Monday, October 3, 2011

A Green Bashes Wind Power: Facing Honestly Gas and Our Energy Choices

The intense focus on gas drilling would provide a huge public service if it both minimizes the impacts of gas drilling and leads to a broader discussion about our real energy choices. 

On September 28th, the NYT  ran an op-ed by a Vermont environmentalist attacking a wind farm that is being built on a famous Green Mountain.  See

"Bulldozers arrived a couple weeks ago at the base of the nearby Lowell Mountains and began clawing their way through the forest to the ridgeline, where Green Mountain Power plans to erect 21 wind turbines, each rising to 459 feet from the ground to the tip of the blades.  This desecration, in the name of  'green energy' is taking place in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom..."

Similar language has been used to attack the 16 operating wind farms in Pennsylvania, with another 8 in construction and development. While no one of Pennsylvania's wind farms is more than a small step forward, cumulatively Pennsylvania's wind farms will soon provide enough power for 400,000 homes. 

As with wind, some want to stop or ban hydraulic fracturing and shale gas for its impacts and flaws.  Gas has impacts and is not 100% clean, though it emits zero mercury, lead, arsenic, soot, and just 50% of the carbon pollution coal does on a lifecycle basis (see the Carnegie Mellon University, WorldWatch Institute, and NETL studies all finding that gas is much clearner than coal).

As in the broadside in the NYT, wind energy is often attacked at the local level by people who love nature and their home areas. I respect their desire to place their back
yard above all else, for if you do not love your home, what do you?   Robert Kennedy whose family has a famous love affair with Cape Cod is leading the assault against the Cape Cod wind farm.   Intense attacks in Maryland delayed for many years wind energy there.

Despite my respect for what motivates the criticism of wind projects, I buy 100% wind energy for my electric power at home and normally do not want anti-wind campaigns to prevail, because the alternatives to wind are so much worse for our economy as well as our national and global environment. The attacks on wind energy always make similar points: it is intermittent; any one wind farm does not prevent much pollution so why do the one wind farm; it damages land; it is ugly.  Sometimes it is argued that wind is more expensive than alternatives. 

Renewables--corn ethanol, large hydro, wind, solar, wood combustion--cumulatively provide about 10% of the total energy America consumes so doubling them to 20% in the next 10 years
would mean that 80% of our energy must come from other resources.  To the Vermont environmentalist, perhaps that means the damage done to the land that will occur by doubling renewables is not worth the benefits of having done so. 

Doubling renewables will not fix our climate problem or even end smog, soot, toxic air pollution.  To me that is not a persuasive reason to stop the next wind farm that is one small step to doubling and then tripling renewable energy .  Moving to renewable energy is a long journey that will take a great many small steps.

Yet, the rational criticisms of wind or corn ethanol or large hydro or wood combustion have degrees of merit, as do responsible criticisms of gas drilling.  Indeed recently, though gas emits 50% less carbon on a lifecycle basis than coal, gas was attacked by some environmentalists, because substituting one-half of global coal-fired power plants with gas would only produce a modest lessening in global temperature increases over the next 90 years.  The Wigley study modeled all the soot that
substituting gas for coal would remove from the air, and noted that getting rid of the soot would remove a cooling forcing, thereby raising temperatures temporarily.  The same would be true, of course, if renewables replaced one-half of global coal.

And what would would the alternatives to gas and now wind be were they banned?  Remember that gas supplies 25% of all our energy and shale gas in turn 30% of all our natural gas, heating homes, running factories, and providing electricity.

Coal could indeed replace a lot of gas relatively quickly. Robert Kennedy has been outspoken attacking (correctly in my view) mountain top mining that has blown up 500 mountains in Appalachia and buried 1200 miles of streams.  What about the 34,000 people who the EPA says die each year from pollution mainly from the one-third of coal fired power plants without pollution controls? Do we want to double heat trapping carbon emissions by replacing gas with coal? There is no real argument that using more coal and less gas would be an enormous environmental step back

Nuclear? Six nuclear reactors out of 450 around the world have melted down.  I live in the Three Mile Island evacuation area where one melted down in 1979, though the US nuclear industry has had a strong safety record for the last 32 years.

