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One environmentalist thinks about wind power

I had always favored building wind farms. The burden of coal mining-and particularly mountaintop removal coal mining-is so great that anything would be better. If wind farms diminish that then they are worth it. ...Now there is a new twist to the argument, something that makes thinking about wind power even more difficult. In the article that begins on page 14 of this issue, Ms. Collins argues that building more wind farms will not reduce the use of coal. She argues that because wind farms only make electricity when the wind blows, they are inefficient and unreliable. ...If it true that wind farms do not diminish the use of coal, then we do have some rethinking to do. If they do not replace any coal, then what is the point? Why should a single bat die, a single hiker be inconvenienced, a single tree be cut if wind power is not going to reduce the use of coal or some other source of electricity?

The article that is on the next page of the Voice suggests that environmentalists should re-think wind power. This is what I have come up with so far.

It is easy to state a rule for evaluating any method of energy production: reduce the misery and then spread it around. With wind, the difficulty has always been in applying this formula.

With any kind of energy production there is a social cost, some misery that somebody has to put up with. With coal, the misery is immediate and dramatic. It is dirty and dangerous to mine, dirty to transport, and dirty to burn. It has given us polluted water, buried streams, black lung, acid rain, mercury pollution, destroyed communities, and broken people. Any of us can make our own list.

Coal is not alone in imposing a social cost for energy production. Industrial scale wind power can interfere with scenic views, endanger wildlife, lower property values, etc. Even such seemingly benign source of energy as solar energy has a social cost. While the energy itself is free, the solar panels, etc. to collect it do not drop from the heavens fully formed. Somewhere the aluminum necessary to make them was mined and smelted. The equipment was manufactured and shipped. The social cost of... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

The article that is on the next page of the Voice suggests that environmentalists should re-think wind power. This is what I have come up with so far.

It is easy to state a rule for evaluating any method of energy production: reduce the misery and then spread it around. With wind, the difficulty has always been in applying this formula.

With any kind of energy production there is a social cost, some misery that somebody has to put up with. With coal, the misery is immediate and dramatic. It is dirty and dangerous to mine, dirty to transport, and dirty to burn. It has given us polluted water, buried streams, black lung, acid rain, mercury pollution, destroyed communities, and broken people. Any of us can make our own list.

Coal is not alone in imposing a social cost for energy production. Industrial scale wind power can interfere with scenic views, endanger wildlife, lower property values, etc. Even such seemingly benign source of energy as solar energy has a social cost. While the energy itself is free, the solar panels, etc. to collect it do not drop from the heavens fully formed. Somewhere the aluminum necessary to make them was mined and smelted. The equipment was manufactured and shipped. The social cost of solar energy may be trivial compared to those of coal but they are not zero. The same is true of any source of useable energy.

Reducing the misery-usually referred to as conservation-is the cheap part of the formula for a sound energy policy.

Personal conservation has no social costs; in many cases the personal sacrifice is minimal. Turning off the lights when we leave the room diminishes our lives not a bit. It reduces the misery in the coal fields, if only by a tiny amount. Choosing a smaller car instead of a Ford Expedition means sacrificing some small comfort but the choice results in less of the social cost involved in oil production, transportation, and refining.

In hundreds of examples, large and small, using energy more efficiently diminishes the social costs of energy production without burdening society in other ways. To cite one, we could use heat from manufacturing processes that would otherwise be wasted to make electricity. We get electricity without the social costs involved in mining more coal.

Once we get past the easy part, the part where everybody wins, we get to the question of how we spread around the misery that is an inevitable part of energy production.

At first, wind power seemed like the perfect way to do this. Coal mining causes such misery, such social costs. Wind seemed like a gentle, non-polluting way to reduce our reliance on coal and diminish the social costs associated with it.

It also has the potential to move the social costs of energy production out of the coal fields. One problem with coal is that its misery is concentrated in the coal fields. Coal may keep the lights on all around the country but it fills streams, shakes apart houses, and pounds the roads to pieces only in the coal fields. If the whole country is to enjoy the benefits of electricity, the whole country should share in the social costs involved in its production.

As the wind power industry developed, however, and wind power became more than an abstraction, it became more clear that it involved a social cost as well. It endangered wildlife; it was noisy; some thought it ugly and intrusive.

As these social costs began to appear, it became a matter of balancing. How could society produce the energy it needs with the least social costs, taking care to see that those costs are spread around fairly?

As the last ten years has shown, the balancing has not been easy. People in the coal fields work toward a goal of having wind farms where they live. People in eastern West Virginia work just as passionately at keeping them away from where they live.

We can't even agree on whether wind farms are ugly. Many, many people talk of them as blights upon the landscape, the ruination of our eastern mountains. Yet Jim Haught, editor of The Charleston Gazette, wrote an opinion piece talking about how beautiful they are, comparing them to sculpture.

I had always favored building wind farms. The burden of coal mining-and particularly mountaintop removal coal mining-is so great that anything would be better. If wind farms diminish that then they are worth it.

Everything bad about wind farms is true in spades about mountaintop removal. Jim Haught notwithstanding, if you think windmills are ugly, try looking at a mountaintop removal site. If you think a wind farm is intrusive, try living next to a mountaintop removal site. Wind farms may diminish property values but try selling a house in Blair, West Virginia. Windmills may kill birds but how many birds die or are never born because the southern West Virginia forests are gone? If wind farms can reduce the use of coal, then they are worth it.

Now there is a new twist to the argument, something that makes thinking about wind power even more difficult. In the article that begins on page 14 of this issue, Ms. Collins argues that building more wind farms will not reduce the use of coal. She argues that because wind farms only make electricity when the wind blows, they are inefficient and unreliable. Because it is unreliable, it is difficult to integrate wind energy into the electricity distribution system and makes the whole electricity production and distribution system work less efficiently. Because of all this, we end up using the same amount of coal whether we have wind farms or not.

My world view wants to reject this argument. I see this as a technical problem. While Ms. Collins assumes it cannot be solved, I have always had a blind faith in the ability of our tinkerers, scientists and engineers to figure things out. They can take tons of metal, fashion it into an airplane, and make it fly. They can send jillions of pieces of information zooming to different places all around the world and get it to where it is supposed to go. They can store a whole wall full of books on a computer disk the size of a doughnut. Surely they can figure out how to integrate wind energy into the electrical system so that it can replace some coal.

But what if she is right? What if we can't solve this technical problem and wind farms do not diminish the use of coal?

If it true that wind farms do not diminish the use of coal, then we do have some rethinking to do. If they do not replace any coal, then what is the point? Why should a single bat die, a single hiker be inconvenienced, a single tree be cut if wind power is not going to reduce the use of coal or some other source of electricity?

I have puzzled on this until my puzzler is sore. While I still don't have an answer, it is an important question. Ms. Collins' article is long but it raises important questions. Besides, all our puzzlers could use a good workout every now and then.


Source: http://wvhighlands.org/wv_v...

NOV 5 2008
https://www.windaction.org/posts/17986-one-environmentalist-thinks-about-wind-power
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