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Remarks of Senator Alexander of Tennessee  

Author:  | Economics, Environment, General, Impacts

I am here today to introduce – along with the senior senator from Virginia, Senator John Warner – the Environmentally Responsible Wind Power Act of 2005.

Our legislation provides for local authorities to be notified and have a role in the approval of the siting of tens of thousands of massive wind turbines that will be built in America under current policies. It also ensures that the federal government does not subsidize the building of these windmills – which are usually taller than a football field is long – within 20 miles of a military base or a highly scenic location, such as a national park or offshore.

Senator Warner and I introduce our legislation today because next week the Senate Energy Committee is scheduled to begin markup of one of the most important pieces of legislation of this session, an energy bill. The Energy Committee’s work -combined with the work of the Environment and Public Works Committee and the Finance Committee – should this year produce a clean energy bill that will, over time, lower prices of natural gas and oil and reduce our dependence on overseas oil.

This will be legislation for American blue collar workers, for farmers and for homeowners. It is urgently needed. Natural gas prices are the highest in the industrialized world. Gasoline prices are at record levels. We cannot keep our jobs and our standard of living if we do not put in place policies that will provide our country with new steps toward conservation and an adequate supply of low cost, reliable, clean, American-produced energy. Senator Warner and I both intend to be in the middle of this discussion. He is a senior member of the Environment and Public Works Committee. I am chairman of the Energy Subcommittee.

I am grateful for and am greatly encouraged by the leadership of the Energy Committee Chairman, Senator Domenici, and the ranking Democrat, Senator Bingaman, and the committee staffs, who have worked especially hard to create a framework for a more aggressive, bipartisan piece of legislation.

One part of our energy debate will be about wind power, which is the subject of our legislation today. This is because several of our colleagues have proposed something called a Renewable Portfolio Standard, or RPS, which would require power companies to produce 10 percent of all their electricity from renewable sources by 2025. These renewable sources are wind, hydro, solar, geothermal and biomass. Today these renewable sources produce about 9 percent of U.S. electricity needs. This RPS is not to be confused with a Renewable Fuel Standard – which is a requirement that gasoline contain a certain percentage of ethanol. A Renewable Fuel Standard is entirely different from a Renewable Portfolio Standard and may well be part of the final legislation.

It is important for our colleagues to know that a Renewable Portfolio Standard or RPS is all about wind. There are very few opportunities to build new dams and expand hydro power, which produces 7 of the 9 percent of renewable power we use today. Of the remaining 2 percent of renewal power sources, current subsidies aren’t enough to increase solar power by very much. More research and development is needed to make biomass more efficient. And there is limited availability of geothermal power, that is, drawing power from water that is heated underground.

Which leaves wind power. Experts agree that the bottom line is that a requirement that electric companies produce 10 percent of their electricity from renewable energy, if it could be achieved at all, would mean that about 70 percent of the increase would come from wind. In other words, we would go from producing about 1 percent of our electricity from wind to 7 or 8 percent.

Testimony before our Energy Committee and most other sources suggest that to produce this much wind energy in the United States could require building more than 100,000 of new, massive wind turbines. We have less than 7,000 such windmills in the U.S. today, with the largest number in Texas and California.

Testimony also indicated that, even without the RPS, if Congress continues its sustained generous subsidy for wind production for the next 10 years, it will guarantee that the U.S. has about 100,000 of these windmills by 2025. According to the Treasury Department, this wind subsidy, if renewed each year for the next five years, would reimburse wind investors for 25 percent of the cost of wind production and cost taxpayers $3.7 billion over those 5 years. General Electric Wind, one of the largest manufacturers of wind turbines, has experienced a 500 percent growth in its wind business this year due to the renewal of the wind production tax credit last year.

I want to make sure that my colleagues know that there are serious questions about how much relying on wind power will raise the cost of electricity, questions about whether there are better ways to spend $3.7 billion in support of clean energy, questions about whether wind even produces the amount of energy that is claimed. My studies suggest that at a time when American needs large amounts of low-cost reliable power, wind produces puny amounts of high-cost unreliable power. We need lower prices; wind power raises prices. We will have an opportunity in our debates and further hearings to examine these questions.

