Editor note: In Part I and Part II, Jon Boone set the stage for a final analysis of the Sierra Club’s current position in support of wind power. This conclusion to the series provides a discussion on the science, realities, and the unintended consequences that may be the result of current environmental movement thinking, which it typifies.
MBA types who wouldn’t know a bat from a bowtie now run the national Sierra Club. Their interest is in gaining membership and revenue. In a critique aptly entitled, Torquemada in Birkenstocks, Jeff St. Clair said this about Carl Pope: “[He] has never had much of a reputation as an environmental activist. He’s a wheeler-dealer, who keeps the Club’s policies in lockstep with its big funders and political patrons. Where Dave Brower scaled mountains, nearly all of Pope’s climbing has been up organizational ladders.”
Environmental organizations that support wind technology by pretending that the ends justify the means, by falsely assuming that wind can do anything meaningful to alter our existing energy profile, are largely responsible for the depredations unloosed by the wind industry. Their imprimatur gives the industry a legitimacy it does not deserve. This “legitimacy” welcomes the industry’s trade association to a place at the government table, which then compels politicians to bestow upon the wind lobby political favors, given the political penchant for compromise.
The result is what we now have, with the most recent embarrassment coming in the form of the US Fish and Wildlife Service recommending environmentally lunatic siting standards for birds and bats, allowing the wind industry to threaten even endangered species. This outcome is understandable only as a political result. And it was very predictable–even inevitable due to the circumstances. When you lay down with dogs, you often wake up with fleas.
The case for wind relies on academic and government reports that have the same basis in reality as college football polls, deploying slipshod methodology and half-baked thought experiments.
Yes, there’s lots of wind potential out there, in the same way that there is, according to geologists, a trillion dollars worth of micro diamonds embedded in the soil. But it would take at least a trillion dollars to extract and refine them. With wind, the situation is much worse. Even after spending billions of dollars constructing those 2000 wind turbines across the mountains of Maryland and West Virginia, note how relatively little energy such an enterprise would actually generate—an average of 1200 skittering megawatts into a system that produces over 140,000, and typically less than 400MW at peak demand times. Even if the Sierra Club’s conclusions about Climate Change are correct, wind technology can demonstrably do almost nothing about the situation.
Aside from the assault on the viewshed, made even more prominent because each turbine would be spinning differentially, visible for scores of miles in any direction, the threat to wildlife in Maryland and West Virginia would be profound. This is a lot of “sacrifice” to ask for so little in return. John Muir cannot be resting easy.
Because of its volatile variability, wind must be generally entwined with reliable, flexible fossil-fired units that operate inefficiently, in the process subverting much, if not all, of the CO2 offsets the technology might initially produce. Indeed, over 70% of any wind project’s installed capacity must come from inefficiently performing companion generation. Although it’s true that wind must displace existing generation upon penetrating the grid, this does not mean it is displacing coal—or carbon dioxide emissions.
Moreover, wind is not a distributed energy source. Wind projects must be located where the wind blows, irrespective of proximity to demand centers. In all relevant ways, they are equivalent to central plants, where supply is produced largely for consumption elsewhere. As such, the technology will require substantial, typically dedicated transmission lines, to bring its desultory, unreliable energy from remote locations. As reported in the NY Times, power companies and utilities are already beginning to join together to oppose widespread (ultimately ratepayer) cost sharing to pay for the “transmission expansion to carry wind and solar… to distant markets.”
The bipolar if not schizophrenic Sierra Club position on wind is perfectly captured in its opposition to a proposed new transmission line from southwestern West Virginia to central Maryland, designed to integrate a higher level of unreliable renewables into the PJM grid more effectively. The Club’s wind support evidently fails to understand the region cannot have lots of wind without the building of new infrastructure in habitat the organization seeks to protect.
