Thursday, March 3, 2011

The winds of change

I'm often amazed at the perception that wind power is free and clean.

Not free, because the windmills/generators must:
  • be built, generally in some remote area (say, in the middle of the High Plains or miles off the coast),
  • have high-capacity transmission lines extended to them (and power lines take longer to build than the wind farms themselves),
  • have back-up power provided for them (for when the wind isn't blowing), 
  • have storage provided for them (so that power from night-time wind can be used when it's needed -- often, during the day),
  • be supported by a national grid made more robust to cope with the variability of the wind-driven power, and
  • be maintained (including those new transmission lines, storage, etc.).
Still, some say, the wind is free. It's true: in a strictly monetary sense, wind-as-fuel is free. No, if one takes into account what economists call  the "externalities." Those are costs that society bears but the asset owner does not. (In the same way, pollution from fossil fuels traditionally has been an externality for the gasoline refiner -- not so much once air-pollution-abatement controls were mandated.)

So what are some externalities of wind power?

  • They're eyesores, at least to many. (I think they're neat looking, but I haven't had to live near them.) See "In Holland, land of windmills, flap over wind farm."
  • Apart from the (previously mentioned) monetary cost of high-capacity power lines, there are questions of land use. We all know how popular power towers and high-capacity lines are. The NIMBY(*) outlook applies here,  as in: why should I have unsightly power lines pass through my yard, park, county, or state if the power is being delivered far away. (Unrelated to wind generators, there's recently been a huge fight about a new power line through a corner of my county. IMO, it's largely been about this "why me? I don't need the power" issue.)
  • They affect the weather. See, for example, "Wind Farms Alter Local Weather."
  • The turbulence from one wind farm can interfere with another, miles away. See "A Less Mighty Wind: Three reasons wind power could wane."
  • They eat birds. As in, "Wind turbines taking toll on birds of prey." There's a double standard about bird slaughter, too. Whenever there's an oil spill -- the exception to routine operations -- you can count on TV footage of slimed birds. How much TV coverage have you seen of birds routinely getting chopped up by windmills? Never mind that the toll from windmills is far higher. See "Windmills Are Killing Our Birds: One standard for oil companies, another for green energy sources."
(*) NIMBY = Not in My Backyard.

You can extract from the foregoing list plenty of reasons why wind power isn't squeaky clean, either.

Am I anti-wind power? Not at all. From an energy-independence point of view, I like wind a lot. But only with eyes open to the ways in which wind power (like any means of power generation) is imperfect ...

I'd like to see wind power deployed where it makes economic sense, not because of subsidies. While some wind projects make sense, others will turn out to be as ill-considered as burning food -- aka, ethanol -- is now generally recognized (outside Iowa) to be. See:  "Al Gore: Ethanol Was Not a Good Policy."

Every use of energy -- including transformations from one form, like wind or sunlight, to another, like electricity -- has side effects.

As someone said (darn if I can find the attribution): you can't change just one thing. The beginning of wisdom in energy policy is to look around for all the impacts.  Like past energy fads -- think: shale oil, ethanol, nuclear, and hydro power -- wind power will (one assumes) come to be seen in a less rose-colored-glasses manner.

While we find our way to cheaper (never free!) and clean(er) energy, I'd like to see us continue to invest in what works and will keep the lights on.


MDC said...

A few points:

Non-wind-power plants have to built somewhere also. And they too have to have power lines built to them. Unlike wind power, they require regular inputs of fossil fuel (and BTW, uranium is a fossil fuel -- and we are going to run out of it eventually), which has to be extracted from wherever it's found, often with great cost and disruption.

The minor weather-altering effect of wind farms is interesting, and a new one on me -- but it looks like it would be a net positive in many cases.

As for turbines killing birds, you linked to a 2005 article about turbines that were built 20 years earlier. It's unfortunately true, but wind power engineers have learned quite a bit in the quarter century since those old systems were erected, and modern turbines present far less hazard to birds.

Edward M. Lerner said...


I agree that all power plants have costs and impacts. That was my point: that wind plants have costs and impacts, too. Where wind power is lowest impact and lowest cost: great. It isn't, often.

As for the siting of power plants: many can be built near where their power will be used. Not wind plants. Like solar and tide-powered plants, wind-power plants most be placed where their energy source is most available. That can lead to longer or out-of-the-way power lines. (Think: ocean-bottom power lines to coastal wind farms).

I disagree with you on one point. Uranium is not a fossil fuel, and there is a goodly supply of it if we choose to use it.

- Ed

Erik said...

Good read. I feel like an important task for scientists and critical thinkers is to combat the notion that "if you are doing something, you are making a difference". I think there are many examples of things people do to feel like they are making a difference but in reality have little or no positive effect (organic foods, donating to charities with large overhead costs). The moral of the story is that doing things right is more important than trying hard and feeling good about it.