Laura Israel's award-winning documentary, WINDFALL, is catching the attention of film reviewers around the world. WINDFALL tells the story of how residents in a small community in upstate New York responded upon learning a utility-scale wind energy facility might be situated in their town.
The response to WINDFALL by film reviews and bloggers around the world has been overwhelmingly positive even though the film's message has unsettled a few as this film festival director wrote:
"I'd expected (I think reasonably) to see a film about
the planet-changing, grid-decarbonising potential
of tall, green, serene wind turbines. What I got
was a film that challenged my views to the core."
-- John Long, festival director, UK Green Film Festival
In the last year, Israel's WINDFALL played a powerful role in encouraging viewers to consider the human side of the wind energy debate. It's easy to recite the perceived benefits of wind power, but more people are now asking hard questions about the risks. Those hoping to do right by the planet by using renewables can't help but understand that their intentions, while honorable, may impose unbearable costs on others.
WINDFALL invites much needed dialogue on this topic but not everyone is willing to join in. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), a wind industry trade and lobby group, made clear that WINDFALL was little more than an anti-wind attack piece. Last fall the group released a rebuttal document in an attempt to defuse WINDFALL's message. But AWEA's rebuttal comments were poorly researched and omitted key facts that we thought deserved a response.
On wind's popularity, AWEA cites a poll conducted in Lewis County, New York that found residents in the county viewed the Maple Ridge wind energy facility as having a 'positive effect' on the county. But the poll was conducted in 2008 and much has changed. While people may generally support wind power, opposition and litigation have become a fact of life in communities targeted for development. In Cohocton, New York, one landowner who leased his land to a developer and now has two turbines on his property called it "the biggest mistake of my life." The turbines produce noise that he and his wife find unbearable. He now advises other towns to, "Keep fighting. Don't let them come in."
AWEA insists wind farms are typically chosen with public input and that developers work at cultivating public support for their projects. This has not been the case in New York or in most states. When New York's Governor Cuomo was attorney general, he organized the Wind Energy Task Force amid allegations of unsavory backroom deals involving elected leaders and wind developers seeking to influence official actions relating to wind farm development. Those asking questions about project impacts weren't concerned citizens but "'anti-'s". In his op-ed which appeared in North American Windpower, Ben Kelahan warned developers to "attack as if you were a local politician running for office, which means identifying, recruiting and organizing." "Above all," he said, "you need to demonstrate public support equal to or greater than that of your opponents." The goal is more about neutralizing the enemy than cultivating public support.
On building more wind in the United States, AWEA states the industry is on track to meet the Department of Energy's goal of 20% wind by 2030. The total nameplate installed in the U.S. at the end of 2010 was 40,181 megawatts. But getting to DOE's goal (305,000 MW installed including 54,000 MW offshore) will require over 13,000 MW of new wind online every year for the next 20 years -- more than in any year thus far. Billions in public dollars would be needed to subsidize the capital costs of the projects and to construct new transmission lines to deliver the energy from remote regions. Under DOE's plan, the entire wind fleet would need to operate at an annual average capacity factor of 43.4% -- well above what we're seeing for operating projects today. NY's fleet of wind projects operated around 22% average capacity factor in 2010.
AWEA insists that by increasing wind power and other renewables we will experience a lowering of energy costs. The fact is that onshore wind is often two times more expensive than conventional sources of generation. Offshore wind is higher still. Power purchase agreements signed between wind generators and utilities are negotiated after a project has taken full advantage of available federal and state incentives so the costs of the incentives are not factored into the energy price. Other costs not accounted for include the build-out of wind-related transmission, system improvements to accommodate wind's intermittency and costs to cover capacity resources required during low/high wind conditions. These costs are ultimately imposed on rate and/or taxpayers outside the actual cost of the energy. In an apples-to-apples comparison, wind energy is very expensive.
Wind energy is not a capacity resource. It's not dispatchable. And in most parts of the country it delivers at the time of day and year when we least need the energy. Wind is inherently a lower value resource and in a more fair power market it should be priced below more reliable generation. But that's not what's happening.
There is much more we can say about the other factors raised in AWEA's rebuttal document but the one important take-away point is that the discussion about wind is complex. There are no simple responses and AWEA's comments do little to advance the facts about wind. As Gordon Yancey, who appears in WINDFALL, reminds all of us -- "Do your homework."