In yesterday’s post, Scientists versus Lobbyists: Looking for a Winning Strategy Against Big Wind, I promised to share with readers a citizens’ letter I received from Eric Bibler. Consider his piece, which has been condensed to meet format and space requirements, as Part II of my post. Mr. Bibler is focused on Massachusetts, but his experience and advice apply across the Northeast and across the nation where grassroots opposition to industrial wind turbines is growing apace.
This post summarizes a group discussion about how to counter Massachusetts’s Wind Energy Siting Bill.
Would it be more politically pragmatic (and therefore advisable) to avoid any argument against the fundamental viability of wind energy (which continues to be an article of faith held by many legislators), and instead to focus exclusively on the flaws specific to the bill?
In other words, in order to seem “reasonable” to lawmakers, should we argue against a poor implementation of the technology, rather than to question wind energy’s fundamental value?
The argument was that doing the latter may be too steep a hill to climb, plus it might lead lawmakers to reject opponents as “extremists” whose opinions were not worthy of serious consideration.
Pragmatism or Purity?
In my view, not focusing on the fundamental question of whether wind energy actually holds any promise as a solution to our energy and environmental problems is a terrible mistake for the simple reason that adopting such a “pragmatic” course makes us co-conspirators in the process of enabling a Big Lie.
While congratulating ourselves on our political acumen, we are sacrificing our credibility and our integrity. It is one thing to forgive people who support a bad idea because they don’t know any better – and most supporters of this technology admittedly have no idea what they’re getting themselves into. But our task is to educate and persuade any of those who are willing to keep an open mind.
But we typically reserve our deepest scorn for those who DO know better, or SHOULD know better, but who nonetheless promote wind energy, sometimes quite cynically, without regard for its bad consequences or for its ultimate futility.
We do know better. And I, for one, do not want to be in the second category of knowing better, yet pretending not to, as one of the enablers of a big lie – even if I think it may be expedient for me over the short term.
The pro-wind argument proceeds directly from a host of assumptions that are demonstrably false; all of these projects, therefore, are built upon foundations of sand. That is the truth that needs to be the basis of citizens’ responses.
The implication of choosing to allow any of these faulty assumptions to go unchallenged – particularly the core proposition that wind energy is a technically sound, economically competitive and environmentally beneficial means of producing electrical energy – is that it deprives us of the opportunity to question the fundamental benefits of such projects. Wind proponents are secretly thrilled when citizens avoid focusing on the core issue, as it limits them to just warning of their adverse consequences: a minor consideration in the big picture.
By declining to correct such rosy expectations about the promise of the technology – out of political expediency or for any other reason – we increase the risk that not only hundreds of billions of dollars will be wasted, but that the myriad adverse impacts of industrial wind turbines will be inflicted upon millions of unsuspecting people, and upon large swaths of conservation land and fragile habitat. Surely, this cannot be a winning strategy.
Background: On Becoming a Wind Critic
When I first got involved with the Wellfleet (Cape Cod, MA) situation in November, what I (and others in our community) knew about wind turbines would fit in a thimble. We knew enough, however, to understand that erecting 400 foot, kinetic industrial towers in the middle of a national park was an insane idea.
It seemed like such a sacrilege, that we barely knew where to start arguing with the proponents. What do you say to someone who is so seriously unhinged that they actually think that it’s a great idea to industrialize a national park?
We rapidly grew to appreciate the human health hazards, the profoundly detrimental environmental consequences, the dramatic impact on property values and, most tragically, the despair and ruin that they caused in the lives of decent, well-meaning people who were fated to live in the shadow of these behemoths.
The knowledge that seemed least relevant to me – because the other consequences were so dire – was the efficacy of the technology. Does wind energy actually work? Does it accomplish anything consequential? Those were far down on my list of concerns.
However I knew enough to realize that the proponents had no business erecting the damn things in the National Seashore. But others repeatedly said that it would be crazy – and self-defeating – to address the larger issue with any sort of traditional cost/benefit analysis. And it was deemed especially foolhardy even to suggest to a bunch of Prius driving liberals in Wellfleet who are hell bent on saving the world that wind energy doesn’t actually work.
Furthermore it seemed to me that we had plenty of ammunition in our battle to let sleeping dogs lie – or to let the windmill supporters live with their illusions about the promise of wind energy – as long as they could be convinced that putting them in the park was dangerous and outrageous. So, at the time, I didn’t really do my homework and answer these questions for myself.
