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Q&A with the president of National Wind Watch  

Author:  | Aesthetics, Impacts, Technology

Paul Breschuk, of The Lance, the University of Windsor’s (Ontario) newspaper, sent Eric Rosenbloom of National Wind Watch some questions in preparation for an article (published July 14, 2010: click here).

1. What is your title/position/role in this matter (so that I may properly identify and describe you)?

President, National Wind Watch, a 501(c)(3) charity registered in Massachusetts and founded in 2005. I am its second president.

2. How did you become aware of the negative effects of wind turbines? Do you have any first hand experiences?

Like most people, I had no reason to doubt the benefits of wind energy. I had, however, seen commercial wind turbines and was not blind to the fact that they are industrial intrusions on the landscape. So when a project was proposed for the (wild) ridge above my home, I simply wanted to know what we were going to have to live with. I not only learned of the extent of the physical plant, which was obviously inappropriate for an undeveloped mountain ridge, but also as a science editor I started to notice the lack of data showing an actual benefit (such as less coal burned per unit of electricity consumed). That was in 2003. The story hasn’t changed.

3. What, specifically, are the dangers in living in close proximity to a industrial wind turbine?

Besides the huge size (now commonly over 400 feet high) and added intrusiveness of the moving blades (their diameter is now commonly almost the length of a football field, sweeping a vertical area of up to 2 acres) and flashing lights (the strobing augmented by their reflection off the moving blades), it is clear that noise is a serious issue. One problem is that the wind at the height of the blades is often stronger at night, when any other industrial plant near homes would be required to shut down. Another problem is a low-frequency aspect of the noise that often resonates inside a house – some people have been forced to sleep outside in a tent. The rhythmic low-frequency noise makes some people sick, attested to most dramatically by those who have abandoned their homes. (When they leave the area, their symptoms abate; when they return, the symptoms resume; there is no doubt about the cause and the reality of the problem; only the mechanisms and extent are not clear.) Noise issues are not adequately publicized and difficult to document because wind developers bind leasing landowners, neighboring “easement” holders, and bought-out homeowners to silence.

4. How do they also affect wildlife, environment, and property values?

If the noise affects humans, it affects other animals as well. Since migrating birds use the same patterns of good wind that developers eye, they are threatened by increasing construction of turbines. Bats seem to be attracted to them, and they drown when the low-pressure vortex behind the blades causes their lungs to fill with blood.

The effect on the environment is that of any large industrial construction project, aggravated by the fact that wind energy facilities are usually built in previously undeveloped rural and wild areas. Each machine requires acres of clearing around it and extensive excavation (often including blasting) and compaction for the underground concrete and rebar platform to hold up the huge tower, blades, and generator, which total around 300 tons. In addition, wide strong straight all-season access roads, miles of both underground and aboveground transmission lines, and a large collecting station for connecting to the grid add to their impact.

Impacts include damage to wetlands, increased runoff, loss and fragmentation of habitat.

The effect on property values is a matter of obvious common sense, although it is being increasingly documented more systematically.

5. Are they even effective? Health concerns aside, what do you think of wind energy? Is it as useful as we are led to believe?

Wind is a diffuse, intermittent, and highly variable (even in direction) force. The amount of giant collectors (i.e., turbines) and supporting and compensating infrastructure required to use it to a significant degree is necessarily substantial. And even then, the wind is not always there, so other sources in the existing grid cannot be reduced. At best, older plants might be replaced by fast-reacting open-cycle natural gas turbine plants which can more readily respond to balance wind’s fluctuations. Emissions from burning natural gas are half those of coal, but the slower-reacting combined-cycle gas turbine plants that would be built if wind were not present are even more efficient. A few studies find that emissions from wind + OCGT are close to or even more than those from CCGT alone. This can hardly justify the cost, both financial and environmental, of massive building of wind plant.

6. Do you think that potential turbine hosts are uneducated (and even misled) about the possible negative effects of turbines? Why? How does greed play a factor in the decision-making of turbine hosts and turbine companies?

