod—and then some—to a vast wind farm in order to replace one power plant? Is that a meaningful gain in terms of our “energy independence” for the sacrifice which it entails? I’m willing to bet that you don’t want a Liquified Natural Gas terminal in downtown Boston, or in Hyannisport, but would you be willing to convert the entire Massachusetts coastline into an industrial wind energy complex? And even then? Where would that get you?

There is another major problem—a fatal one—with wind and solar energy. Because they are so unreliable—and because electrical energy cannot be stored for future use—they don’t really reduce green house gases by any meaningful amount. Why not?

The fact is that consumers and businesses expect electric power when they plug in their hair dryers or hit the light switch on the factory floor or in the office. It has to be there or they can’t go about their business. Wind output varies day to day, and even minute to minute, as does solar energy. In fact, sometimes the wind doesn’t blow, and the sun doesn’t shine, for days on end. What do we do?

What we do—since we can’t ramp production from conventional power plants up, or down, upon a moment’s notice, is this: we keep the old power plants running in the background, just in case, all the time. We never take them off-line and we don’t really “substitute” wind or solar energy for fossil fuels. Because we don’t dare.

Not only can we not predict the wind energy for tomorrow with any confidence, we have a hell of a time managing this fluctuating flow from minute to minute.

And what do we do with all of the excess power that is produced in the middle of the night, in the dead of winter, from the wind turbines when the wind is really cranking?

We dump it.

More accurately, we CHARGE you for it first (because wind energy producers get heavily subsidized credits for all of the skittering power that they produce, whether anyone wants it or not)—and THEN we dump it. We waste it. Because it’s fundamentally unusable, unsalable and redundant.

The bottom line is that there is not enough land in all of America to produce a meaningful amount of power from wind and solar energy and the quality of the power is pitiful. In fact, it is virtually useless without running it in tandem with existing conventional power sources (which ARE reliable) and it becomes more and more difficult to integrate into the electric grid—the constant stream of electric power we all want and expect—the more of it that you produce. More wind equals more headaches—and more waste—and more futility in terms of doing anything useful.

Not only does wind energy require—squander is a better word—huge quantities of land, it also requires a vast infrastructure in the form of roads, transmission lines, connection points, transformers, and so forth, to implement it.

Those 400 foot towers require vast amounts of concrete and steel to stabilize them and the components are so massive that the “cuts and fills”—the leveling effect upon the landscape—to build the roads are truly draconian. You can’t move up or down a steep grade or navigate a very tight curve with a truck hauling a 150 foot wind turbine blade.

And although the proponents try to dismiss or suppress the information, the fact is that wind turbine noise is very disruptive. It is extremely unhealthy. It destroys the quality of life for anyone living within a mile of the machines and numerous studies show that such “chronic noise” — they operate 24 hours a day — drives off wildlife because they can’t function in that environment. In effect, these “green” wind farms introduce a pervasive health hazard over a huge area, for anyone who lives nearby, and this “green” technology is turning lots of habitat, including rural mixed use areas, into a vast desert in terms of its wildlife potential.

And where are the “best” places to put these mammoth machines? Where do we find the best “wind resources”? Why, right on top of all of the scenic ridge lines, in the harbors, along the coast lines, along the beaches and just offshore, all throughout our country, that’s where! Do none of these things have value to us? Are we so impoverished in our thinking about ecology that we can’t recognize the value of anything that we can’t “monetize”?

No one who delves into the facts of these technologies can do so without being forced to confront their insoluble physical limitations. They simply don’t accomplish the things that we hoped that they might. Worse yet, they make an existing problem much worse.

That’s the bottom line.

  1. Comment by John V on 08/08/2010 at 1:29 am

    You have a point. I’m a strong advocate of renewable energy and wind turbines in the small residential scale where they are used for off-grid applications like battery charging. However, I can’t dismiss the fact that larger turbines cause more harm than good due to their large footprint and limited economies-of-scale.

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