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Whither Wind

A journey through the heated debate over wind power

by Charles Komanoff

Published in the September/October 2006 issue of Orion magazine




IT WAS A PLACE I had often visited in memory but feared might no longer exist. Orange slabs of calcified sandstone teetered overhead, while before me, purple buttes and burnt mesas stretched over the desert floor. In the distance I could make out southeast Utah’s three snowcapped ranges—the Henrys, the Abajos, and, eighty miles to the east, the La Sals, shimmering into the blue horizon.

No cars, no roads, no buildings. Two crows floating on the late-winter thermals. Otherwise, stillness.

Abbey’s country. But my country, too. Almost forty years after Desert Solitaire, thirty-five since I first came to love this Colorado River plateau, I was back with my two sons, eleven and eight. We had spent four sun-filled days clambering across slickrock in Arches National Park and crawling through the slot canyons of the San Rafael Reef. Now, perched on a precipice above Goblin Valley, stoked on endorphins and elated by the beauty before me, I had what might seem a strange, irrelevant thought: I didn’t want windmills here.

Not that any windmills are planned for this Connecticut-sized expanse—the winds are too fickle. But wind energy is never far from my mind these days. As Earth’s climate begins to warp under the accumulating effluent from fossil fuels, the increasing viability of commercial-scale wind power is one of the few encouraging developments.

Encouraging to me, at least. As it turns out, there is much disagreement over where big windmills belong, and whether they belong at all.

FIGHTING FOSSIL FUELS, and machines powered by them, has been my life’s work. In 1971, shortly after getting my first taste of canyon country, I took a job crunching numbers for what was then a landmark exposé of U.S. power plant pollution, The Price of Power. The subject matter was drier than dust—emissions data, reams of it, printed out on endless strips of paper by a mainframe computer. Dull stuff, but nightmarish visions of coal-fired smokestacks smudging the crystal skies of the Four Corners kept me working ‘round the clock, month after month.

A decade later, as a New York City bicycle commuter fed up with the oil-fueled mayhem on the streets, I began working with the local bicycle advocacy group, Transportation Alternatives, and we soon made our city a hotbed of urban American anti-car activism. The ‘90s and now the ‘00s have brought other battles—“greening” Manhattan tenement buildings through energy efficiency and documenting the infernal “noise costs” of Jet Skis, to name two—but I’m still fighting the same fight.

Why? Partly it’s knowing the damage caused by the mining and burning of fossil fuels. And there’s also the sheer awfulness of machines gone wild, their groaning, stinking combustion engines invading every corner of life. But now the stakes are immeasurably higher. As an energy analyst, I can tell you that the science on global warming is terrifyingly clear: to have even a shot at fending off climate catastrophe, the world must reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fuel burning by at least 50 percent within the next few decades. If poor countries are to have any room to develop, the United States, the biggest emitter by far, needs to cut back by 75 percent.

Although automobiles, with their appetite for petroleum, may seem like the main culprit, the number one climate change agent in the U.S. is actually electricity. The most recent inventory of U.S. greenhouse gases found that power generation was responsible for a whopping 38 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. Yet the electricity sector may also be the least complicated to make carbon free. Approximately three-fourths of U.S. electricity is generated by burning coal, oil, or natural gas. Accordingly, switching that same portion of U.S. electricity generation to nonpolluting sources such as wind turbines, while simultaneously ensuring that our ever-expanding arrays of lights, computers, and appliances are increasingly energy efficient, would eliminate 38 percent of the country’s CO2 emissions and bring us halfway to the goal of cutting emissions by 75 percent.

To achieve that power switch entirely through wind power, I calculate, would require 400,000 windmills rated at 2.5 megawatts each. To be sure, this is a hypothetical figure, since it ignores such real-world issues as limits on power transmission and the intermittency of wind, but it’s a useful benchmark just the same.

What would that entail?