Certainly the prospect of substantial steady rental income makes one less critical. Developers are very good at dividing rural communities, so that critics are newcomers, second-homers, and rich retirees only interested in protecting their views, while the natives are just trying to survive on the family acres. Meanwhile, the developers are indeed outsiders, and many cooperating landowners don’t live in the area. A few leasing landowners have spoken out in regret and warning after the turbines began operating and the adverse impacts became undeniable.

More rural extensions and services are now publicizing the issues that landowners should be aware of, as well as the nature of the leases (which are drawn up by the lessee!) and the need for an attorney before signing.

7. What are some things that both turbine hosts and turbine companies can do to minimize the negative effects? Is there a solution? An alternative, perhaps?

There is no solution, because wind is diffuse and requires giant machines in sprawling arrays to collect it. While mechanical noise can be minimized, the noise of 50-meter blades catching the air can not.

There are many alternatives to the propeller-on-a-tower design that may be more bird friendly, for example, but none of them are in commercial use and they are mostly small-scale solutions. And the problems of using wind to any significant degree remain.

8. I’ve heard some theories of turbine companies running a “boondoggle” scam, enjoying the tax credits and other incentives from the recent push to go green. Can you please tell me your thoughts on this? Are environmentalist pressures moving us away from critical thinking?

To start with, renewable energy requirements do not actually require reducing the amount of nonrenewable sources per unit of electricity consumed. When the turbines were erected at Altamont, owners didn’t even have to produce electricity to get the subsidies. Now some of the subsidies, namely, the production tax credit (which, however, can now be replaced by an upfront investment tax credit), are tied to production, as are renewable energy credits, by which the electricity is sold a second time to meet renewable energy requirements.

But, again, what happens to that energy when it enters the grid is not accounted for. Everywhere that wind becomes a substantial part of a system’s capacity, new transmission connectors become necessary to shunt it around and dissipate its destabilizing presence.

And again, since 2003, I have kept my eye out for data showing that wind on the grid reduces the use of fossil fuels per unit of electricity consumed. That is the clear measure of benefit, and it has yet to be documented anywhere.

9. Wind turbines are often thought of as an infallible blessing. Do you find it difficult to speak out against something that seems to “green”? Has anyone targeted you as being an anti-environmentalist or shill for the oil company? How do you respond to this?

That’s the most upsetting thing. BP, of course, is a major wind developer, and the spokesman for mid-Atlantic wind developers, Frank Maisano, is a longtime antiregulatory coal lobbyist. The largest turbine manufacturer in the U.S. is GE (who bought the business from Enron, who pioneered the practice of buying off environmentalists), which is hardly known for being full of green warriors. The CEO of the American Wind Energy Association (AESA) since 2009, Denise Bode, was founder and CEO of natural gas lobby American Clean Skies Foundation and formerly president of Independent Petroleum Association of America. She was a member of Dick Cheney’s “Energy Transition Advisory Team,” which became the infamously secretive Energy Task Force. George W. Bush was the keynote speaker at AWEA’s 2010 conference. Even Halliburton’s Kellogg Brown & Root division has boasted of being at the forefront of offshore wind construction.

Furthermore, the pattern of resource extraction and exploitation of local communities is one that has long been decried by people concerned with not only the environment but also social justice. Wind development views rural and wild areas of the U.S. and Canada with the same cynicism they treat indigenous peoples and their land in, e.g., India, New Zealand, and Mexico.

Last Tuesday, 60 Earth First! activists blocked construction of the Kibby Mountain wind project in Maine. Four were arrested.

Environmentalists should be talking about building less, not opening up long-protected areas to building more.

10. What does your organization have planned in the coming year to fight against wind turbines/educate us about their dangers? What do you see happening with this debate in the long-term? Will more turbines be constructed?

Since Wind Watch is a spare-time volunteer operation, our primary mission will remain to provide the information people need to quickly learn about the negative aspects of wind power, so that at the least, the debate is not completely shaped by the industry itself.

This article is the work of the author(s) indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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