“Are environmentalists cooling to the sun, wind, and water—energy sources they have long touted as ecologically superior to oil, coal, and nuclear power? A report by the National Audubon Society, now attracting considerable attention in Washington, warns that ‘renewable’ energy sources are far from benign.
Observes one startled environmental consultant: ‘Symbolically, it’s like someone in the nuclear industry saying nukes are dangerous. . . . ‘
Some of the side effects the study identified: air and water pollution caused by converting plant matter into energy; urban sprawl from solar collectors, which are best suited to detached, single-family houses; depleted forests from wood burning; and increased chances of earthquakes from hydropower dams.”
– Staff Article, “The Graying of the Green Lobby,” Fortune, February 7, 1983, p. 22.
What happened to environmental criticism of earth-scaring renewable energy? Such criticism emerged in the 1980s but was squashed by Big Environmentalism, as it turns out.
Never mind the growing grassroots opposition to wind on environmental grounds. Never mind that firming intermittent wind removes most or all of its emission reduction, as shown by Kent Hawkins at MasterResource. Never mind the inconvenient facts, such as Enron rescuing the U.S. wind industry or the well-document ‘avian mortality’ issue.
And never mind the hard questions that even wind-advocate Paul Gipe posed in his 1995 book, Wind Energy Comes of Age (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995).
And so there is the joke:
Q: “When is an environmentalist not an environmentalist?”
A: “When it comes to windpower.”
Think about it: industrial wind parks are noisy, intrusive, cement-and-steel intensive, require service roads in the wilds, and must be shadowed by inefficiently-run fossil-fuel generation. And did we say that wind in more expensive than other forms of electric generation that provide non-intermittent power?
Remembering Some Hard Questions
At least some mainstream environmentalists were open to the problems of wind back in the mid-1990s. Stated Chris Flavin of World Watch Institute in his foreword to Gipe’s book:
“To its credit, Wind Energy Comes of Age tackles even the most nettlesome issues plaguing the wind industry, including the problem of bird kills, often referred to euphemistically as ‘avian mortality.’ Although the magnitude of the problem is not yet fully clear, Paul raises important warning flags about the dangers of not taking it and other environmental issues seriously. Unless the industry heeds Paul’s warnings, it will lose the environmental high-ground that helped get it where it is today. . . . Even those who feel stung by his criticisms would do well to remember the fate of the nuclear power industry, and others that chose to ignore early problems.”
– Chris Flavin, “Foreword,” in Paul Gipe, Wind Energy Comes of Age (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995), pp. xiv–xv.
Gipe: ‘Avian Mortality’ Problem
Let’s start with the so-called avian mortality problem of windpower:
“The ‘bird problem,’ as the wind industry calls it, came to light over a three-year period in the late 1980s when the California Energy Commission tallied reports that as many as 160 birds had been killed or had died in the vicinity of the state’s wind power plants, including a protected and highly valued species: the golden eagle. After surveying the Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, wildlife rehabilitation centers, and wind plant operators, the CEC learned that 99 dead birds had been recovered in the Altamont, 9 in Tehachapi, and 40 in the San Gorgonio Pass from 1984 to 1988. These birds had been killed either by the wind turbines or by the transmission lines serving the wind plants, or else they had died from some unknown cause.”
– Paul Gipe, Wind Energy Comes of Age, p. 343.
“Solar-electric technologies also kill birds. Southern California Edison estimated that its solar concentrator near Barstow, Solar One, killed 70 songbirds during one study. Biologists estimated that the 10-MW solar plant killed 2 birds per week or about 100 per year. The birds died primarily from collisions with the picture-window-like surface of the heliostats. There have also been reports of collisions with photovoltaic panels, for similar reasons. Although the heliostats at Solar One may kill 10 times the number of birds per megawatt as the Altamont Pass wind turbines, the species killed are of lesser concern and certainly of lesser symbolic value that the golden eagles and other raptors killed in the Altamont Pass.”
– Paul Gipe, Wind Energy Comes of Age, p. 351.
“This is the question that Rich Ferguson wants answered. How many dead birds, specifically eagles, are too many? Ferguson, energy chair for the national Sierra Club, is the environmental community’s point man on the bird-wind energy issue. He is trying to mediate an internal debate within the club’s powerful California contingent, which is fueled by charges from a local activist that a 50-MW wind project in Solano County proposed by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District will kill golden eagles and should therefore be stopped. Ferguson, who calls the situation in the Altamont Pass ‘tragic and unacceptable,’ nevertheless believes that the issue is less than black and white. Ferguson wants to avert a split within the nation’s largest environment group like that of the deep division over nuclear power that [split] the Sierra Club during the 1960s, when an antinuclear faction gained supremacy over a group led by famed photographer Ansel Adams. Ferguson, a former physics professor, hopes to head off just such an all-or-nothing battle over wind energy, which would certainly damage the wind industry but could potentially damage the Sierra Club’s authority as a proponent of renewable energy as well.”
– Paul Gipe, Wind Energy Comes of Age, p. 353.
“In California, golden eagles are a ‘species of special concern.’ This designation mandates that Fish and Game protect them. Federal law in the United States also prohibits the ‘taking’ of golden eagles under the Bald Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Taking is a euphemism for killing. . . . Anyone who ‘knowingly or with wanton disregard’ kills bald or golden eagles commits a felony in the United States, punishable by two years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.”
– Paul Gipe, Wind Energy Comes of Age, p. 344.