To begin, I want to be clear that the turbines I’m talking about are huge, with blades up to 165 feet long mounted on towers rising several hundred feet. Household wind machines like the 100-foot-high Bergey 10-kilowatt BWC Excel with 11-foot blades, the mainstay of the residential and small business wind turbine market, may embody democratic self-reliance and other “small is beautiful” virtues, but we can’t look to them to make a real dent in the big energy picture. What dictates the supersizing of windmills are two basic laws of wind physics: a wind turbine’s energy potential is proportional to the square of the length of the blades, and to the cube of the speed at which the blades spin. I’ll spare you the math, but the difference in blade lengths, the greater wind speeds higher off the ground, and the sophisticated controls available on industrial-scale turbines all add up to a market-clinching five-hundred-fold advantage in electricity output for a giant General Electric or Vestas wind machine.

How much land do the industrial turbines require? The answer turns on what “require” means. An industry rule of thumb is that to maintain adequate exposure to the wind, each big turbine needs space around it of about 60 acres. Since 640 acres make a square mile, those 400,000 turbines would need 37,500 square miles, or roughly all the land in Indiana or Maine.

On the other hand, the land actually occupied by the turbines—their “footprint”—would be far, far smaller. For example, each 3.6-megawatt Cape Wind turbine proposed for Nantucket Sound will rest on a platform roughly 22 feet in diameter, implying a surface area of 380 square feet—the size of a typical one-bedroom apartment in New York City. Scaling that up by 400,000 suggests that just six square miles of land—less than the area of a single big Wyoming strip mine—could house the bases for all of the windmills needed to banish coal, oil, and gas from the U.S. electricity sector.

Of course, erecting and maintaining wind turbines can also necessitate clearing land: ridgeline installations often require a fair amount of deforestation, and then there’s the associated clearing for access roads, maintenance facilities, and the like. But there are also now a great many turbines situated on farmland, where the fields around their bases are still actively farmed.

DEPENDING, THEN, on both the particular terrain and how the question is understood, the land area said to be needed for wind power can vary across almost four orders of magnitude. Similar divergences of opinion are heard about every other aspect of wind power, too. Big wind farms kill thousands of birds and bats…or hardly any, in comparison to avian mortality from other tall structures such as skyscrapers. Industrial wind machines are soft as a whisper from a thousand feet away, and even up close their sound level would rate as “quiet” on standard noise charts…or they can sound like “a grinding noise” or “the shrieking sound of a wild animal,” according to one unhappy neighbor of an upstate New York wind farm. Wind power developers are skimming millions via subsidies, state-mandated quotas, and “green power” scams…or are boldly risking their own capital to strike a blow for clean energy against the fossil fuel Goliath.

Some of the bad press is warranted. The first giant wind farm, comprising six thousand small, fast-spinning turbines placed directly in northern California’s principal raptor flyway, Altamont Pass, in the early 1980s rightly inspired the epithet “Cuisinarts for birds.” The longer blades on newer turbines rotate more slowly and thus kill far fewer birds, but bat kills are being reported at wind farms in the Appalachian Mountains; as many as two thousand bats were hacked to death at one forty-four-turbine installation in West Virginia. And as with any machine, some of the nearly ten thousand industrial-grade windmills now operating in the U.S. may groan or shriek when something goes wrong. Moreover, wind power does benefit from a handsome federal subsidy; indeed, uncertainty over renewal of the “production tax credit” worth 1.9 cents per kilowatt-hour nearly brought wind power development to a standstill a few years ago.

At the same time, however, there is an apocalyptic quality to much anti-wind advocacy that seems wildly disproportionate to the actual harm, particularly in the overall context of not just other sources of energy but modern industry in general. New York State opponents of wind farms call their website “Save Upstate New York,” as if ecological or other damage from wind turbines might administer the coup de grâce to the state’s rural provinces that decades of industrialization and pollution, followed by outsourcing, have not. In neighboring Massachusetts, a group called Green Berkshires argues that wind turbines” are enormously destructive to the environment,” but does not perform the obvious comparison to the destructiveness of fossil fuel–based power. Although the intensely controversial Cape Wind project “poses an imminent threat to navigation and raises many serious maritime safety issues,” according to the anti-wind Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, the alliance was strangely silent when an oil barge bound for the region’s electric power plant spilled ninety-eight thousand gallons of its deadly, gluey cargo into Buzzards Bay three years ago.

