News: CJ Exclusives

Friday Interview: Wind Energy Myths

JLF analyst Daren Bakst says wind farms are inefficient and kill birds

Today, Carolina Journal Radio’s Donna Martinez talks with Daren Bakst, legal and regulatory policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation, about the sudden push nationally for wind energy and wind farms. (Go here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Martinez: This is such an interesting subject, Daren, as we talk more and more about renewable energy sources, trying to become independent in this country. Tell us first of all, what is a wind farm?

Bakst: Well, a wind farm is a cute way of describing what is a massive line of wind turbines, and wind turbines are not cute little windmills. They’re massive industrial wind turbines, which are 475 feet potentially, maybe even higher, which is about the height of a 47-story skyscraper.

Martinez: Forty-seven stories?

Bakst: Yes, I think it would be taller than any building in Raleigh, actually. So that’s massive.

Martinez: That’s huge. In fact, they are somewhat controversial. We’re talking about one possibly in Carteret County, we’ve heard about suggestions for wind farms in the western part of the state. Is it simply the size that makes them controversial?

Bakst: Well, for local communities it’s certainly the size of it. For electricity consumers and the public, it shouldn’t just be the size. It’s the fact that wind power is really a bad form of electricity.

Martinez: Why is that?

Bakst: Well, the wind has inherent problems. It doesn’t blow all the time, so for wind power to actually have any electricity from wind turbines, the wind has to be blowing just right. It can’t be too slow, can’t be too fast. So, most of the time you’re not generating a lot of electricity through the wind turbines, and even when you do, you’d be using the wind power to meet peak demand. Unfortunately, when the grid manager is looking to get electricity to meet peak demand, you can’t count on the fact that the wind is going to be generating electricity at that particular time.

Martinez: Because we haven’t yet figured out a way to control the weather.

Bakst: That’s right. And a lot of the electricity that’s actually generated through these wind power plants as I call them — not wind farms, because that’s what they are — is actually just unusable. It’s generating a lot of electricity that we’ll never actually use. Turn on the switch, it’s not coming from wind power most of the time. The other problem with wind power is, even when you are actually using wind power plants to generate your electricity, there always has to be some type of backup electricity generation, so you’re using a wind power plant, but you have some kind of natural gas plant running as well.

Martinez: Is that simply in case the wind stops blowing?

Bakst: Yes. You have to have a backup. And what they will do is, they might put the natural gas plant on what’s called standby — spinning standby, technically — but the problem is, it’s still emitting pollutants while it’s doing that. It may not be producing electricity, but it’s still running, burning fuel, making pollutants. So you’re not accomplishing anything. And really, what wind power does is — it just increases the supply of electricity, but does not replace the need for new conventional coal plants, for nuclear plants, or for anything else.

Martinez: Daren, I’ve also read that some environmentalists who are very pro “green power” are anti-wind [power], because as you described, these things are giant and they tend to kill birds as well.

Bakst: They do kill a lot of birds. And in California, as you mentioned, there has become an infamous wind farm power plant in Altamont, California — Altamont Pass — and according to a California energy commission report, as many 127,000 birds have been killed at that particular wind power plant. And, according to the National Academy of Sciences, about 37,000 birds are killed each year at wind power plants. We don’t have a lot of wind power in the United States, and I would say that 37,000 number is probably low — that doesn’t include all the bats that are killed. So it’s bird kill, basically.

Martinez: Oh my — we laugh, but we shouldn’t. That’s an awful lot of birds.

Bakst: There is also another critical environmental concern, and that is the amazing amount of land that these wind farms use, these power plants use. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a coal-fired power plant that generates about a thousand megawatts of power would use about 1,700 acres. Now if you generate a thousand megawatts through a wind power plant, it would require 150,000 acres.

Martinez: That’s a lot more.

Bakst: That’s more than the cities of Raleigh, Wilmington and Fayetteville combined, so that gives you an idea. So, anybody that’s concerned about open space and protecting forest or whatever — this is the absolute worst thing you’d want to do.

Martinez: Well, this will be fascinating to watch and see how environmental groups come down on this one because, certainly, you can see how some might be supportive of wind power plants, but others would say there are too many detriments. What about the cost of this, Daren?

Bakst: When you take into account the subsidies — it does cost more than coal and other forms of electricity — but the thing that makes it really costly is the fact that you’re generating electricity that you’re not using. So it’s really costly because you’re not getting anything out of it, and that’s not necessarily taken into account. So you may know exactly [what] it may cost to produce the electricity, but if you can’t use it, you might as well throw the money down the toilet, basically, which is basically the problem with wind power. And one of the things that bothers me is, people don’t really make the claim as to why we want wind power. You would assume that wind power, oh, it will help with pollutants. But it won’t. The National Academy of Sciences makes it clear it won’t reduce nitrogen dioxide or sulfur dioxide emissions — and sulfur dioxide is a primary contributor to acid rain, and nitrogen dioxide is a major cause of ground-level ozone. So, you’re not going to have any benefits there, and there is going to be little to no benefit if you’re concerned about global warning, in terms of reducing CO2, and that’s across the board. So where’s the benefit? You talked about energy independence before, but alternative energy as it relates to electricity has nothing to do with energy independence. We don’t use petroleum for electricity use. Maybe 1.5 percent of all the U.S. petroleum consumption is applied towards electricity. People need to make the distinction between alternative energy with electricity and alternative energy as it relates to transportation. So there’s no benefit — all cost.