Opinion: Daily Journal

An Ill Wind

This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Melissa Mitchell, Administrative Assistant for the John Locke Foundation.

Wind Power, the darling of environmentalists, is facing an ill wind; ironically, environmentalists whip up the ill wind themselves. Experts in numerous fields of biology have discovered that wind farms are not environmentally friendly. Construction and maintenance destroy the natural ground habitat, and the turbines’ blades kill birds and bats. But even as a biologist and avid bird watcher, these facts are not what captured my attention. I noticed instead two obscure comments by proponents of wind power. They cautioned against looking at the aesthetics and economics of wind power.

Of course, they do not want anyone to consider the aesthetics. Industrial wind turbines are ugly! Proponents may hope the public envisions a tranquil Dutch scene of rustic windmills turning in the breeze with fields of flowers at their base, not loud, 400-foot monstrosities. In an odd twist, these same environmentalists oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge because the pristine wilderness might be destroyed. They oppose offshore drilling platforms because they believe those platforms might be visible from shore – they won’t – but the environmentalists are willing to cover North Carolina’s scenic ridges and shorelines with ugly wind turbines that are as tall as skyscrapers. Fortunately, the Ridge Law should protect North Carolina mountains, but there are no protections for the coastline.

Even more importantly, wind proponents do not want anyone looking too closely at the economics involved with wind farms. Wind farming is big business. Rarely does an individual place wind turbines on her property out of the goodness of her heart or because she believes in renewable energy. The September–October 2006 Audubon magazine reports that in most states, the property owner receives $3,000 to $6,000 per turbine per year, so a mere 25 turbines will net the owner between $75,000 and $150,000 every year. But these numbers are uncertain because wind companies forbid owners to disclose the amount they receive.

When it comes to the efficiency of wind power, the information is vague. The proposed 25 wind turbines in Ashe County “could” provide power for 15,000 homes, one turbine for 600 homes, but even environmentalists use one turbine for 20 homes. These figures are misleading because they give the impression that 15,000 homes are permanently off the grid for energy derived from conventional fossil fuels. Wind energy is unpredictable, and a fickle wind could bow out just at dinnertime.

One of the most enlightening articles on wind energy appeared May 22, 2006, in The Wall Street Journal. William Koch looked at the proposed costs and energy return of the proposed wind turbines off Nantucket Sound. Every proposed wind farm deserves this type of study. It reveals the economic risks in investing in wind energy for the investor and the consumer. Koch points out that even at windy Nantucket Cape, the scientific models show that the wind supply would be inconsistent.

Although wind proponents and environmentalists say that wind power costs are coming down, one of the most compelling arguments is the cost of building wind farms compared to traditional coal- and gas-fired power plants. A 420-megawatt wind farm will cost $600 million to build, a 420-megawatt coal-fired plant $714 million, and a gas-fired plant $261 million. The cost escalates for wind power because it can deliver only 126 megawatts, compared to the 381 megawatts for the coal-fired plant, and 400 megawatts for the gas-fired option.

Should the Cape Wind project become a reality, Koch’s piece says that the real losers would be the taxpayers and customers. Koch notes taxpayers would subsidize Cape Wind to the tune of $72 million in tax credits and still pay higher rates for electricity. Certainly, should wind farms become a hot item in this state, North Carolinians could expect to subsidize any projects though taxes and incentives.

Finally, the debate fueled by the environmentalists, the same group that has endeavored to shut down all debate on global warming, is a good thing. This debate will allow wind power critics to have a voice and to show what an economic boondoggle wind power is. It also offers an opportunity to illustrate the costs of wind power compared to other forms of electrical energy here in North Carolina, including nuclear power. It will provide an opportunity to provide concrete facts on the reduction of mercury, sulfur dioxide, and other gases. For once, the environmentalists deserve a thank you.