But the legislation we offer today is about a different question: the siting of 100,000 of these massive machines.

The idea of windmills conjures up pleasant images – of Holland and tulips, of rural America with windmill blades slowly turning, pumping water at the farm well. My grandparents had such a windmill at their well pump. That was back before rural electrification.

But the windmills we are talking about today are not your grandmother’s windmills.

Each one is typically 100 yards tall, two stories taller than the Stature of Liberty, taller than a football field is long.

These windmills are wider than a 747 jumbo jet.

Their rotor blades turn at 100 miles per hour.

These towers and their flashing red lights can be seen from more than 25 miles away.

Their noise can be heard from up to a half mile away. It is a thumping and swishing sound. It has been described by residents that are unhappy with the noise as sounding like a brick wrapped in a towel tumbling in a clothes drier on a perpetual basis.

These windmills produce very little power since they only operate when the wind blows enough or doesn’t blow too much, so they are usually placed in large wind farms covering huge amounts of land.

As an example, if the Congress ordered electric companies to build 10 percent of their power from renewable energy – which as we have said, has to be mostly wind – and if we renew the current subsidy each year, by the year 2025, my state of Tennessee would have at least 1,700 windmills, which would cover land almost equal to two times the size of the city of Knoxville.

If Virginia were to produce 10 percent of its power from wind and the subsidies continue, it would probably need more than 1,700 windmills. These windmills would take up enough land to equal the land mass of three cities the size of Richmond, Virginia.

In North Carolina, to supply 10 percent of electricity from wind if the subsidies continue, it would take up the landmass of the Research Triangle – the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area.

According to testimony before our committee, in Tennessee and Virginia, these windmills would work best and perhaps only work at all along ridge tops.

So, if present policies are continued, we could expect to see in hundreds of football field sized towers with flashing red lights atop the blue ridges of Virginia, above the Shenandoah Valley, along the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, on top of Signal Mountain, and on top of Lookout Mountain and Roan Mountain in Tennessee and down the Tennessee River Gorge, which the city of Chattanooga has just spent 25 years protecting and now calls itself the scenic city.

I hope that we decide, Mr. President, that there are better ways to provide clean energy than to spend $3.7 billion of taxpayer dollars over the next 5 years on windmills. I hope we decide that we need a real national energy policy – instead of a national windmill policy.

I hope we decide that there are better and cheaper ways to discuss carbon.

At least there are some important questions to answer.

What will this do to our tourism industry? Will 10 million visitors a year who come to enjoy the Great Smokies really want to come see ridge tops decorated with flashing red lights and 100-yard tall windmills?

What happens to electric rates when the federal subsidy disappears?

Who will take down these massive structures if we decide we don’t like them or if they don’t work?

Who is making the money on all this?

Why are some of European countries who pioneered wind farms now slowing down or even stopping their construction in some places?

Clearly there are more sensible ways to provide clean energy than spending $3.7 billion of taxpayers’ money to destroy the American landscape.

$3.7 billion would provide us enough money to give 185,000 Americans a $2,000 subsidy to buy a hybrid or clean diesel vehicle – which would about double the number of hybrid cars expected to be sold in the U.S. during 2005. Hybrid cards burn about 60 percent of the amount of gasoline than conventional cars burn.

$3.7 billion would provide enough money for loan guarantees to help launch a dozen new clean coal gasification plants and help transform the marketplace with a new technology for clean, American produced energy that would lower natural gas prices and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

For 3.7 billion we could provide loan guarantees for at least a half dozen new technology nuclear power plants and have a billion dollars left over for research and development on the recapture of carbon that might be produced by coal plants or to encourage conservation practices.

Just by way of comparison, a nuclear power plant such as TVA’s Sequoyah nuclear plant would produce about the same amount of energy as the windmills which a RPS and tax subsidy would build in Tennessee – and the electricity would be available even when the wind wasn’t blowing.

