Energy answer is not ‘blowing in the wind’

Published July 1, 2002

One of the most highly touted forms of renewable power is wind-generated energy. Like solar power, it is inexhaustible (so long as the wind blows), does not pollute, and is “free.” However, real-world observations of wind farms in action continue to add to the weight of evidence against wind as a viable energy source.

Wind power’s environmental flaws

Wind power is intermittent. It is simply not available on those hot, humid dog days of summer when energy demand peaks. The same is true for those quiet (read: windless) bone-chilling days and nights of winter.

To produce the same amount of energy as a conventional gas-fired power plant, wind farms need 85 times more land area. While environmental activist groups regularly fight against a lone cell phone tower on a hill, wind tower “sprawl” casts far more sight pollution upon pristine vistas. Most folks are not amused by the blinding strobe-light sensation that takes place on wind farms at dawn and dusk, or the near-constant noise pollution, which many people find maddening.

To its credit, wind power is far more economical than solar: It is only twice as costly as electricity generated from fossil fuels.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of wind power from an environmental perspective is its devastating effect on bird populations, particularly birds of prey.

In 1991, there were over 7,000 wind turbines in Northern California’s Altamont Pass. That figure has since dropped to 5,400. Many of the earlier projects failed because they were not financially viable without substantial tax incentives and direct subsidies from taxpayers and ratepayers. Moreover, Altamont Pass is America’s “raptor killing field.” As many as 400 golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, burrowing owls, and kestrels are killed every year by the wind turbines at Altamont Pass.

The National Audubon Society was the first environmental activist group to take a stand against the carnage of wind turbines. In 1999, it declared war on the Enron Wind Corporation with an all-out media assault that included press releases, news conferences, and a “call your congressman” campaign. Enron’s crime? It was proposing to build 53 wind turbines in an area “too close” to the endangered California condor’s habitat.

Enron pulled the plug on its project after the Audubon Society pressured Congress to take away the company’s sizable Wind Energy Tax Credit. Wind power (and, for that matter, nearly all forms of “renewable” energy) is not economically feasible without taxpayer assistance. President George W. Bush’s energy package includes a five-year extension of tax credits for wind production.

New technology still falls short

Today, many environmental activists rationalize their support of an energy source that destroys wildlife with the following logic: Wind power technology has improved significantly over earlier models. New wind turbines are much larger than before, so fewer are needed to produce the same amount of electricity. Their rotating blades are longer but rotate more slowly than early models. Thus, they argue, the blades will be easier for birds to see and avoid.

The Department of Energy’s “Wind Energy Initiative” calls for obtaining 5 percent of our nation’s electricity from wind turbines by the year 2020. To meet that goal will require the planting of more than 132,000 new wind turbines—a figure three times greater than the number of existing communication towers in the U.S.

Between four and five million birds are killed every year in collisions with stationary, generally solitary, communications towers. One can conservatively estimate that three times as many wind turbines will cause three times as many bird deaths: between 12 and 15 million.

A wind turbine with long, rotating blades (regardless of whether those blades have been slowed) clearly will kill more birds than a smaller, stationary communications tower. A 295-foot tall wind turbine can be viewed as a “communications tower” with an additional bird-killing surface area of 21,113 square feet. That is an area almost half the size of a football field.

Ironically, environmental activist groups say they object to petroleum exploration and development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) because it may negatively affect wildlife. They instead propose to sell to the American public a form of energy guaranteed to destroy wildlife by the millions each year.

Michael Heberling is president of the Baker College Center for Graduate Studies in Flint, Michigan.

For more information …

Past issues of Environment & Climate News have addressed this topic. See especially “Bird lovers cry fowl over wind power” (July 2001) and “The false promise of renewable energy” (May 2001).

Or search PolicyBot for two documents by Energy Market & Policy Analysis Inc. #2322425 “Wind Farms Cannot Make a Significant Contribution to Energy Supply” (November 2000, 13pp) and #2322604 “Science Article Is Wrong in Claiming that Wind Energy is Cheaper than Coal” (August 2001, 7pp).