Wind energy derives from solar radiation, and humans have safely and logically used it for thousands of years through mechanisms such as sails and wind wheels. However, in recent years, argument has raged about the wisdom of building and subsidizing wind farms comprised of dozens or hundreds of huge industrial wind turbines that can blanket hundreds of acres. Earlier this year, this debate was heightened by anti-wind-power comments made by President Trump at his rallies. The president’s viewpoint quickly was attacked by anti-climate-change advocates.
I certainly want to preserve the environment for my grandchildren and theirs, and I appreciate the threat posed by fossil fuels. But wind power, shrouded in a mystique of cost-effective, clean, renewable energy, creates far more problems than is commonly understood. The reality of wind power, which satisfies only about 6% of America’s energy needs, is starkly different from the myths that surround it.
Industrial wind turbines weigh dozens of tons and are hundreds of feet high, with blades that can sweep a vertical airspace of an acre or more. These behemoths, with blades that appear slow and majestic from a distance but which, at their tips, move as fast as 180 mph, slaughter millions of birds and bats every year worldwide. Many of these killing fields are located directly in bird migration corridors or in breeding and nesting sites, including precious and iconic bird habitats such as those for bald and golden eagles. Affected birds include those from endangered species such as falcons, hawks, and ospreys. Turbines kill larger birds at the top of the avian food chain that have fewer broods, and keystone species whose presence is crucial for maintaining the diversity of other species and the health of the overall ecosystem.
Pristine mountain ranges and ridges typically are ideal locations for turbines, which damage or destroy them and their wildlife. Their transport, and the cranes needed to assemble them, require roads to be widened, curves straightened, or new roads built altogether. Moreover, the turbines are anchored in a platform of more than a thousand tons of concrete and steel rebar, dozens of feet across and deep, often requiring mountain tops to be blasted to create a level area several acres wide.
The construction and maintenance of wind-energy facilities negatively alters forest structure through vegetation clearing, water flow disruption, and soil erosion. Construction of turbines in a watershed area also has the potential to impact water resources through deforestation, which causes decreased groundwater recharge and flow and increased storm water discharge.
The bottom line is that there is no free environmental lunch when it comes to building and using massive turbine structures.
Harmful to health and safety
Wind turbines generate both mechanical noise and, more significantly, aerodynamic noise, which arises from the interaction of the turbine blades with the wind as they rotate. The latter causes a “swishing” or “whooshing” sound. Consistent exposure to this noise, as well as to low frequency vibrations, stresses our physiological systems, including cardiovascular and gastrointestinal activities and hormone excretion. In particular, it can cause vibroacoustic disease, which leads to thickening of tissue, depression, sleep disturbance, headaches, anxiety, and decreased cognitive skills.
Wind turbines also create adverse lighting effects known as “shadow flicker” (casting moving shadows on the ground or on nearby residences) and “blade glint,” where sunlight is reflected off the blades surface. These disconcerting light effects can cause problems such as eyestrain, headaches, nausea and seizures.
Overall, the serious medical and safety concerns caused by turbines for people living near them reduce quality of life, diminish property values, and, in some cases, render houses uninhabitable.
Expensive and dependent on tax subsidies to remain economical
While the wind itself is free, there is significant expense in constructing, operating, and maintaining turbines and transmitting from them. Each turbine costs millions of dollars to build, and some wind projects require other large outlays for transmission lines, capacitor banks to store and regulate the flow of power, and modifications needed to accommodate wind energy to the main power grid.
Wind energy provided by industrial turbines receives the most subsidy per unit of energy production, and the growth of the wind energy industry is dependent on billions of dollars yearly in government subsidies in the form of tax credits, depreciation allowances, loan guarantees and the like. These government subsidies can be worth most or all of the cost of wholesale wind power.
The key subsidy, vital to the industry’s success and competitiveness, is provided through the federal Production Tax Credit, which has been described as a reverse Robin Hood, taking money from the poor and middle class to give to large companies that own and build turbines, project developers, financiers managing tax shelters, and rich private investors armed with lobbyists, large law firms, and self-serving scientific studies they’ve paid for. The PTC is so lucrative that wind operators can, and sometimes do, accept a negative price during periods of low demand in order to outcompete fossil fuel providers.
All of this suggests that industrial wind turbines are built on the backs of the average American taxpayer, who is not receiving a fair rate of return.
Unreliability and inefficiency
Like solar power, wind power is intermittent and difficult to predict, because both at low wind speeds and very high wind speeds (too high for safety) there is no energy output. Nor is there yet an economical way to store electricity and access it from that storage whenever needed. Thus, spare capacity from other generating sources must be available in reserve to prevent possible brownouts, blackouts, overloads, or power cuts.
The need for electrical grid managers to match energy supply with demand creates additional costs to the system than if more reliable electricity sources were to run at their normal rate. Wind energy balancing plants, typically run on natural gas power, are required numerous times per day to ramp down when wind energy surges and ramp up when wind energy ebbs.
Excessive space needs
Arguably, there is no other energy production system that takes up as much space as wind does. As an example, the newest General Electric-built turbine will be 853 feet tall, close to the height of the Eiffel Tower, with each blade longer than a football field. As the country’s energy needs continue to grow, using wind energy to meet those requirements will call for a significantly greater amount of land than would traditional energy sources.
In sum, it’s important, in considering the wisdom of building and subsidizing wind farms, to understand the significant problems they pose. The success of the wind energy industry currently is not determined by free and fair market forces but, rather, by governmental fiat, which is in turn dictated by those with the greatest resources of wealth and influence. Our goal should not be to blindly assume that renewable energy sources are nirvana but, instead, to focus on making our overall energy system as safe, efficient, and cost-effective as possible.
Jeff’s latest book is entitled “Shattered Lives.” One of his stories is the basis for the upcoming film, “Crypto,” starring Kurt Russell and Alexis Bledel.”