Energy Week Extra: Windpower

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A couple of years ago, I got an email inviting me to a wind video. I followed the link, and found a clip of a bird being killed by a wind turbine. I got the email because someone, without asking, had made me a “friend” of an anti-wind facebook page. When I commented at the site that the Audubon Society had supported the Cape Wind project, I got a response saying it had been “bought off by big wind.”

Really?

Auburn eagle handler Andrew Hopkins holds Nova (aka War Eagle 7), a 16-year-old Golden Eagle before a flight at the NWTC. Photo: Dennis Schroeder/NREL/Flickr CC (BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Auburn eagle handler Andrew Hopkins holds Nova, a 16-year-old Golden Eagle before a flight at the National Wind Technology Center. Nova has been part of research to ensure that wind turbines are safe for birds. Photo: Dennis Schroeder/NREL/Flickr CC (BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I have worked on research for decades. I understand there are reasons for standards for information. We need to know statistics and science are based on valid material. Otherwise, we may be depending on something that is misunderstood and wrong, or even made up. The question is, what can you trust?

The best sources we have are those without motives other than accuracy. Some sources are very interested in establishing track records they can point to, showing a history of being correct, and with some care we can pick such sources.

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Sadly, we cannot assume the US government is one of them. Agencies and offices vary in quality, so we have to check their historical performance. The EIA, for example, appears to be right about most historical data. In its projections about renewable energy, however, the EIA is wildly off the mark, 100% of the time.

News media are also often wrong.

Can you believe it?

A doctor says exercise is bad for the health of any man over 35. Can we cite him as an expert? This image is in the public domain because it is over 100 years old.

People who are paid to have a particular point of view are usually wrong. Unfortunately, even information in peer-reviewed journals can be wrong, and sometimes is intentionally so. This became an issue as peer-reviewed journals in unrelated fields published articles from scientists denying the importance of climate change. It turned out the scientists were paid to write them.

Even things that are intuitively obvious should not automatically be considered true, as we will see shortly.

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Conspiracy theories are near the bottom of the list for trustworthiness. They can be made up as needed, and often are. For example, try this story, which I am telling to illustrate the point:

Donald Trump seems to have claimed that Barack Obama is not a native-born American, and so is not qualified to be president.

Photo by Marc Nozell. CC BY-SA 2.0. Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Marc Nozell. CC BY-SA 2.0. Wikimedia Commons.

We might ask what Donald Trump’s motives are. Was he perhaps trying to deflect attention from himself?

Let’s look at the facts. It is a matter of record that Fred Trump, Donald Trump’s father, ran into financial problems with the US government before Donald was born. It is well known that in those days, wealthy people with such problems would sometimes move their money to a foreign country that had no extradition treaty with the US, and then move there themselves.

What is not recorded, possibly because the records were altered, is that Fred Trump went to Washington DC before Donald Trump was born, to straighten things out. But he did not go to talk to the US government; he went to talk to the Brazilians.

Donald trump. Photo by Michael Vadon. CC by 2.0.

Donald trump. Photo by Michael Vadon. CC by 2.0.

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Fred Trumps wife, knowing something was up, insisted on going along, because she wanted to have a say. There was a minor accident in the Brazilian embassy, she went into a very short labor, and Donald Trump suddenly came into this world. Fred Trump wanted to be certain that no one knew where he had been, and so he had a doctor in New York produce a fake birth certificate for his newborn son.

So, as you can see, Donald Trump was born in the Brazilian embassy, which is not US soil. He is rightfully a Brazilian citizen, and, by his own standards, not qualified to be president.

Photo by Jjohn02. CC BY- SA 4.0 International. Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Jjohn02. CC BY- SA 4.0 International. Wikimedia Commons.

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Now, you should ask, is this story true? The first thing we might note on that is that its claim to truthfulness is exactly the same as the story Donald Trump seems to have told about Barack Obama. They are both conspiracy theories, unsupported by documented facts. Let me translate that: Both stories have holes in them that need to be filled with valid evidence before we should believe them.

I feel quite sure both were made up. In the case of Trump’s story about Obama, if he had proof, he should have produced it, to the standards of science or law; otherwise we have to assume he was telling, or repeating, a lie. Similarly, if I had proof about the Donald Trump story, I should have produced that. I did not, so you should not believe it.

