19 August 2009

Paging Don Quixote

I took this picture during a recent trip to West Virginia. It shows a portion of a wind farm stretching along one of the many ridge lines that cross this beautiful and secluded area. The picture was taken on a foggy, rainy morning in which mother nature thankfully obscured the scar that these wind turbines, and many others like them, have caused upon the wilderness.

For my family and me, the outdoors represents an opportunity to spend time together in various pursuits including canoeing, hiking and mountain climbing. It is a welcome departure from the daily grind, especially useful in prying the kids away from the television and Playstation in order to get some fresh air and exercise. Unfortunately, I have personally noticed a proliferation of these wind turbines from the border between Maine and New Brunswick, throughout Pennsylvania and now in West Virginia. (For a review of the wind farms in Pennsylvania click here on the industry's working group website- note that issues such as visual pollution and impact on local species are not addressed.) Since they are placed on areas of higher elevation in order to catch the most favorable winds, they have permanently damaged the landscapes in otherwise pristine areas. The visual damage that these things cause is one thing, the environmental damage they cause to migrating birds and local bats is quite another. Is it worth the cost ?

The wind farm debate has put environmentalists in an uncomfortable position. On one hand, the clean power generated by wind turbines makes sense when compared against more pollution intense methods such as natural gas and coal. On the other hand, the wind turbines are killing tens of, if not hundreds of thousands, of migrating birds according to various estimates including everything from migrating songbirds to raptors that misjudge the speed at which the turbine blades are turning. On top of these casualties are bats which are already under pressure due to habitat destruction and disease. While environmentalists wring their hands and try to come up with solutions ranging from migration pattern studies and other ways to prevent the destruction of wildlife I would like to offer another solution- blow the damn things up and sell the scrap.

Wait a second, you ask, how can a committed lover of the outdoors such as yourself oppose such a green way of generating power ? An article in a recent issue of the Economist nicely dovetailed with my own recent thinking on this matter. The article addresses the coming energy crunch in the United Kingdom and its analysis of the contribution of wind farms should cause even the most ardent green to stop dead in his or her Birkenstocks. Wind farms cannot replace the bulk energy generated by coal, gas or nuclear and the U.K. may be the first nation to host an Olympics illuminated by candles. In order to replace the power generated by old fashioned means, the entire nation of Wales would have to be covered in wind turbines.

If wind farms kill wildlife, mar the landscape and produce relatively tiny amounts of power, why the rush to build them ? As usual, follow the money. Tax dollars are being thrown at the wind industry by Congress and the President's vision of a new green economy. Industrial corporations, such as General Electric, which produce the turbines are benefiting from these subsidies as well as the opportunity to market themselves to the public as being concerned about the environment in general. Local and state politicians, such as Pennsylvania's Governor Rendell can loudly proclaim that the wind farms will create jobs (up to 85,000 according to the industry web site I linked above.) Landowners who have the acreage to lease to the power companies also benefit from having some of these behemoths built on their property. Opposition is light and scattered because environmentalists are quick to label anyone against this method of power generation as anti-environment. For a politician to actually have the guts to oppose this industry would be to risk political suicide.

Pennsylvania is literally awash in natural gas. The ability of drilling companies to now reach the gas within the Marcellus shale of Western Pennsylvania makes the idea of building more wind turbines seem infantile and purely for the purposes of propaganda to benefit politicians and energy companies. Yes, burning gas creates pollution but new technologies are making the process cleaner. In addition, the construction of a gas burning (or even nuclear) plant reduces the physical footprint of the production source to a few square miles versus thousands. It is time for us to question the motives behind this industry and to hold them (and their lackeys in state and federal government) accountable for the environmental impact of their decisions. Will the wilderness we leave our children be pristine or pockmarked by thousands of these damned things ?


  1. "In order to replace the power generated by old fashioned means, the entire nation of Wales would have to be covered in wind turbines." Hmmm...you may have something there... In the U.S. we could use New Jersey.

    On a more serious note, if you believe in reducing CO2 emission, wind power beats natural gas. And for the sake of argument, it appears that other threats to bird health have much greater impact than wind turbines: see http://science.howstuffworks.com/wind-turbine-kill-birds.htm. For example, cats, power lines, windows, cars, pesticides, and lighted comm towers are reported to be individually responsible for bird deaths in the millions, vs. 10-40 thousand for wind turbines. Hopefully natural selection will provide for the evolution of bird populations that largely avoid wind turbines.

    One can also take a longer view, one in which wind power becomes obsolete as solar and/or other forms of clean energy become more practical and dominate energy supply. With luck, in only a few generations wind turbines may be unnecessary and may be taken down without a fight. Unfortunately, that may leave us and the next couple of generations as the ones that have to tolerate (or not) the intrusion on our collective view.

  2. I agree to a point. I still think the basic issue is that windpower and solar are great for the environment but simply cannot produce anything near the amount of power the world requires. As for covering New Jersey with wind turbines, I'm all for that too.