Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Wind Energy ... shooting the breeze

The subject of wind farms in this area has triggered a lot of debate over the course of past few months or so. I don't pretend to be an expert on the subject, but my inclination is to support an energy resource that is not petroleum or coal based and which might provide a shot in the arm of the local economy.

A rather unlikely alliance of rural landowners and counterculture types (several of which are friends of mine) have assembled a pretty formidable media campaign against the proposed Antelope Ridge wind farm slated to go up in Union County. I decided to do a little online research to see if I could track down the validity of certain claims being made about the problems with wind power.

It only took a short time to locate what I'm assuming to be uber-source document for the wind power opponents. It's a paper titled "A Problem with Wind Power" authored by Eric Rosenbloom in 2006. This is an excellent place to begin reading if you want to understand the anti-wind farm perspective. It is cited on many sites which are devoted to the anti-wind farm movement.

For those of you who like to debate, there is a website called Debatepedia attempts to outline the forensics framework for pro and con arguments.

I also ran across a pdf document which summarizes a position paper published in 2010 by the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA). This paper evaluates the European Wind Integration Study (EWIS) conducted in 2007-09 which was financed by the European Commission. You can read the final report of that study here. For those of you who don't have time to read the whole thing, the first five pages contain summaries of major findings and recommendations...they're worth looking at.

The upshot for me is that wind power might fairly be described as being in need of further development in order for it to deliver on its promise as a substantial contributor to our overall energy needs. The wind turbine technology is not perfect; the connectivity to the grid is at present problematic, and economics of wind power seem dependent to a significant degree on public investment.

All of the aforementioned problems strike me as symptomatic of a new technology and therefore to be expected. The histories of railroad development and, later on, interstate highways, were ones which included, unless I am mistaken, significant public assistance in some form or other. In both cases parties got rich in the process, sometimes unfairly profiting from insider information and or governmental favor. My point is simply that transitions from old models to new models are seldom (never?) smooth, but if the long term vision is important enough, you have to begin somewhere.

Reading Rosenbloom I am struck by how certain problems with wind power trigger a summary dismissal of an entire technology. Every problem with wind power discloses a seemingly insidious intention on the part of shadowy profiteers. By contrast, reading EWIS one sees some of the same problems acknowledged but where those problems trigger a problem solving response...hence you read recommendations about how to improve the grid and how better distribute and harmonize production. The animating impulse is to make wind power work better.

One way to account for such divergent reactions to the same or similar information is rather obvious. Europe has already embraced wind power as part of its long range solution to its energy needs. It has embarked and is well on its way down the road. It is committed to solving the problems that arise along the way. Rosenbloom lives in Vermont and, like my friends in Union County, he has made no such commitment; instead, he embodies the not-in-my-backyard perspective. He is digging in his heels in an intense campaign to preserve a way of life that suits him and others who agree with him just fine, thank you very much.

It is telling (for me anyway) that Rosenbloom does not prioritize his criticisms of wind power in such a way as to plot a course, theoretically at least, toward some possible embrace of wind power in the future. Put another way, what one or two obstacles, if they were surmounted would make wind power palatable to him? Is it the cost of building the proper infrastructure? Is it the relative cost of oil? Is it the aesthetics? Is it foreign involvement? Is it the bird and bat mortality rate? Is it the environmental footprint of wind turbines? How do any of these compare, for example to the problems associated with nucleur energy? (an energy source I have become more and more attracted to over time, by the way)

My sense is that it is not any one of these claims anymore than it is all of them taken together...what I see Rosenbloom assembling is a time honored and all too familiar strategy for blocking change. If any of his objections are factually resolved, I get the sense that he will find new ones to replace the old ones because he's not interested in wind power that works, he's interested in keeping it out of Vermont. I could be reading Rosenbloom wrong of course.
Perhaps someone can set me straight.
In the meantime...let's not forget energy conservation.


Anonymous Rosa Goldman said...

I agree that conservation is the most important response. I have read Rosenbloom's paper, and one thing he notes is that conservation is not in the conversation at all, not even from pro-wind environmentalists.

I also agree that wind's shortcomings can be overcome. But it remains a diffuse, intermittent, and variable resource that requires a huge collection (and delivery) system; and the innovations to make its production useful require yet more add-ons that only increase its cost and impacts. And still, there are many times when the wind simply does not blow enough. At what point does a commitment to make wind work become a madness?

7:24 AM  
Blogger K said...

First off, thanks for dropping in. Your final question is a good one, but one wonders whether we didn't pass the madness threshhold some time ago with respect to oil.
Conservation is key, but it's not enough.

9:23 AM  
Anonymous Rosa Goldman said...

Another essay by Rosenbloom that you might find interesting is "Exploitation and destruction: some things to know about industrial wind power". http://www.aweo.org/badwind.html

10:06 AM  

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