The Wayward Wind

Because time seems to be running out on fossil fuels and the lure of non-polluting windpower is so seductive, some people are now promoting windpower initiatives at any cost, without investigating potential negative consequences-- and with no apparent knowledge of even recent environmental history......Throughout my experience, I could not substantiate a single claim developers made for industrial wind energy, including the one justifying its existence: that massive wind installations would meaningfully reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. When you understand this, you realize the wind business is not really that complex. But there are a lot of complicated issues swirling around it that obscure and distract from this main point, issues such as global warming, property values, the nature of wind leases, local revenues and taxes, wildlife, natural views, and a host of others. So how does one know the truth of it all? How does one go about separating the reality from spin?


The United States east of the Mississippi River has about five percent of the nation's onshore wind potential. If industrial wind developers achieve their goals, the region will be saturated with approximately 300,000 wind turbines spread over millions of acres. New York, with .3 of one percent of the nation's onshore wind, could be saturated with about 20,000-400 foot tall machines, spread over more than a thousand miles of terrain. Wyoming County alone could absorb around 400, of which 120 have already been proposed. Although most of the country's wind-rich lands are in the upper Midwest, relatively inexpensive access to existing transmission lines makes eastern states such as New York attractive for wind development. Because it is perceived as non-polluting and renewable, wind energy has become popular with the public. While at some level we wish to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, with their toxic emissions, demand for electricity has nonetheless increased two percent each year since 1975. At this rate, we will likely double current usage in thirty years. But if all these turbines are constructed, what will it mean to ordinary people, to energy policy and to an improved environment? Nearly four years ago, I set out to investigate these questions. In a number of forums, I examined the claims of wind industry developers, their trade organization, the American Wind Energy Association, and the engineers and technocrats within the National Renewable Energy Lab, an agency of the US Department of Energy. I'll share with you this evening how those claims withstand the evidence of real world experience. Indeed, the documentary you just witnessed, Life Under A Windplant, was an effort to communicate some of my findings.

Before I speak, I have a few things to say. I make no money from my work on this issue, and neither I nor members of my family own property within view of a windplant. What I say tonight is focused solely on my desire for enlightened public policy. I've lived in Garrett County, MD for nine years, an area much like Wyoming County, with a residential lake district and small towns surrounded by farmland. At first, I'd hoped to support windpower because, as an environmentalist, I have long been concerned about our society's dependence on fossil fuels and such malignant coal mining practices as mountaintop removal. I'm alarmed at such statistics as the number asthma cases in the nation doubling every five years. High levels of mercury contamination in our rivers and oceans are by-products of fossil fuel consumption. However, I seek effective solutions for these and other environmental problems. Although I support efforts to reduce demand by living off the grid with small-scale wind and solar power, I'm mindful of the initial costs of doing so, making this kind of enterprise difficult to apply at industrial scale.

As a student of history and science, I wanted to understand the nature of “renewable” energy, and to provide some context for windpower. The quest for renewable energy has a long history. A few hundred years ago, timber seemed inexhaustible, but our demand made short work of the supply. Coal, too, is renewable, but again, our demand will at some time overrun supply—and our meager lifespan won’t extend the tens of millions of years necessary to replenish it. A few generations ago, hydroelectric dams were all the rage. Although these do produce a lot of electricity from a renewable source, they are so environmentally damaging that many are now being dismantled around the country, at taxpayer expense. Because time seems to be running out on fossil fuels and the lure of non-polluting windpower is so seductive, some people are now promoting windpower initiatives at any cost, without investigating potential negative consequences-- and with no apparent knowledge of even recent environmental history.

Scientists are not just experts; they work in an analytic process characterized by rigorously evaluated if this, then that experimental “conditionals.” Analysis of this kind seeks predictive power because it considers many variables individually, then works to understand how they integrate to create “regularities”—patterns with a predictable outcome. The predictions of science—and the processes used to achieve them—are then scrutinized by other scientists for validation in a forum known as independent peer review. A particular experiment, however honestly and intelligently conducted, can yield the “wrong” answer for a variety of reasons. This is why experiments must be checked by other scientists, using other instruments, other conditions, even other ideas. This is the essence of the scientific method. Moreover, good public policy requires those who make claims about the safety of their product to substantiate those claims before introducing it into the environment, what Rachel Carson called the precautionary principle. Sponsored research is always suspect. Experts who work for an industry should submit their research and resulting conclusions for independent, peer-reviewed analysis. Science insists upon conclusions accounting for all the evidence, not selective pieces that fit the convenience of anyone's economic or ideological agenda.

Please keep these ideas in mind throughout this discussion. Wind developers and their supporters make a number of claims for wind facilities, stating they lessen dependence on foreign oil; improve air quality; reduce global warming by replacing fossil-fueled power plants; and improve public health; while providing electrical power for many thousands of homes and adding significant revenues and jobs to local economies. They also promise
their technology will not pose great risk to wildlife, nor will it alter the landscape in perceptible ways, nor decrease the value for surrounding properties, nor introduce disturbances that might jeopardize the right of neighbors to quietly enjoy their property. Conversely, they barely mention the extraordinary subsidies that taxpayers and ratepayers provide, subsidies not indexed to reductions in CO2 and other toxic emissions. <click on the below link to download the entire document>

Editor's note: The Wayward Wind is a speech delivered by Jon Boone on June 19, 2006 in the Township of Perry, near Silver Lake, Wyoming County, New York.


Silver Lake Speech

Download file (155 KB) pdf

JUN 19 2006
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