The Energy Spectator

Big Wind Meets an Ill Wind

The answer to our electricity needs is not blowin' in the wind.

By 12.28.12

Four years ago, Shell Wind Energy, a unit of the oil company, looked for a suitable site for a wind farm on the Northern California coast. Its scouts found a large acreage -- cattle pastures -- high on the hills about six miles from the town of Ferndale. They secured permission from the rancher-owners to use the land and announced the project. All hell broke loose. 

The local weekly in the tight-knit town was flooded with concerned letters to the editor: One of two narrow roads into the hill area carried all the daily traffic of a large hinterland; the other was largely dirt. They would be clogged for months with construction trucks. Wind turbine blades will kill thousands of birds. The constant noise of the turning blades will keep local ranch families awake. The wind farm will spoil the view and forever alter the bucolic nature of the land.

Protest meetings followed. Shell representatives tried to allay fears. They even talked about carrying the huge blades to the site by helicopter to avoid using the roads. Nothing worked. The town passed a resolution opposing the project. Shell finally threw in the towel, saying the project would be uneconomical.

Increasingly, this seems to be the fate of Big Wind, one of the two mainstays of President Obama’s “alternative energy” plan. The other is solar energy where the Obama Administration’s record is one mostly of failures. For the federal government to subsidize research and development of promising technologies is one thing, but acting as a venture capitalist is quite another. It thought it picked winners, but got losers by throwing dollars at several failing solar panel manufacturers.

The wind farm business is now feeling the cumulative effects of opposition by neighbors and potential neighbors, bird lovers and people who oppose inefficient, uneconomical government projects.

Take the NIMBY aspect. From the left, the newsletter and website CounterPunch reports on several protests. In July a group blocked a road as part of an effort to stop construction of a 21-turbine farm on a mountain top. In October, residents near Utica, New York, sued the owners of a wind project, asserting the turbines gave them headaches, interrupted sleep, and endangered property values. In 2011, an Environmental Review Panel in Ontario, Canada, after studying a new wind facility, concluded that such things can cause harm to humans “if placed too close to residents.”

As for killing birds, there is plenty for Audubon and PETA people to complain about. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that an estimated 440,000 birds are killed by turbine blades annually. The Alameda County, California, Community Development Agency estimates that 2,400 raptors and 7,500 other birds are killed annually in the Altamont Pass turbine farm east of Oakland, through which I-80 passes.

The most ardent environmentalists are implacable in their opposition to fossil fuels and so, apparently, is Barack Obama. The world’s demand for electricity, however, continues to grow and solar panels and wind turbines cannot possibly meet that demand. 

The underlying argument for using wind power is that it reduces carbon dioxide.

If one believes the global warming (“climate change”) theory, it follows that one believes humans are causing it by their use of hydrocarbons. Thus, wind farms reduce emissions.

Can they produce enough energy to reduce the use of natural gas, oil, nuclear?

In a word, no. The International Energy Agency estimates that the world’s demand for electricity will grow every year over the next two decades by the equivalent of Brazil’s annual usage. (Brazil uses about 475 tetrawatt hours a year.) The world’s total wind turbine energy output in 2011 was 437 tetrawatts, of which the U.S. share was a little under 20 percent. So, just to keep up with demand (without displacing any of the traditional energy sources) the world’s wind energy industry would have to develop five times the 2011 U.S. capacity every year for years to come. That’s a definition of Mission Impossible.

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford is a board member of the Committee on the Present Danger. He is the editor of “Washington Merry-Go-Round: The Drew Pearson Diaries, 1960-69,” which will be published in September.