There is one difference in the quality of the stories. I honestly admit that I made my story up to illustrate a point. By contrast, I feel pretty sure Trump’s story was made up so someone could fool people – possibly including you.

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An anti-wind neighbor gave me a list of things wrong with wind power. I already knew some of them were just not correct, but there were others I felt a need to check. They included

  • intermittent power being unreliable;
  • environmental damage to birds, other animals, water tables, and so on;
  • human health effects;
  • effects on values of nearby properties;
  • and the cost of electricity produced by wind power.

Let’s deal with them one at a time.

Wind turbine in Hawaii. Photo by Harvey McDaniel from Naalehu, HI. CC BY 2.0. Wikimedia Commons.

Wind turbine in Hawaii. Photo by Harvey McDaniel from Naalehu, HI. CC BY 2.0. Wikimedia Commons.

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Intermittent power being unreliable:

It is true that the wind does not always blow, and the sun does not always shine. So it is intuitively obvious that we cannot depend on the sun and wind for the lights turn on when we throw a switch in the kitchen at 2:00 AM. That is intuitively obvious.

It was intuitively obvious to Isabella that the world was flat.

Isabella I, author of the Spanish Inquisition. Painting by Juan de Flandes. Public domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Isabella I, author of the Spanish Inquisition. Painting by Juan de Flandes. Public domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Wind power does not act alone on the grid; it acts other power sources. The wind is least productive during the daytime, but that is when the sun shines. We have transmission lines that can bring power from places where the wind is blowing, when it is not blowing here. We have other sources of renewable power, including hydro, biomass, biogas, and geothermal. We have well-developed storage systems that originally supported base-load power plants (because they are inflexible and a really bad match for grid demand), but now they can support renewables. We have smart grids and demand response. And now, we can combine all these into what are called “virtual power plants,” which can deliver power more reliably and at less cost than the old baseload plants of days past. And this is not conjecture – it has been achieved.

Renewable resources work together. You can get reliable, inexpensive power from them. Eliminate resources, however, and you reduce reliability and increase costs. If we eliminate wind and large-scale solar power, there is a beneficiary. And that beneficiary has an almost unimaginable amount of wealth and power.

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Environmental damage to birds, other animals, water tables, and so on:

Environmental damage is an important issue for many people, including myself. I found one estimate saying that in 2012, 440,000 birds were killed by wind turbines in the US. That is about one bird, nation wide, every 72 seconds.

I also found a report on a research project at a single power site that said 5000 were birds killed in an inventory period of 48 hours. That is one bird about every 35 seconds, at just one site. It had seven units, one nuclear and six coal. There was not a single wind turbine in sight.

Photo by Ebyabe. Dual-licensed under the GFDL and CC-By-SA-2.5 Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Ebyabe. Dual-licensed under the GFDL and CC-By-SA-2.5 Wikimedia Commons.

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Human health effects:

Anti-wind activists raise questions relating to human health. The Waubra Foundation, based in Australia, was one of the first groups to launch a protest. You might look up this foundation in Wikipedia; if you do, remember that if anti-wind people don’t like what they find there, they can change it. They should remember, however, that they have to document the changes, because if they don’t, those changes will possibly be removed.

This is not an easy issue for anti-wind people to face. The citizens of Waubra brought a suit against the Waubra Foundation, to make them stop using the name of their village, because the foundation does not represent them or their wishes.

And according the Australian Medical Association, scientific research clearly shows that the human health effects associated with wind power result from stress produced by the activities of anti-wind activists. That is according to the Australian Medical Association. (It is hard to imagine that they were bought off by Big Wind while the country’s government was trying hard to close down wind project developments and use money intended for renewable energy to supporting coal.)

Okay, that organization, like government agencies, cannot be blindly relied on. So I wanted to look further into the question.

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I looked into large-scale wind farms in the US in an informal survey of my own, checking for myself to see how people who lived closest to them had done. This was actually an easy thing to do. For each wind farm I checked, I called the library, the town hall, a church, a school, the hospital, or some other organization, and talked to ordinary people (not the boss, who might have an axe to grind in favor of the project). Their answers were really quite consistent.