Now, however, after repeatedly enduring the sober warnings of the Superintendent of the Cape Cod National Seashore (an unapologetic promoter of the idea of “harnessing the wind resource” within the national park) regarding global warming, his grandiose pronouncements of our need to do our part, and the full repertoire of his vapid rationalizations for jettisoning the conservation mission of the park in favor of this grand new adventure, I am completely of the opposite view.
All of his arguments are completely hollow: they’re consistently meaningless, bloated, irrelevant, inapplicable and false. Even worse, his advocacy of industrializing the park is not only misguided, but morally bankrupt. And while the Superintendent habitually inflates the shell of his argument (the “national mission to promote alternative energy”), he stubbornly refuses to perform the job he was hired to do: “to preserve and protect the natural landscape of the park in its original condition for all future generations.”
We simply must call a spade a spade in order to deny such impostors the opportunity to wrap themselves in the cloak of their presumed authority, or to “frame” the debate as if the “benefits” of wind energy were self-evident, as so many of our elected officials and civil servants have regrettably attempted to do – and with considerable success.
The central argument against wind turbines in this debate is simple and devastating: they don’t work!
— They will not solve our energy issues (e.g. they most certainly do not reduce our dependence on imported oil).
— They are not, and never can be, a viable substitute for conventional energy sources (e.g. because they are not reliable, have no Capacity Value, are much more expensive, etc.).
— They will not solve our environmental problems (e.g. contrary to popular perception, they do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions in any meaningful way, due to their inherent limitations as an energy source).
Should we pursue the path to change the public perception of wind energy and call into question the fundamental viability of it? I say yes.
Why take this as the point of departure in any attempt to block a particular wind project, instead of seeking to elicit sympathy for the very real suffering of folks in other communities already subjected to it?
The reason is simple: to not do so will allow the proponents to retain the “high moral ground.” You will have conceded to them the fictional idea that wind turbines actually accomplish something useful, and that promoters deserve credit for at least trying to do something about global warming, energy independence, etc. Contrast this resident complaining about a bit of noise that is “no louder than a refrigerator.” That’s how you will set yourself up to be characterized: petty and myopic, NIMBY’s and nincompoops. In other words, people whose opinions are not worthy of serious consideration.
—They will come across as virtuous and wise and you as selfish and uninformed.
—They want to change the world with their cutting edge technology, while you are living in the past.
—They care about our grandchildren’s grandchildren, while you are a crybaby because you can’t stand paying a few more cents per KWH on your electric bill.
—They are bold visionaries, which you are the reason we’re facing environmental problems in the first place.
Who do you think is holding the stronger hand here?
But, suppose you turn this around and you first DEMAND that they prove their case: that they provide scientific proof that the technology actually works BEFORE you move on to catalogue all of its adverse consequences. You can do this by asking some probing questions:
— Please show me the independent, objective studies (using real-world data, not models) that show that wind energy actually is technically, economically and environmentally beneficial?
— What about the economics? The average residential US customer pays 10¢/KWH for electricity. In Denmark (where they have installed many more wind turbines) the average residential customer pays 35¢/KWH. How will paying this huge 350% increase be beneficial to citizens? How is this consistent with the marketing PR that says wind energy is inexpensive?
—How many conventional fossil-fuel electric plants will this wind project actually replace? If we do a granular real-world analysis of wind energy (not giving credit to useless power that is produced in the middle of the night, when nobody wants it, for example), what is the actual reduction in GHG emissions that we can hope to achieve?
To replace a single medium sized conventional electric power plant we would need over a thousand of these 410 foot behemoths covering well over a hundred of square miles of territory. Exactly how many square miles of land will be needed to reduce coal use by any meaningful amount? Since they aren’t making more land — and since such vast quantities of land are required to implement this concept – why should this be considered a “renewable” or “green” source of energy? Is any resource more fundamental than land and habitat?
— Then ask them: if they are genuinely concerned about the environment, why don’t they care about the effects industrial wind has on bats, birds, wildlife and (most importantly) people? Does it really make sense to “save the world” by destroying its inhabitants?
— Then ask them how many miles of transmission lines we’ll have to construct – at what cost, and what other consequences? And how much power will we lose getting the electricity from the remote, windy spots to the settled areas, hundreds of miles away?
— Then you ask the proponents how many hundreds of billions of dollars they want to spend on this gamble – not for a single project, but the total figure. And who’s going to pay for all of this? — Then you ask them why they keep talking about “energy independence” when virtually all of our electricity currently comes from home-grown sources?
