Are wind power's critics blowing hot air?

My recent post about wind power and manufacturing touched a nerve of a reader who wrote in to the comments section. Wind power gets people concerned and upset. The prospect of a horizon altered by giant wind turbines triggers powerful emotions: the endless vistas of the American landscape symbolize our national identity, and to some people, altering that view with wind farms profanes a sacred place.

The Maple Ridge wind-turbine project in upstate New York, like others in the Northeast, has attracted lots of controversy, for predictable reasons: outside developers move into a pristine area, change the landscape, throw down some royalties for a few local citizens, and then ship the electricity to New York City. (And often, the local electricity rates go up.) That must be exasperating.

And there are complaints of the adverse health effects upon people located near wind farms:

But if you talk to the treasurers of the counties where wind farms have been built, wind energy begins to sound like a prospect for genuine rural economic revitalization. Vicki A. Roy, treasurer of Lewis County, New York, says the county's contract with Maple Ridge co-developers PPM and Horizon Wind Energy will allow for payment-in-lieu-of-tax revenues in excess of $5.5 million annually for the next 15 years. For families in the Lowville Academy and Central School District, these revenues have lowered property taxes by 20 percent and will pay the local share for bolstering the school district's programs in science, special education, pre-kindergarten, and advanced-placement high school instruction.

Thanks to a special state-run incentive program, Lewis County may receive more money than other wind-farm sites, but wind power offers many municipalities and counties a chance to reestablish their autonomy. Detractors remain a vocal, organized minority, but many communities have weighed a change in the landscape against overall improvements in the common weal -- and voted for the wind farms.

Opponents of wind power often engage in a kind of straw-man argument, an argument with the false premise that wind-turbine farms will be built across the country, wherever it's beautiful, and they use scary language, like "tidal waves of industrial wind," or "pillaging the environment."

But wind development is likely to play out more like this: huge parts of the country have great wind resources and citizens who welcome wind power for economic and environmental benefits. The community-based wind-power model -- in which the community owns some or all of the wind plants -- will probably go a long way. "
If you do community-based power in the Midwest, you don't have these battles," says William McDonough, a sustainable architect. "You've got terrific wind. You've got a community that needs support that gets support. You've got jobs. You've got a new crop for farmers that's been flying overhead for free this whole time."

The industry, in other words, will go where wind is welcomed, and not where it isn't -- despite what wind-power opponents fear (or claim to fear). Eventually, the public may recognize the wind resource sitting off the Eastern Seaboard, and turbines will be placed beyond the horizon, near the huge load centers where the electricity is needed. It's happening in Delaware, and most other mid-Atlantic states are considering offshore wind.

Wind-power opponents often say that wind energy isn't "viable," without explaining what that means. T
he research I've seen -- including this Department of Energy report -- suggest that wind power is more than technologically viable. The Electric Power Research Institute -- an organization funded by coal utilities and other energy companies, typically wind power's fiercest opponents -- concludes that this energy source has manageable challenges. (Emphasis on manageable.)

EPRI's director, Revis James, recently engaged in a civil, constructive debate over wind power with Michael McElroy, a Harvard professor of environmental sciences who has written in support of the resource, on
National Public Radio. In the exchange, James espoused sequestering carbon (and no wonder, considering the coal industry's efforts to maintain its place in America's energy portfolio). Still, he told NPR, "Wind power will play an important role in the country's energy portfolio."

I've interviewed James twice myself, and he's never suggested that wind power is not a viable energy pathway -- or that an insurmountable problem arises from the fact that wind is intermittent or that the load is variable. In fact, I've never spoken with a scientist in renewable technology, or to anyone whose job it is to keep the lights on, or to any academic with bona fides in assessing the wind energy pathway, who is troubled by these attributes of wind power. Yes,
onshore wind has transmission issues -- but this is a manageable problem, not an unfeasible one.

Wind-power opponents also often cite oil magnate T. Boone Pickens's hapless bid to build a giant wind farm in Texas as an argument against wind power. Never mind that Pickens's business model was flawed in the first place: his "merchant" plan depended upon the price of natural gas staying high, and when that price tanked, so did his wind farm. But last year, despite the recession, more wind power was installed in the U.S. than anywhere in the world. The U.S. now leads the world in total installed capacity.

I have my own concerns about wind power -- I'll address them in my next DailyFinance column -- but engaging in mindless debates can be trying. When wind-power opponents say things like this -- "Research shows there are far superior renewable energies, and none that are so intrusive or degrading" -- without providing links to research supporting that evidence, there's no way to take such a claim seriously.

I don't think there's an easy answer to any of this. But answers need to emerge, and quickly. And my reporting suggests that wind power is the only extant energy pathway that can provide provide utility-scale electricity generation right now -- today -- and potentially employ millions of people in the process.

Mark Svenvold, author of Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America, teaches at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.
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