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July 10 2004


Wind power: Not green, but red


The three very large wind farms currently proposed by developers for Kittitas County have provoked a great deal of concern, controversy and community debate.

Environmentalists regularly tout wind power as an alternative to burning fossil fuels for energy. Even if electricity from wind power is more expensive than conventional fuel sources - and it is, which is why it needs significant subsidies to make it at all attractive - wind advocates argue that its environmental benefits are worth the added cost. In particular, proponents claim that increased reliance on wind power would reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The truth is that wind power's environmental benefits are usually overstated, while the significant environmental harms associated with wind power are often ignored by its ardent proponents.

The air pollution improvements promised by wind power on close inspection fail to materialize. Wind farms generate power only when the wind is blowing within certain range of speed. When there is too little wind, wind towers don't generate power and when the wind is too strong, they must be shut down for fear of being blown down.

Because of this, wind farms need conventional power plants to supplement the power they do supply - the power grid requires a regulated constant flow of energy to function properly - and to replace a wind farm's expected supply to the grid when the towers are not turning. Because bringing a conventional power plant on line to supply power is not as simple as turning on a switch, most "redundant" fossil fuel power stations must run, even if at reduced levels, continuously. When these factors are combined with the emissions of pollutants and carbon dioxide caused by the manufacture and maintenance of wind towers and their associated infrastructure, very little in the air quality improvements actually result from the expansion of wind power in place of fossil fuels. Wind farms are also noisy, land-intensive and unsightly.

A recent report from Great Britain, where wind power is growing at even a faster rate than in the United States, states that, as wind farms grow, wind power is increasingly unpopular. The industry portrayed wind farms as "parks," tricking its way into unspoiled countryside in "green" disguise. Wind farms, rather than being parks are more similar to highways, industrial buildings and railways. Often, because of the prevailing wind currents, the most favorable locations for wind farms also happen to be areas with particularly spectacular views in relatively wild places.

Worse, wind farms produce only a fraction of the energy of a conventional power plant but require hundreds of times the acreage. For instance, two of the biggest wind "farms" in Europe have 159 turbines and cover thousands of acres between them but together they take a year to produce less than four days' output from a single 2,000 megawatts conventional power station - which takes up 1 percent of the acreage. And in the United States, a proposed wind farms off the coast of Massachusetts would produce only 450 MW of power but require 130 towers and more than 24 square miles of ocean.

Perhaps the most well publicized harmful environmental impacts of wind power relates to its effects on our flying friends.

For efficiency's sake, wind farms must be located where the wind blows fairly constantly. Unfortunately, such locations are prime travel routes for migratory birds including protected species like bald and golden eagles.

This has motivated some to label wind towers "the Cuisinarts of the air." Scientists estimate as many as 44,000 birds have been killed over the past 20 years by wind turbines in California's Altamont Pass including an average of 50 golden eagles each year.

These problems are exacerbated explains one study as "Wind farms have been documented to act as both bait and executioner - rodents taking shelter at the base of turbines multiply with the protection from raptors, while in turn their greater numbers attract more raptors to the farm."

Avian deaths are not limited to birds. In 2003, during the fall migration at least 400 bats, including red bats, eastern pipistrelles, hoary bats, and possibly endangered Indiana bats, were killed at a 44 turbine wind farm in West Virginia.

As a result of these problems and others, lawsuits are either pending or being considered to prevent the expansion of wind farms in West Virginia and California and to prevent the construction of offshore wind farms off the coast in a number of New England states.

Wind power is expensive, doesn't deliver the environmental benefits that it promises and has substantial environmental costs. In short, wind power blows! Accordingly, it doesn't merit continued government promotion or funding.

H. Sterling Burnett is a senior fellow for the National Center for Policy Analysis, a nonprofit, public policy research organization headed Pete du Pont, the former governor of Delaware. Burnett specializes in environmental policy, and he speaks regularly on national radio and television talk shows.