Here is an example. A number of years ago, a farmer in central Texas got the idea that he could get a little extra income by leasing land for a wind turbine. When he approached his neighbors with the idea, they got excited about it; they wanted to do the same thing. They invited more people into the project. By the time they were done, they had about 400 farmers with nearly 100,000 acres. And very quickly, the town of Roscoe, Texas was surrounded by the Roscoe Wind Farm, with its 634 industrial-scale turbines, and all the people who lived there, farmers and townspeople alike, were right inside the wind farm. No one ever told these people they would get sick.

Kiowa County Memorial Hospital has its own wind turbine. Photo courtesy of the City of Greensburg, Kansas.

Kiowa County Memorial Hospital has its own wind turbine. Photo courtesy of the City of Greensburg, Kansas.

One woman, asked about how it feels to live in a wind farm, said, “Oh, I never thought about the fact that we live in a wind farm. I suppose we do! Well, we like it!”

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Effects on values of nearby properties:

The effects of wind farms on property values have been thoroughly studied. The Lawrence Berkeley/UCONN study, which covered 122,000 transactions in Massachusetts, commissioned by the state, concluded that there was no negative effect on property values, and potentially positive effects.

Wind turbines in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Photo by Fletcher6. CC BY 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.

Wind turbines in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Photo by Fletcher6. CC BY 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.

One  anti-wind answer to this involves two “studies” by a real estate appraiser who used his own evaluations of 80 properties to show they had reduced value. The data set is far too small to draw reliable conclusions, but the person doing the work was the source of his own data. In effect, he was saying, “I know this is true because I have said it is true, and I am an expert.”

Another answer is that since property values are subjective, the Berkley/UCONN study’s result is also subjective, and therefore no better than the appraiser’s. This shows an incorrect understanding of data and statistics. If I get 1000 people to tell me the color of their favorite shirt, and 147 say “blue,” I have 1000 subjective answers. But I can say objectively that 14.7% of the people said “blue.”

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Cost of electricity produced by wind power:

Lazard-Associates-Version-9.0

Credit: Lazard Associates, Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis – Version 9.0, November 2015

Anti-wind groups like to say wind power is too expensive. The truth is that wind power has become the least expensive source of electricity in the US. PPAs have been signed at 1.5¢/kWh, and possibly lower. Even with incentives added in, that has the cost at 3.8¢/kWh. Prices for natural gas range upwards from  5.2¢/kWh.

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So why would anyone lie about wind power? One possible reason is that people with almost inconceivable amounts money to lose may have reasons to divert attention from things they are doing, so they can continue making even more money.

Another reason has to do with a desire to control situations. Even a person who has no interest in money might do this, and do it forcefully. In fact, such a person can become the leader of something that looks a lot like a personality cult, using others in the group as enablers, possibly by forcefully stoking their fears.

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Let’s go back to the idea that the Audubon Society was “bought off by Big Wind.” Apart from its cynicism, it does not make sense that the Audubon society would be interested in being bought off by bird murderers when they could be paid far more to support Big Fossil Fuels.

Who is Big Wind, anyway? Most people don’t even know the names Goldwind and Vestas, which are respectively the largest and second largest manufacturers of wind turbines in the world. Worldwide revenues of the entire wind turbine industry are projected to grow to about $95 billion per year by 2017. That might sound like a lot, but compared with the organizations that want to stop wind power from succeeding, it is trivial.

Vestas, incidentally, has a couple of things it shares with another company, LEGO. They are both Danish, and the revenues of the two companies are about the same size.

Lego_Chicago_City_View_2001

Chicago city view in Lego blocks. Big Wind is about the same size as Big Toys.

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Let’s compare this with the oil and gas companies. In 2014, twenty-one Oil and Gas companies had revenues of over $100 billion each. Every single one is by itself bigger than the entire wind turbine manufacturing industry. And so did Koch Industries, a conglomerate with heavy investments in fossil fuels. Their combined revenues were just about double the budget of the US Federal Government. If I say “ExxonMobil, Chevron, PhillipsConoco, Shell Oil (Royal Dutch Shell), BP (British Petroleum), and Koch Industries,” most people will recognize the names.

New Orleans. "BP Oil Flood Protest", Jackson Square. Protest against the great oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

New Orleans. “BP Oil Flood Protest”, Jackson Square. Protest against the great oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

But the fossil fuel industries, which are many times the size of Big Wind, are afraid. They feel a need to grow, but they are not growing. The electricity market is actually shrinking, losing 5% in 2015 alone; customers are making their own power; and traditional power sources are getting fresh competition from renewables.