Of course rhetoric is standard fare in advocacy, particularly the environmental variety with its salvationist mentality—environmentalists always like to feel they are “saving” this valley or that species. It all comes down to a question of what we’re saving, and for whom. You can spend hours sifting through the anti-wind websites and find no mention at all of the climate crisis, let alone wind power’s potential to help avert it.

IN FACT, many wind power opponents deny that wind power displaces much, if any, fossil fuel burning. Green Berkshires insists, for example, that “global warming [and] dependence on fossil fuels . . . will not be ameliorated one whit by the construction of these turbines on our mountains.”

This notion is mistaken. It is true that since wind is variable, individual wind turbines can’t be counted on to produce on demand, so the power grid can’t necessarily retire fossil fuel generators at the same rate as it takes on windmills. The coal- and oil-fired generators will still need to be there, waiting for a windless day. But when the wind blows, those generators can spin down. That’s how the grid works: it allocates electrons. Supply more electrons from one source, and other sources can supply fewer. And since system operators program the grid to draw from the lowest-cost generators first, and wind power’s “fuel,” moving air, is free, wind-generated electrons are given priority. It follows that more electrons from wind power mean proportionately fewer from fossil fuel burning.

What about the need to keep a few power stations burning fuel so they can instantaneously ramp up and counterbalance fluctuations in wind energy output? The grid requires this ballast, known as spinning reserve, in any event both because demand is always changing and because power plants of any type are subject to unforeseen breakdowns. The additional variability due to wind generation is slight—wind speeds don’t suddenly drop from strong to calm, at least not for every turbine in a wind farm and certainly not for every wind farm on the grid. The clear verdict of the engineers responsible for grid reliability—a most conservative lot—is that the current level of wind power development will not require additional spinning reserve, while even much larger supplies of wind-generated electricity could be accommodated through a combination of energy storage technologies and improved models for predicting wind speeds.

With very few exceptions, then, wind output can be counted on to displace fossil fuel burning one for one. No less than other nonpolluting technologies like bicycles or photovoltaic solar cells, wind power is truly an anti-fossil fuel.

I MADE MY FIRST wind farm visit in the fall of 2005. I had seen big windmills up close in Denmark, and I had driven through the big San Gorgonio wind farm that straddles Highway I-10 near Palm Springs, California. But this trip last November had a mission. After years of hearing industrial wind turbines in the northeastern United States characterized as either monstrosities or crowns of creation, I wanted to see for myself how they sat on the land. I also wanted to measure the noise from the turning blades, so I brought the professional noise meter I had used in my campaign against Jet Skis.

Madison County occupies the broad middle of New York State, with the Catskill Mountains to the south, Lake Ontario to the northwest, and the Adirondacks to the northeast. Its rolling farms sustain seventy thousand residents and, since 2001, two wind farms, the 20-windmill Fenner Windpower Project in the western part of the county and the 7-windmill Madison Windpower Project twenty miles east.

At the time of my visit Fenner was the state’s largest wind farm, although that distinction has since passed to the 120-windmill Maple Ridge installation in the Tug Hill region farther north. It was windy that day, though not unusually so, according to the locals. All twenty-seven turbines were spinning, presumably at their full 1.5-megawatt ratings. For me the sight of the turning blades was deeply pleasing. The windmills, sleek, white structures more than three hundred feet tall sprinkled across farmland, struck me as graceful and marvelously useful. I thought of a story in the New York Times about a proposed wind farm near Cooperstown, New York, in which a retiree said that seeing giant windmills near your house “would be like driving through oil derricks to get to your front door.” To my eye, the Fenner turbines were anti-derricks, oil rigs running in reverse.

For every hour it was in full use, each windmill was keeping a couple of barrels of oil, or an entire half-ton of coal, in the ground. Of course wind turbines don’t generate full power all the time because the wind doesn’t blow at a constant speed. The Madison County turbines have an average “capacity factor,” or annual output rate, of 34 percent, meaning that over the course of a year they generate about a third of the electricity they would produce if they always ran at full capacity. But that still means an average three thousand hours a year of full output for each turbine. Multiply those hours by the twenty-seven turbines at Fenner and Madison, and a good 200,000 barrels of oil or 50,000 tons of coal were being kept underground by the two wind farms each year—enough to cover an entire sixty-acre farm with a six-inch-thick oil slick or pile of coal.