While we are debating the wisdom of wind policies, these massive turbines are being built across America, 6,700 of them so far, 29 of them in Tennessee. The Tennessee Valley Authority recently announced it had signed a 20-year contract with a group of investors from Chicago to build 18 huge windmills atop a 3,300 foot ridge on Buffalo Mountain in East Tennessee.

So the purpose of our legislation is to give citizens the opportunity to have some say in where these massive structures are located in their communities and to make sure that the Congress does not subsidize the destruction of the American landscape near our national parks or other highly scenic areas or build such tall structures dangerously close to our military bases.

First, the bill ensures that local authorities are notified and have a role in the approval of new windmills to be built in their areas of jurisdiction. This means that at the same time a proposed windmill is filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, FERC would notify the local authority with zoning jurisdiction.

Within 120 days, under our bill, local authorities may support or oppose the project. If they support it, the windmill may qualify for FERC market-based rates (allowed to charge wholesale prices) and may be exempt from a series of regulations that restrict the operations of public utilities. If local authorities oppose the windmill, it may still go forward, but subject to regulations (called PUHCA) and unable to charge wholesale rates or issue a qualified rate schedule. If no action is taken by the local authority, the FERC process would proceed as though the authority were in support.

I believe it is crucial that local authorities have a chance to consider the impact of such massive new structures before dozens or hundreds of them begin to be built in their communities. In many other instances involving the location of facilities generating power, state and local governments have developed laws giving citizens an opportunity to comment or even stop the location of facilities they don’t want. Our legislation gives communities that do not now have such laws the chance to do that. Then this legislation sunsets in 7 years.

Second, our legislation provides protection to highly scenic areas and to military bases. It does so my eliminating tax subsidies for any windmill within 20 miles of a World Heritage Area (which includes many national parks), a military base or offshore.

Under the bill, placement of a windmill within 20 miles of such a site shall also require the completion of an environmental impact statement. Further any windmill that is to be constructed within 20 miles of a neighboring state’s border may be vetoed by that neighboring state. In other words, if the neighboring state can see it, and don’t want it, they can veto it.

I believe that during our debates we will find there are better ways to produce a low-cost, reliable supply of American energy than by spending $3.7 billion over the next 5 years requiring power companies to produce energy from giant windmills that raise electric rates, only work when the wind blows, and destroy the American landscape.

The legislation that Senator Johnson and I have introduced, the Natural Gas Price Reduction Act of 2005, includes support for aggressive conservation, new clean coal gas plants, new supplies of domestic natural gas, and, for the time being, easier import of liquefied natural gas.

I believe there is an important place in our energy bill for renewable fuels, such as ethanol. And I believe there is an important place for renewal energy sources. For example, the legislation Senator Johnson and I introduced a few weeks ago would increase from 10 to 30 percent the tax credit for commercial investments in solar technology that generates electricity, heats or cools a structure, uses fiber optics and illuminates a building, or provides solar process heat. It provides a similar 30 percent tax credit for a solar system that heats a home. But it is important to keep in mind that, aside from wind, renewable energy can only provide about 3 percent of America’s total energy needs over the next 20 years.

In the United States of America, Mr. President, the wholesale destruction of the American landscape is not an incidental concern. The Great American Outdoors is an essential part of the American character. Italy has its art. Egypt has its pyramids. England has its history. And we have the Great American Outdoors.

While we debate the merits of so much subsidy and reliance on wind power, we should at the same time protect our national parks, our shorelines and other highly scenic areas, and we should give American citizens the opportunity protect their communities and landscapes before it is too late.

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

The copyright of this material resides with the author(s). As part of its noncommercial effort to present the environmental, social, scientific, and economic issues of large-scale wind power development to a global audience seeking such information, National Wind Watch endeavors to observe “fair use” as provided for in section 107 of U.S. Copyright Law and similar “fair dealing” provisions of the copyright laws of other nations. Queries e-mail.

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