Some analysts say about a third of US oil and gas companies are expected to out of business this year, followed by 30% of the remainder next year. More to the point, some in the finance industry expect the fossil fuels companies to lose $100 trillion in stranded assets between now and 2050, if we are to deal with climate change. That nearly inconceivable amount is about five times the US national debt, about 1.3 times the gross world product.

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Now let’s take a look at some market activity. This chart shows the value of oil and gas sector stock, represented by the years’ market highs. In terms of market capitalization, the oil and gas industry is not growing, despite all its fracking.

dow jones oil and gas index

But look at the coal industry, in which some in the oil industry may see their own future. The next chart shows that the coal sector has collapsed, as the value of coal industry stock approaches zero. Most companies in the sector have gone out of business or are bankrupt.

Dow Jones Coal Index

Dow Jones Coal Index annual highs

Now, let’s compare these with the growth of the wind industry represented in the total amount of generating capacity it has installed.

Growth of wind power. Image by Delphi234. CC0. Wikimedia Commons.

Growth of wind power. Image by Delphi234. CC0. Wikimedia Commons.

Notice anything interesting?

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Renewables are competing successfully with gas, the most competitive of fossil fuels, while the price of gas is so low that many companies are losing money producing it. If the price of gas goes up, renewables are even more competitive. It is a game the oil and gas companies cannot win – unless they can stop the solar and wind industries by other means.

So what does the fossil fuels industry do? They wage a campaign to influence opinion. Unfortunately, however, they are not always honest.

They have been caught lying about climate change. For instance, it is evident that after their own scientists found that climate change would have serious effects on the environment, Exxon executives paid other scientists to produce articles saying climate change was not happening, while they paid yet other scientists to find the places where thaws in the Arctic would make it easiest to drill for oil. New York is leading a set of states that are suing.

They are putting hundreds of millions of dollars into attempts to get their own people elected into congress and the White House. With the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United, the attempt to take over US politics is not even concealed – it is bragged about.

Meanwhile, they are doing exactly what anti-wind activists accuse the wind industry of doing. Remember that bit about diverting attention to someone else? Here you go.

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Fossil fuels are the primary cause of air pollution, which is damaging the people’s health, to the point that it is the leading cause of death among people worldwide, according to some medical groups. It is killing birds and other animals in astonishingly great numbers, along with vegetation, even entire forests. And it is wrecking our finances.

Human health

According to the World Health Organization, millions of people are dying every year as a result of air pollution from fossil fuels. According to a paper that appeared in the journal, Nature, another death related to air pollution happens every 8.5 seconds, worldwide.

Image by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Image by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

The external costs of our use of fossil fuels are estimate at $1.6 trillion to $7 trillion per year, worldwide. These are concealed costs, included in everything from the price of food to the cost of maintaining property and damage to cultural treasures, but we pay it in ways ranging from insurance premiums to increased taxes. We all are paying. You are paying.

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Environmental damage

Air pollution kills birds many times faster than wind turbines. Benjamin Sovacool, an internationally-acclaimed  researcher at the Vermont Law School, concluded that fossil fuels kill twenty to forty times as many birds as wind power, for the same amount of energy produced. When we replace fossil fuels with wind power, we save twenty to forty birds for every one that is killed by a wind turbine.

The Audubon Society says that we could lose 50% of our North American bird species, if we do not cut our dependence on fossil fuels. That is a good reason why the Audubon Society could endorse certain well-sited wind farms.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, widely known for its lawsuits to stop construction of wind farms in the UK, put up a wind turbine at its headquarters. ecotricity photograph.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, widely known for its lawsuits to stop construction of wind farms in the UK, put up a wind turbine at its headquarters. ecotricity photograph.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has become known for its opposition to poorly-sited wind farms, says we have lost 70% of our seabird populations in the last 60 years, mostly because of climate change and pollution. The society headquarters are partly powered by an on-site wind turbine.

The World Wildlife fund says we could lose 30% to 70% of all species, unless we act to limit climate change, by cutting our use of fossil fuels.

