Sometimes it’s a good idea to go back to school.
On Earth Day, which was a week ago Monday, I spoke to a seminar class in the natural sciences at our local college, Lyndon State. It was fun talking to the students, and I was reassured to see how committed they are to doing something about global warming, which was the main subject of my talk. I learned the most, however, from a professor who sat in on the class, who changed my mind about wind power.
I had met physicist Ben Luce by chance at a lecture in St. Johnsbury over the winter. We enjoyed speaking to each other and decided to get together again sometime. I was surprised during that first conversation when this obviously intelligent person, an alternative energy and even wind activist who seems to have all the numbers and regulations at his fingertips, came out strongly against wind power, not only in our home state but pretty much anywhere on land anywhere in the Northeast. (He believes it makes sense in the Midwest, where the resource is “two dimensional,” that is, it can be spread out over a plain, rather than along a one-dimensional mountain ridge. Ben’s advocacy of wind in New Mexico helped lead to the installation of several hundred megawatts of wind generation there.) He fears that industrial wind development of a magnitude that could make any significant contribution to the Northeast’s energy needs would set us back years if not decades by giving alternative energy a bad name, both politically and economically.
That short conversation had me intrigued but not convinced. I’ve been aware of the resistance to the ridge line wind projects near my home in northern Vermont, Lowell and Sheffield in particular, but I assumed it was motivated by NIMBY-ism or knee-jerk environmentalism in people who aren’t aware how important it is to cut greenhouse emissions. But last week when Ben sat me down and walked me through the numbers, he convinced me that economic and scientific logic comes down strongly on the side of resistance as well.
In a nutshell, wind power is not only highly destructive to Vermont’s lovely and iconic mountain ridge lines, it also loses hands down to solar, technically and economically, while solar is nowhere near as destructive to the landscape. This would appear to be a no-brainer. It would take wind development on half the state’s ridge lines to supply our small state’s relatively modest electrical needs, while it would only take 1 percent of our already existing farmland to do the job with solar. Furthermore, Ben writes in an e-mail, “Focusing on just Vermont’s energy demand is irrelevant to the climate issue (its a red herring so to speak): VT’s consumption is only a few percent of the overall region’s demand. … What really matters is how the overall region is going to significantly reduce emissions, and this is where wind falls down badly.” If ALL of Vermont’s ridge lines were dedicated to wind, they would supply only about 1 percent of the Northeast’s energy demand. This is down at the noise level.
“Blasting and bulldozing ridge lines for wind power in Vermont is therefore analogous to cutting down a forest for a garden when there is already a large field prepared adjacent,” Ben writes elsewhere. “It just doesn’t make sense on scientific grounds, even from the standpoint of combating climate change.”
Wind advocates tend to emphasize the potential for Vermont alone, conveniently neglecting to point out that solar could do the job much less destructively and also be capable of supplying a large fraction of the Northeast’s needs and therefore having a real impact on the entire region’s greenhouse emissions. The advocates also “hide the fact that we are not supplying wind energy to Vermont for the most part anyways,” writes Ben, “because we are selling most of the credits to utilities in other states (while we double-count the same power towards our own ‘renewable energy targets’). This latter part is basically just fraud. … The real reason there is a wind rush on is simply that people haven’t studied it much, it became somewhat cheaper more quickly than solar, and because utilities despise distributed generation.”
This brings up another of wind’s drawbacks: transmission lines. Owing both to the small capacity of the local electrical grid and the fact that it’s not a “smart grid,” the Sheffield wind project (I’m tempted to call them “wind factories,” as the performers at Bread and Puppets did last summer) actually has to discard power when its output exceeds local demand. A wind project is a centralized power station–in this respect it’s like a fossil fuel-burning power plant–so significant wind development leads to the need for more transmission lines. Conservative goals for wind power in the Northeast over the next fifteen years would “carry transmission costs of between $7 billion and $12 billion” and require four thousand miles of new lines! These costs are not often mentioned by advocates. Even ignoring them, while the cost of wind dropped until about 2000, it has been increasing ever since, mostly due to the commodity costs associated with the enormous metal infrastructure involved. And in Vermont there is the added cost of massive road building in inhospitable terrain. Meanwhile, solar is by its nature distributed and less capital intensive, and its cost continues to drop. It’s already competitive with wind on its face, while the future costs of wind from transmission corridors and so on remain hidden.
“If you add in all the impact and cost issues, then wind looks really crazy,” Ben concludes.
Makes sense to me, and it is also refreshing to see such clear thinking and explaining. There is no easy answer to the daunting challenge of global warming, and dogmatism simply won’t work. We need all the clarity and level-headedness we can summon.