The windmills, spinning easily at fifteen revolutions per minute—that’s one leisurely revolution every four seconds—were clean and elegant in a way that no oil derrick or coal dragline could ever be. The nonlinear arrangement of the Fenner turbines situated them comfortably among the traditional farmhouses, paths, and roads, while at Madison, a grassy hillside site, the windmills were more prominent but still unaggressive. Unlike a ski run, say, or a power line cutting through the countryside, the windmills didn’t seem like a violation of the landscape. The turning vanes called to mind a natural force—the wind—in a way that a cell phone or microwave tower, for example, most certainly does not.

They were also relatively quiet. My sound readings, taken at distances ranging from one hundred to two thousand feet from the tower base, topped out at 64 decibels and went as low as 45—the approximate noise range given for a small-town residential cul-de-sac on standard noise charts. It’s fair to say that the wind turbines in Madison County aren’t terribly noisy even from up close and are barely audible from a thousand feet or more away. The predominant sound was a low, not unpleasant hum, or hvoohmm, like a distant seashore, but perhaps a bit thicker.

Thinking back on that November day, I’ve come to realize that a windmill, like any large structure, is a signifier. Cell-phone towers signify the intrusion of quotidian life—the reminder to stop off at the 7-Eleven, the unfinished business at the office. The windmills I saw in upstate New York signified, for me, not just displacement of destructive fossil fuels, but acceptance of the conditions of inhabiting the Earth. They signified, in the words of environmental lawyer and MIT research affiliate William Shutkin, “the capacity of environmentalists—of citizens—to match their public positions with the private choices necessary to move toward a more environmentally and economically sustainable way of life.”

THE NOTION OF CHOICES points to another criticism of wind turbines: the argument that the energy they might make could be saved instead through energy-efficiency measures. The Adirondack Council, for example, in a statement opposing the 10-windmill Barton Mines project on a former mountaintop mine site writes, “If the Barton project is approved, we will gain 27 to 30 megawatts of new, clean power generation. Ironically, we could save more than 30 megawatts of power in the Adirondack Park through simple, proven conservation methods in homes and businesses.”

The council’s statement is correct, of course. Kilowatts galore could be conserved in any American city or town by swapping out incandescent light bulbs in favor of compact fluorescents, replacing inefficient kitchen appliances, and extinguishing “vampire” loads by plugging watt-sucking electronic devices into on-off power strips. If this notion sounds familiar, it’s because it has been raised in virtually every power plant dispute since the 1970s. But the ground has shifted, now that we have such overwhelming proof that we’re standing on the threshold of catastrophic climate change.

Those power plant debates of yore weren’t about fuels and certainly not about global warming, but about whether to top off the grid with new megawatts of supply or with “negawatts”—watts that could be saved through conservation. It took decades of struggle by legions of citizen advocates and hundreds of experts (I was one) to embed the negawatt paradigm in U.S. utility planning. But while we were accomplishing that, inexorably rising fossil fuel use here and around the world was overwhelming Earth’s “carbon sinks,” causing carbon dioxide to accumulate in the atmosphere at an accelerating rate, contributing to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and Europe’s 2003 heat wave, and promising biblical-scale horrors such as a waning Gulf Stream and disappearing polar icepacks.

The energy arena of old was local and incremental. The new one is global and all-out. With Earth’s climate, and the world as we know and love it, now imperiled, topping off the regional grid pales in comparison to the task at hand. In the new, ineluctable struggle to rescue the climate from fossil fuels, efficiency and “renewables” (solar and biomass as well as wind) must all be pushed to the max. Those thirty negawatts that lie untapped in the kitchens and TV rooms of Adirondack houses are no longer an alternative to the Barton wind farm—they’re another necessity.

In this new, desperate, last-chance world—and it is that, make no mistake—pleas like the Adirondack Council’s, which once would have seemed reasonable, now sound a lot like fiddling while the Earth burns. The same goes for the urgings by opponents of Cape Wind and other pending wind farms to “find a more suitable site”; those other suitable wind farm sites (wherever they exist) need to be developed in addition to, not instead of, Nantucket Sound, or Barton Mines, or the Berkshires.