The perversion of the scientific method, with its insistence on the elimination of bias, on falsifiability, and on verifiability—in order to “Believe in the Wind,” as one national ad campaign urged—is the primary reason for the success of the industrial wind juggernaut. That so many environmental organizations engage in it is cause for alarm. Many naturalists—such as the dean of American ornithology, Chan Robbins, the raptor specialist Don Heintzelman, and Italy’s award winning Anna Giordano, among others—are appalled.
Annually dumping over 3 billion tons of CO2 into the earth and sky, which is in addition to the natural transpiration cycles of the earth, may have negative climate consequences that we now only poorly understand. Nonetheless, because they are so “energy diffuse” and require so much territory, wind and solar technologies offer only a tinker’s chance of doing anything effective at the scale necessary to produce a modern quality of life for seven billion people. For much of the last century, the energy density of fossil fuels has been the lynchpin of our modernity, although they will eventually run out, perhaps in a few centuries. And they do have negative environmental consequences. But their overall benefits far outweigh the negatives in any reasonable comprehensive cost benefit analysis. Planning to successfully replace their capacity will demand great ingenuity and the most advanced technology—not hyped-up premodern gadgetry.
No thoughtful environmentalist should condone precipitously unleashing untested, unverified limited liability renewable technologies like industrial wind that oafishly intrude upon the land and water, claiming that “one day” other technologies will come along to make them all work more effectively. This is precisely what is happening now.
Bird and bat experts, card-carrying members of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, have rushed to wind’s side, seeking to perform before and after construction wildlife risk assessment studies. As scientists, they are obligated to understand their work in context, and not pretend to know what they do not. Many are admitted wind boosters out to save the world, staunchly using their credentials to promote wind technology while oblivious about its actual feckless energy performance.
Do they realize their work will do nothing to mitigate risk? Organizations like Bat Conservation International and Massachusetts Audubon seem to have been co-opted as public relations tools—giving the public the idea the wind industry is really concerned about protecting the environment. Nowhere, however, has any wind project been halted or even modified because of the work of these bird or bat experts.
Tall structures are the second leading cause of bird mortality in this country, behind the mortality inflicted by house cats, although the latter focuses more on less vulnerable species of birds. Tall structures placed in remote areas often wreak havoc with species that are at risk. Adding a rotating blade to these structures only begs for more slaughter.
Wind LLC avian risk studies mock the scientific method. Scientists are not just experts; they work in an analytic process characterized by rigorously evaluated if this, then that experimental “conditionals” constructed from hypotheses. Analysis of this kind is supposed to have predictive power because it comprehensively considers the many variables individually– and then works to understand how they integrate to create “regularities”—patterns with a certain outcome. These predictable outcomes—and the processes used to achieve them—are then scrutinized by other scientists for validation in a process known as independent peer review. A particular experiment, however honestly and intelligently conducted, can yield the “wrong” answer for a variety of reasons. This is why other scientists, using other instruments, other conditions, even other ideas, must check experiments.
Sponsored research should always be suspect. “Truth” does not necessarily lie in the middle between two points of view. Adequate preconstruction study does not mean that, because such study is made, therefore wind projects should be built. Rather, any studies should be made to determine whether or not they should be built at all.
The MacGuffin of Wind
Science will likely continue to drive itself crazy as the foil for the stuff that dreams are made of…. Faith-based delusions like wind abound in our culture, one reason for the success of the Harry Potter phenomenon, which marries science, technology, myth, religion, childhood rights of passage, and, not least, slick marketing plans with the skill of a McDonald’s PR campaign. Wonkish wizards, indeed. Why not, then, fabulist wind machines, producing fantasy energy?
In twenty years, the Sierra Club will have moved on to shore up another world crisis with yet another crusade, and all people will remember, as the countryside is littered with the wind mess, is its good intentions, especially since there’s no real accountability…. And it’s such hard work these days persuading people about the importance of protecting threatened habitat and species…. Far better to pursue the MacGuffin of wind. And scare the hell out of people about climate change.