 Beyond the safety issues, new nuclear has massively high costs, especially when the waste disposal and decommissioning costs are not subsidized by national governments.  New nuclear makes wind look cheap. Moreover building a new nuclear plant takes at least 10 years so it cannot replace gas quickly.

Oil? The new boom in oil drilling in the USA could mean with other steps like efficiency, biofuels, natural gas and electricity vehicles the USA could end oil imports by 2025.  But there is no way to replace the 25% of energy coming from gas without massively increasing oil imports.  Do we want to become more dependent on oil at a time when China and India are raising rapidly their oil consumption and imports?.

And what about the enormours daily impact of spills, leaks, carbon emissions, and other air pollution from our reliance on oil?  The environmental impacts of oil dwarf those of natural gas.

But if not coal, oil, nuclear, wind, what about solar?  Its costs are plummeting and are likely to reach the cost of grid power by 2015.  But it now supplies 0.2% of our electricity and will remain substantially intermittent in most areas, until major breakthroughs in energy storage take place. 

And solar too has been attacked for impacts on land and wildlife in California and other states by those who love those backyards.

Coal, Oil, Nuclear, Gas, Wind, Solar all have impacts on the environment, but they are not the same by any means.  The fuels are also in competition with each other, and which fuels win more market share and how quickly those market transformations take place shapes our environment for good or ill. 

For the environment, gas displacing coal and oil represents a major improvent for air, land, and water.  And for the environment, more wind in Vermont, Pennsylvania, Maryland and solar in California is vital, despite their own inevitable impacts on land and views.

Coming to grips with our energy choices--and the critical role of energy efficiency--and their relationships to each other may be a result of the intense focus today on gas drilling.  That would be a good thing, indeed.


  1. I can understand where the guy in Vermont is coming from. I'm a part of a pretty active campaign for responsible gas drilling, including a ban in certain areas in our county, and I'm very supportive of a transition off of fossil fuels completely (with gas as part of the transition), but I'd weigh a horizontal Marcellus well and a big wind farm about equally poor if they were going up in my back yard.

    Surely wind's part of our overall solution, but there are these issues about the big wind farms. I've read your post about the birds, and the bats and the blades, which was informative. But the bottom line is that they're huge, and don't match everyone's aesthetic - they're sort of ugly. There's also a federal proposal to designate a 200 mile path across the middle of the U.S. as priority wind farm area. Seems like a cool idea, and reminds me of the old game Sim City. But I've heard from people in that possible path, and many of them don't want their land turned into a wind farm. Some of this priority path is to cut through Native American reservations in the Dakotas.

    Recently I've been reading more about smaller, more local wind turbines. For example a municipality building may have a moderately sized turbine (~150 ft) on their property that helps power just the municipal buildings, or a school. There is a program in Minnisota to do just this (although when I checked, not much wind).

    When I was recently in Seattle, I saw this size turbine everywhere, on farms, towering over commercial districts in the city, even above people's homes in urban areas.

    I haven't seen this type of initiative much in PA, aside from Yellow Creek State Park, although there's likely others.

    Why wouldn't every other skyscraper in Pitt or Philly or New York have a turbine on the top powering the building?

    I'm wondering if you have thoughts about how this local wind, and potentially solar, solution fits in to our overall energy equation as we try to make a slow transition out of fossil fuels.

  2. With your descriptions of renewable development above, it would be a VERY SLOW transition. The twin problems of renewables remain - 1) higher costs; 2) lack of scale (at least as compared to coal or gas-fired power. The other problem with these "local" solutions is the loss of economies of scale that you have with utility-scale power.