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Wind Power, but not right here.
by -- December 7th, 2015

When large wind energy are proposed—offshore Nantucket or in eastern Maine, there is often immediate objection from the neighbors.   This is a classic case of NIMBY—the “not in my backyard” mentality.  But, it is worth looking beneath the immediate arguments to see the substance.

First, we must move away from any argument that a wind farm project is only meant to power the local area.  These projects are meant to generate “big power” to the national grid.  Arguing that a proposed wind project could be replaced with something much smaller, like tidal or solar, for the local area is a non-sequitur.

Those who argue against a wind project on the basis that it will not lower their power bills are also missing the point.  That would only be true if you lived on an island—not connected to the national grid.   But, we are connected to the grid through our local power company, which buys power from all over the state and beyond.  The power generated from a big wind project in any region gets mixed in with power derived from a wide variety of sources, producing an average price, which is used by the Public Utilities Commission to set rates that are paid by all.

Second, we must accept that our nation, indeed the world, must move away from energy derived from fossil fuels—the source of the ongoing global warming that we are experiencing.   Rapid, large-scale changes in climate have the potential to disrupt a lot of human society, ranging from our food and health to the existence of coastal communities.   Anybody who owns coastal property within 10 feet of mean high sea level should be worried.  So should lobster and oyster fishermen, whose catch is likely to decline with warmer and more acidic waters.

Thus, we must move the entire nation to renewable sources of energy, including wind, solar, tidal and geothermal sources.   Wind is currently the cheapest alternative in terms of price per kilowatt hour.  Solar has come down in price a lot in recent years, but in some areas there is a lot more wind than sun over the course of a year. Solar works best in the desert Southwest, where there are a lot of big facilities already built and more proposed.   Comparisons of the overall installation of solar versus wind in the U.S. mask regional differences in which each works well.  You can bet that a power-generating company would not propose a big wind project in a particular region if other sources of energy would generate a greater return on investment.

I think the best argument against any proposed large-scale wind facility will focus on economic assessments of alternative futures for the region.  Picturesque areas should focus on developing and promoting an aesthetic coastline and the outdoor experiences that nature provides on land and in coastal waters.  What is an estimate of the gross revenue that arrives in the region as a result of nature?  How does this compare to the gross revenue that will derive from a large-scale wind project, including the continuing jobs that might be provided and the royalties received for land rental from local residents, who will presumably pour that money back into the community?

Large wind projects may increase bird mortality, especially of bald eagles.  Scientific investigations of these impacts are somewhat equivocal, but there would seem little doubt that there will be greater bird mortality with windmills than without them.  One thing seems clear: the overall mortality of birds from wind turbines is much less than that inflicted each year by feral and roaming domestic housecats.   If your house cat roams, don’t complain about windmills.

I have no doubt that large-scale wind projects lower the regional land values, associated with the fact that most people would prefer not to see windmills and are worried about the noise and light-flicker that is associated with some of them.  But, frankly, I am underwhelmed by the medical evidence presented on the harmful effects of windmills, relative to the health impacts of coal-fired power plants to all residents who live downwind.  This needs more and better investigation, so if you are offered studies that purport to show a human health effect, ask the following questions:

How many subjects were involved in each experiment?   How were they chosen?

How long did the experiments run?

Were there control subjects?

If not controls, was intervention analysis properly applied?

Is there a dose-response analysis, using distance as the independent variable?

When land owners negotiate a lease with wind-farm developers, the payments should compensate them for the potentially lower value of their land.  The problem is that the adjacent land owners get nothing.  This could be partially compensated by a higher assessed tax value for lands with windmills, paid by their owners, and lower tax values for adjacent lands, reflecting their lower property value. Higher taxes on properties with revenue-producing “improvements” is a long-standing tradition.

We are just learning about wind and solar—their costs, benefits and problems.  In time, best practices will develop.  My guess is that the cost/benefit ratio will be much lower with these renewables than with the traditional fossil-based alternatives.

 

References

Erickson, W.P., M.M. Wolfe, K.J. Bay, D.H. Johnson, and J.L. Gehring. 2014.  A comprehensive analysis of small-passerine fatalities from collision with turbines at wind energy facilities.  PLoS One 9: doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0107481

Knopper, L.D., and C.A. Ollson. 2011.  Health effects and wind turbines: A review of the literature.  Environmental Health 10: doi: 10.1186/1476-069X-10-78

Loss, S.R., T. Will, and P.P. Marra. 2013.  Estimates of bird collision mortality at wind facilities in the contiguous United States.  Biological Conservation 168: 201-209.

Roberts, J.D., and M.A. Roberts. 2013.  Wind turbines: Is there a human health risk?  Journal of Environmental Health 75:  8-17

Marcillo, O., S. Arrowsmith, P. Blom, and K. Jones. 2015.  On infrasound generated by wind farms and its propagation in low-altitude tropospheric waveguides.  Journal of Geophysical Research—Atmospheres 120: 9855–9868 doi: 10.1002/2014JD022821

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