“The CEC and the counties of Solano, Alameda, and Contra Costa, sponsored the most extensive study of bird deaths near wind farms ever undertaken [beginning] in early 1989. . . . The study found 182 dead birds, two-thirds of them raptors. Red-tailed hawks headed the list, followed by American kestrels and golden eagles. BioSystems, the consortium’s contractor, estimated that wind turbines and related facilities in the Altamont pass were killing 160 to 400 birds per year, most of which were birds of prey, including up to 40 golden eagles per year. . . . Two-thirds of the golden eagles were killed after colliding with wind turbines or their towers. The powerful visual imagery of graceful hawks soaring into the ‘Cuisinarts of the air,’ as one former Sierra Club lobbyist termed wind turbines, lends itself to blaring headlines and self-styled investigative reports revealing the ‘true story’ behind one green technology.”
– Paul Gipe, Wind Energy Comes of Age, pp. 344–45.
Gipe: “Cuisinarts of the Air” (Los Angeles Sierra Club)
“At the height of the Gorman hearing, an old man took the podium. Suddenly the television news crews switched on their Klieg lights. Something was afoot. They had been alerted that a suitably newsworthy ‘sound bite’ was on its way. Tension in the room mounted. The old man proceeded to lovingly describe the beauty of his racing pigeons, their speed and grace, how they had become a part of his family, and then with perfect timing and dramatic flair, pleaded with the planning commission to protect his pigeons from ‘the Cuisinarts of the air.’ The arrow went straight home, sending up a roar from the audience. A new image had been created and the cameras flashed it across the country. Although often credited to staging by Cerrell and Associates, the term was conceived by the Sierra Club. The club’s Los Angeles area representative, Bob Hattoy, later bragged to a Washington lobbyist that he coined the infamous expression. Hattoy knew how to turn a phrase. He brought the 1992 Democratic national convention and a television audience of millions to tears with his story of contracting AIDs. Wind energy had made one powerful energy.”
– Paul Gipe, Wind Energy Comes of Age, p. 450.
Gipe: Wind Deaths
Wind is a dangerous energy source because of its huge heights. I remember when a worker was killed at an Enron Wind project back in 2001, which was part of Jeff Skilling’s surprise departure from Enron that summer. (Skilling took the company plane to Europe to visit with the family of the deceased and thought things over, by his account.)
Here is what Gipe documented on human mortality:
“Since its rebirth in the 1970s, wind energy has killed 14 men worldwide directly or indirectly and seriously injured or crippled three man and one woman in the United States. Most have died during construction or construction-related accidents. Five died during operation or maintenance of the turbines.”
– Paul Gipe, Wind Energy Comes of Age, pp. 364–65.
Gipe: Violating Wildness
And in the book, Paul Gipe deals with the micro problems–the ones that have led grassroots environmentalists to lead the charge against industrial wind parks:
“Flashing lights are particularly annoying at night, as is the bright ‘security’ lighting common at wind plant substations in California. . . . For many rural residents, nightfall is a time of tranquility. Flashing strobe lights atop wind turbines or security lighting will exacerbate any annoyance the turbines’ presence causes residents.”
– Paul Gipe, Wind Energy Comes of Age, p. 320.
“Although the impacts of wind plants may be minor in comparison to those of a coal-fired plant, they are no less real to those living nearby. . . . The people who choose to live in such locations do so primarily because the land is unsuitable for other urban uses. They reasonably expect that the area will remain rural and undeveloped.”
– Paul Gipe, Wind Energy Comes of Age, p. 324.
“The [wind] industry must control erosion or it will certainly suffer further at the pen of activists such as Audubon’s Steve Ginsberg, to whom erosion ‘is just one of many egregious examples of how wind energy is ripping up the Tehachapis, and its [the industry’s] lack of true environmental concern.”
– Paul Gipe, Wind Energy Comes of Age, p. 414.
Gipe: Corporativists, not Environmentalists
“The people who build wind farms are not environmentalists. . . . Business is a delicate balancing act, and chief executives are always walking a tightrope between the needs of the community, their employees, and the marketplace.”
– Paul Gipe, Wind Energy Comes of Age, p. 454.
Gipe: Natural Gas as ‘Crack Cocaine’
“Hitching wind energy’s star to that of natural gas is a risky strategy. . . . ‘Gas-fired combustion turbines are the crack cocaine of the electric utility industry,’ according to Ken Stump, a Pacific northwest environmentalist frustrated that nearly all the new power plants now planned will be gas-fired.”
– Paul Gipe, Wind Energy Comes of Age, p. 478.
Gipe: Wishing, Wanting with Wind
“Wind energy is not some exotic new technology like nuclear power. Only wind energy’s current manifestation is new. We have lived peacefully with the wind before, and we can do so again. Wind turbines could become as common on the European landscape as windmills once were.”
– Paul Gipe, Wind Energy Comes of Age, p. 482.
“The ‘wonderful, soaring [wind turbine] structures’ referred to in an editorial by Alice Ledogar, deputy director of New England’s Conservation Law Foundation, can become ‘monuments to sustainability.’ With their ‘arms wide open,’ they welcome the future in ‘beautiful union’ with the environment of which they are a part.”
– Paul Gipe, Wind Energy Comes of Age, p. 482.
True environmentalists must ask: is wind more benign today than it was two or three decades ago? Is the grass-roots environmental more opposed to wind today than in the past? And finally, are the environmental harms really worth the small amount of displaced oil, gas, and coal?