There was a time when the idea of placing immense turbines in any of these places would have filled me with horror. But now, what horrifies me more is the thought of keeping them windmill free.

PART OF THE PROBLEM with wind power, I suspect, is that it’s hard to weigh the effects of any one wind farm against the greater problem of climate change. It’s much easier to comprehend the immediate impact of wind farm development than the less tangible losses from a warming Earth. And so the sacrifice is difficult, and it becomes progressively harder as rising affluence brings ever more profligate uses of energy.

Picture this: Swallowing hard, with deep regret for the change in a beloved landscape formerly unmarked in any obvious way by humankind, you’ve just cast the deciding affirmative vote to permit a wind farm on the hills outside your town. On the way home you see a new Hummer in your neighbor’s driveway. How do you not feel like a self-sacrificing sucker?

Intruding the unmistakable human hand on any landscape for wind power is, of course, a loss in local terms, and no small one, particularly if the site is a verdant ridgeline. Uplands are not just visible markers of place but fragile environments, and the inevitable access roads for erecting and serving the turbines can be damaging ecologically as well as symbolically. In contrast, few if any benefits of the wind farm will be felt by you in a tangible way. If the thousands of tons of coal a year that your wind farm will replace were being mined now, a mile from your house, it might be a little easier to take. Unfortunately, our society rarely works that way. The bread you cast upon the waters with your vote will not come back to you in any obvious way—it will be eaten in Wyoming, or Appalachia. And you may just have to mutter an oath about the Hummer and use your moral imagination to console yourself about the ridge.

BUT WHAT IF THE BIG PUSH for wind power simply “provides more energy for people to waste?” as Carl Safina, an oceanographer who objects to the Cape Wind project, asked me recently. Safina is unusual among Cape Wind opponents, not just because he is a MacArthur Fellow and prize-winning author (Song for the Blue Ocean, Voyage of the Turtle), but because he is completely honest about the fact that his objections are essentially aesthetic.

“I believe the aesthetics of having a national seashore with a natural view of the blue curve of the planet are very important,” he wrote in an e-mail from coastal Long Island, where he lives. “I think turbines and other structures should be sited in places not famed for natural beauty”—a statement that echoed my feelings about Utah’s Goblin Valley.

“Six miles is a very short distance over open water,” Safina continued, referring to the span from the public beach at Craigville on Cape Cod to the closest proposed turbine, “and a group of anything several hundred feet high would completely dominate the view.” While the prominence of the turbines when seen from the shore is open to debate (the height of a Cape Wind tower from six miles would be just two-thirds of one degree, not quite half the width of your finger held at arm’s length), there is no question that the wind turbines would, in his words, “put an end to the opportunity for people to experience an original view of a piece of the natural world in one of America’s most famously lovely coastal regions.”

Yet for all his fierce attachment to that view, Safina says he might give it up if doing so made a difference. “If there was a national energy strategy that would make the U.S. carbon neutral in fifty years,” he wrote, “and if Cape Wind was integral and significant, that might be a worthwhile sacrifice.” But the reality, as Safina described in words that could well have been mine, is that “Americans insist on wasting energy and needing more. We will affect the natural view of a famously beautiful piece of America’s ocean and still not develop a plan to conserve energy.”

Safina represents my position and, I imagine, that of others on both sides of the wind controversy when he pleads for federal action that could justify local sacrifice for the greater good. If Congress enacted an energy policy that harnessed the spectrum of cost-effective energy efficiency together with renewable energy, thereby ensuring that fossil fuel use shrank starting today, a windmill’s contribution to climate protection might actually register, providing psychic reparation for an altered viewshed. And if carbon fuels were taxed for their damage to the climate, wind power’s profit margins would widen, and surrounding communities could extract bigger tax revenues from wind farms. Then some of that bread upon the waters would indeed come back—in the form of a new high school, or land acquired for a nature preserve.

IT’S VERY HUMAN TO ASK, “Why me? Why my ridgeline, my seascape, my viewshed?” These questions have been difficult to answer; there has been no framework—local or national—to guide wind farm siting by ranking potential wind power locales for their ecological and community suitability. That’s a gap that the Appalachian Mountain Club is trying to bridge, using its home state of Massachusetts as a model.