— Then take the opposite tactic and say: OK, Let’s do it! Let’s harness the “wind resource” within the park in the service of all humanity. But let’s not stop there. Since this is such a great idea, let’s REPLICATE this wonderful idea throughout the entire park system. If it’s good enough for the National Seashore, it’s good enough for the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone too! We can’t afford to let all of those other “wind resources” go to waste!
Surely, this is not too great a price to pay. Why, if we were just “forward thinking” enough to agree to ruin thousands of pristine habitats similar to Wellfleet – or to convert the entire State of Rhode Island into a wind farm, for example — we could “replace” ONE small power plant, right? Well, no, we couldn’t actually “replace” the power plant, since we would have to keep it running “just in case” the wind didn’t blow (or blew at the wrong time). But who cares? At least we’d be doing something, and we’d surely all feel a lot better about ourselves! No one could say we didn’t do our part!
The Bottom Line
Don’t let the wind turbine proponents reduce the argument to whether or not “we” are willing to make the sacrifice in the service of a noble and necessary cause. Tell them you think that the whole idea is nuts – and make them prove it to using the scientific method.
The soundbite is: Industrial wind energy has very high costs with very low benefits.
Remind me again why this is such a great idea? They are neither virtuous nor wise. The developers are mostly cynical profiteers out to make a buck, who pull the necessary strings and grease the necessary palms to win their approvals. They are opportunists who travel to financially stressed rural areas and entice unsuspecting farmers to sign their lease agreements which neuter their rights to their own property. Most of the others are ill-informed and idealistic, who have no idea what they’re in for once the blades begin to spin. They believe the confident assurances of the snake-oil salesmen, the paid-for “experts,” the energy committees and the town fathers that everything will be fine.
After being in the trenches on this issue I am quite sure that it is a mistake to shoulder the burden of pointing out to wind turbine proponents all of the bad consequences of their “brilliant” idea without initially demanding to see the proof as to WHY are they recommending it in the first place.
What is so inspiring about a stupid idea that doesn’t work – AND one which devastates residents, divides communities and ruins habitat in the process?
I am totally convinced that this is the way to go.
If your community fights this issue primarily on its impacts, you are mimicking the strategy of many prominent environmental groups: frittering on the edges, avoiding confrontation, while promoting a political (not scientific) agenda.
So you, like in the story of the Emperor Without Any Clothes, convince yourself that you must not say what must never be said – that the damn things don’t work. So you concentrate on issues that are tangential. You do this because you know that most of the wind energy advocates – including the majority of know-nothing lawmakers – believe that the wind turbines do work and believe that you are crazy for failing to acknowledge their obvious virtues!
Additionally you believe that this is all about the money anyway, so why bother making an issue about whether they work? Well, the answer to that is to publicly expose the REAL agenda of your opponents. Do you think you have a better chance to win if they are portrayed as saving the world or greedy?
Here is my closing thought. Before you decide to follow the “pragmatic” path, take a moment to reflect on what you know about every reform movement in the history of our country – our revolution, the abolition of slavery; child labor laws; woman’s suffrage; health and safety standards; environmental protection; the establishment of the National Park System and the land conservation movement; any of them. Can you name a single significant reform in our history that was NOT defined by a series of dispiriting defeats along the entire length of the long, painful road to their ultimate victory?
Are we saying that we don’t want to fight for something worthwhile because we might lose some battles along the way? I don’t think that this sort of inclination to tackle only the battles that are “winnable” – rather than to argue on principle against a fundamentally bad idea – is the way to go.
That seems to me to be a recipe for winning some battles, but losing the war. In fact, in almost every instance I can think of, the reformers have never triumphed until sometime after all hope seemed lost.
That’s just the way it works: you don’t yield on principle and you just keep pushing forward. You are acutely aware that it’s a marathon and not a sprint, and that it’s the cumulative weight of the evidence – and not a single dramatic event – that will ultimately carry the day.
At the very least, after you stand on the shoulders of people like Eric Rosenbloom, Jon Boone, Glenn Schleede, Jesse Ausubel, Peter Lang, Dr. Nina Pierpont, Dr. Calvin Martin, George Kamperman, Rick James and several others like them, and explain the potent and insidious health hazards; or quote the first-hand accounts of people in Vinalhaven or Falmouth or Mars Hill Maine; or call attention to the work of scientists like Dr. Kurt Firetrap at NPS Sounds Program on the devastating impact of “chronic noise” upon the habitat; you should immediately say:
“And the worst thing is, THE DAMN THINGS DON’T WORK, ANYWAY!”
That leaves them nowhere to hide.