Editor note: In Part I, Jon Boone traced the history of the Sierra Club from its inception in 1892 to today and commented on its evolution as an environmental body. Part II focuses on the realities of today’s wind power initiatives and its influence on Sierra Club beliefs. Part III concludes with a discussion on the science being used to promote its policies and the unintended consequences that may result.
Between the Gush for Wind and the Hard Place of Reality
The physical nature and enormous size of industrial wind projects has caused a lot of blowback. Between Maryland and West Virginia, for example, there is potential for around 2000 wind turbines, each nearly 500-feet tall; they would be placed atop 400 miles of the Allegheny Mountain ridges. About 20 acres of forest must be cut to support each turbine—4-6 acres to accommodate the free flow of the wind per turbine; one or more large staging areas for each wind project; access road construction; and a variety of substations and transmission lines. Cumulatively, about 40,000 acres of woodlands would be transformed into an industrial energy plant far larger than any conventional facility. Most of this montane terrain contains rare habitat and many vulnerable wildlife species.
How can such a looming industrial presence be reconciled with the goals of maintaining choice natural habitat while reducing the impact of human activity? For the Sierra Club, the answer is: The use of siting guidelines and wildlife assessment studies that would restrict limited liability wind companies from placing their huge machinery in the most sensitive places and away from rare and threatened species of plants and animals. If the war on carbon is to be won, and if skyscraper-sized wind turbines are part of the price for winning that war, then accommodation must be made. In the words of one wind developer, “some will have to sacrifice if we’re to have the clean, green energy from the wind” replacing coal and putting a stop to mountaintop removal coal extraction practices.
More than a few Sierra Club members and local chapters have resisted the national organization’s encyclicals on wind precisely because such hulking intrusion seems inimical to environmental common sense. The chair of the Maryland Chapter’s Conservation Committee, one of the nation’s leading naturalists, resigned in large part because of this concern. In response to such dissidents, the Club’s national leadership insists that it, and not its member chapters, be the final arbiter of what wind projects meet its standards: “It is important for the Club to speak with a unified, clear voice in its reaction to wind energy projects. It will not be good for the Club if one chapter is focusing totally on concerns about impacts on birds while the chapter in the next state is urging the public to support wind projects as a crucial element in reversing the impacts of global warming.” The organization enforces its authority under threat of expulsion, as was the case when its executive chairman, Carl Pope, in the wake of another controversy, excommunicated the entire Florida 35,000-memmber chapter for four years.
To “manage the negative environmental impacts of wind,” the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, the American Bird Conservancy, Greenpeace, and the Audubon Society all recommend guidelines that, if followed, provide wind projects with their environmental seal of approval. Even on public lands. And with no evident sense of irony for the Sierra Club—since this is a policy taken from Gifford Pinchot’s playbook. John Muir is likely turning in his grave.
Siting guidelines that appear to make the wind industry more environmentally friendly, cognitively dissonant as the prospect seems to be, make sense only if the premise behind the policy is true, only if the technology can back down coal and offset significant amounts of carbon emissions.
What is the scientific evidence that age-old technologies like wind, dressed up in high couture fashion, can provide clean, reliable, affordable, secure electricity to the masses, as the ruminations of Jacobsen and the optimism of the Department of Energy suggest?
Astonishingly, with 35,000 industrial wind turbines extant on this continent, no coal farms have closed because of the wind technology, and there is no empirical evidence there is less coal or natural gas burned per unit of electricity produced as a specific consequence of it. Contrary to the hopes of the Sierra Club, wind evidently is not an alternate energy source.
When the provisional ideas of ongoing scientific inquiry become politicized and then supported by a concatenation of groups seeking to profit from the ideas, both financially and ideologically—when science meets James Cameron and becomes entertainment for the masses in order to sell soap or sophistry, then we’ll get flying pigs, everywhere. Wind is not progressive, cutting edge, or effective, as the Sierra Club maintains. It is rather antediluvian, uncivil, and dysfunctional.
As a justification for wind promotion, science has become, for the Sierra Club and nearly all prominent environmental groups, not a method of seeking truth, but rather propaganda employed to prosecute its war on carbon. They routinely confuse engineering mechanics with science, and publish all kinds of techno-gismo birth announcements about saving the earth from those badass Big Oil/Big Coal corporations. But rarely do they provide the consequent obituaries. Or demand measurement of actual wind performance, which is the essence of scientific inquiry.
Promoting siting guidelines for such a rude, intrusive, shaggy beast of a technology implies that if wind machines were properly situated—somewhere, just not in the Sierra Club’s neck of the woods—they might actually do some good. This is the thinking behind the movement known as Responsible Windpower—an oxymoron at virtually every descriptive level, for it does little more than give a second-story burglary ring a ladder and an alibi.
Citizen wind opposition to the outsized nature of the technology began as a “not-in-my-backyard” phenomenon, eventually becoming a prod for the Sierra Club’s current wind siting guidelines. Responsible Windpower campaigns gave succor to those who support wind as a credible energy source, allowing them to save face with mainline environmental groups while protecting hearth and home, and vulnerable wildlife, from the worst of wind’s gigantic presence.
The wind industry perversely encourages discussion about wind plant siting and wildlife studies, much in the way cigarette manufactures once encouraged health-warning labels. But debate over set backs, noise levels, proximity to vulnerable flora and fauna, etc, distracts from the central issue: whether the technology provides the benefits claimed for it. Even as this discussion takes place, however, limited liability wind companies routinely ignore siting prescriptions, knowing there’s virtually no enforcement against wrongdoing. Siting guideline discussions and he said/she said bird studies foster a lot of dithering.
At the very least, support for massive wind technology betrays sound environmental and scientific precepts, ideas that many knowledgeable environmentalists hold dear, while putting at risk vulnerable species and valuable habitat and furthering the cause of civil discord. Every environmental group has expressed grave concern about bird mortality and cell towers. Wind projects are much more problematic.