According to AMC research director Kenneth Kimball, who heads the project, Massachusetts has ninety-six linear miles of “Class 4” ridgelines, where wind speeds average fourteen miles per hour or more, the threshold for profitability with current technology. Assuming each mile can support seven to nine large turbines of roughly two megawatts each, the state’s uplands could theoretically host 1,500 megawatts of wind power. (Coastal areas such as Nantucket Sound weren’t included in the survey.)

Kimball’s team sorted all ninety-six miles into four classes of governance—Appalachian Trail corridor or similar lands where development is prohibited; other federal or state conservation lands; Massachusetts open space lands; and private holdings. They then overlaid these with ratings denoting conflicts with recreational, scenic, and ecological values. The resulting matrix suggests the following rankings of wind power suitability:

1. Unsuitable — lands where development is prohibited (Appalachian Trail corridors, for example) or “high conflict” areas: 24 miles (25 percent).

2. Less than ideal — federal or state conservation lands rated “medium conflict”: 21 miles (22 percent).

3. Conditionally favorable — Conservation or open space lands rated “low conflict,” or open space or private lands rated “medium conflict”: 27 miles (28 percent).

4. Most favorable —Unrestricted private land and “low conflict” areas: 24 miles (25 percent).

Category 4 lands are obvious places to look to for wind farm development. Category 3 lands could also be considered, says the AMC, if wind farms were found to improve regional air quality, were developed under a state plan rather than piecemeal, and were bonded to assure eventual decommissioning. If these conditions were met, then categories 3 and 4, comprising approximately fifty miles of Massachusetts ridgelines, could host four hundred wind turbines capable of supplying nearly 4 percent of the state’s annual electricity—without grossly endangering wildlife or threatening scenic, recreational, or ecological values (e.g., critical habitat, roadless areas, rare species, old growth, steep slopes).

Whether that 4 percent is a little or a lot depends on where you stand and, equally, on where we stand as a society. You could call the four hundred turbines mere tokenism against our fuel-besotted way of life, and considering them in isolation, you’d be right. But you could also say this: Go ahead and halve the state’s power usage, as could be done even with present-day technology, and “nearly 4 percent” doubles to 7-8 percent. Add the Cape Wind project and other offshore wind farms that might follow, and wind power’s statewide share might reach 20 percent, the level in Denmark.

Moreover, the windier and emptier Great Plains states could reach 100 percent wind power or higher, even with a suitability framework like the AMC’s, thereby becoming net exporters of clean energy. But even at 20 percent, Massachusetts would be doing its part to displace that 75 percent of U.S. electricity generated by fossil fuels. If you spread the turbines needed to achieve that goal across all fifty states, you’d be looking to produce roughly eight hundred megawatt-hours of wind output per square mile—just about what Massachusetts would be generating in the above scenario. And the rest of New England and New York could do the same, affording these “blue” states a voice in nudging the rest of the country greenward.

SO GOES MY NOTION, anyway. You could call it wind farms as signifiers, with their value transcending energy-share percentages to reach the realm of symbols and images. That is where we who love nature and obsess about the environment have lost the high ground, and where Homo americanus has been acting out his (and her) disastrous desires—opting for the “manly” SUV over the prim Prius, the macho powerboat over the meandering canoe, the stylish halogen lamp over the dorky compact fluorescent.

Throughout his illustrious career, wilderness champion David Brower called upon Americans “to determine that an untrammeled wildness shall remain here to testify that this generation had love for the next.” Now that all wild things and all places are threatened by global warming, that task is more complex.

Could a windmill’s ability to “derive maximum benefit out of the site-specific gift nature is providing—wind and open space,” in the words of aesthetician Yuriko Saito, help Americans bridge the divide between pristine landscapes and sustainable ones? Could windmills help Americans subscribe to the “higher order of beauty” that environmental educator David Orr defines as something that “causes no ugliness somewhere else or at some later time”? Could acceptance of wind farms be our generation’s way of avowing our love for the next?

I believe so. Or want to.

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Charles Komanoff, an economic policy analyst and environmental activist, is the author of Power Plant Cost Escalation. He lives in New York City and advocates for energy efficiency, bicycle transportation, and urban revitalization.

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