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Property values

Ceres, based in Boston, is one of several non-profit organizations that have been bringing the problem of climate change to the attention of financial institutions. Many companies in the insurance, banking, and investment industries are responding. Ceres now represents organizations holding about $30 trillion in assets that are taking strong stands against climate change.

The reason is simple. With climate change, the number of properties that cannot be insured is increasing. Without insurance, there is no possibility of a mortgage, and without that, selling real estate is a problem. There are already mansions on the coast of Florida that cannot be sold because they are too close to the water’s edge to get insurance. In many places, properties have lost most of their value because they are in what used to be 500-year flood zones.

Damage caused by flood waters from Tropical Storm Irene (2011-08-28) on the Ottauquechee River in Quechee, Vermont. Photo by Stephen Flanders. CC BY-SA 3.0 unported. Wikimedia Commons.

Damage caused by flood waters from Tropical Storm Irene (2011-08-28) on the Ottauquechee River in Quechee, Vermont. Photo by Stephen Flanders. CC BY-SA 3.0 unported. Wikimedia Commons.

And it is not just real estate. Commercial and industrial operations are threatened. Whole cities are threatened.

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We should understand the extent of damage the fossil fuels industries have already done in the US. About 500 mountaintops in the central Appalachians have been removed to get coal in the last thirty to forty years.

Mountaintop removal mining in Kentucky. Photo by iLoveMountains.org. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Mountaintop removal mining in Kentucky. Photo by iLoveMountains.org. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

As the mountaintops were removed, the broken stones had to go somewhere. They were rolled down the sides of the mountains into the little valleys that ran alongside them. Brooks that once ran through forests now run through rubble. Literally thousands of miles of little valleys have been chocked in this manner. They will never recover.

Mountaintop removal coal mining filled the valley behind this home. Photo by Flashdark. Released to the Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Mountaintop removal coal mining filled the valley behind this home. Photo by Flashdark. Released to the Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

  • Our insatiable need for oil and gas has led to more environmental degradation. This is what large parts of the Midwest look like today. This is something you might think about when you cook with gas or drive a car with an internal combustion engine.
Gas field in Wyoming. Photo by Peter Aengst. Wikimedia Commons.

Gas field in Wyoming. Photo by Peter Aengst. Wikimedia Commons.

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Climate change is a reality. After President Obama spoke of 97% of climate scientists supporting the idea of human-caused climate change, MSNBC did a survey of nearly 70,000 scientists who wrote peer-reviewed papers on the subject in journals of climatology or meteorology. Only four disagreed, fewer than 0.006%. Other similar surveys produced pretty much the same result.

Climate change has allowed the balsam woolly adelgid, invasive insects, to kill entire forests. This was a forest of Fraser firs. The balsam woolly adelgid is found in every county of Vermont. It may be held in check by our cold winters, but they are getting warmer.

Ghost forest on Clingmans Dome. US Geological Survey photo. Public domain. Wikimedia Commons.

Ghost forest on Clingmans Dome. US Geological Survey photo. Public domain. Wikimedia Commons.

The hemlock woolly adelgids do the same to forests of hemlock. Here is a map showing where infestations were in 2012. The insects are continuing to move north. You will notice that Windham County is infested. If you drive to Massachusetts and poke around a while, you will probably find ghost stands of hemlocks bleaching in the sun.

us Forest Service map of hemlock woolly adelgid infestation, 2012

us Forest Service map of hemlock woolly adelgid infestation, 2012. Balsam woolly adelgids are found throughout Vermont.

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There is even the story that the notion of climate change was invented by socialists.  But the US Defense Department says climate change is one of our biggest security risks. It would seem that those who spread such nonsense are making it harder to provide things our armed forces consider necessary for our security. This is not patriotism.

Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil Corporation Rex W. Tillerson meets with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Photo by premier.gov.ru. CC BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons. 

Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil Corporation Rex W. Tillerson meets with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Photo by premier.gov.ru. CC BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.

When someone spreads fear through a community, it is worth while asking why. Some people spread fear for the sake of their own money, some for a sense of control, and possibly some for other reasons. In any case, you can count on it that they do not spread fear to make it easier for you to think for yourself. It is far more likely that they want you to let them do your thinking for you.

Climate change is not something to fear, as long as we are willing to face it. Dealing with climate change can reduce our expenses, enable independence, improve our health, and help the environment. We have all the tools we need. We only need to use them.

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