West Virginia, as part of the PJM electricity transmission network that serves an area from the Virginias to New York, is poised to become the industrial wind development capital of the Mid-Atlantic region. West Virginia is the target for such development because of its proximity to large transmission lines and its abundant ridge tops, which reach their highest elevations in the eastern portion of the state. That area, with its dramatically compressed topography of forested ridges and bucolic valleys, also provides the most magnificent scenic views West Virginia has to offer.
On that basis alone the region has become a major tourism destination for city dwellers seeking the beauty and tranquility of nature in a rural, nonindustrialized setting. Many such tourists, inspired by what they see and experience, move beyond spending tourist dollars to become mini engines of economic development – building vacation homes and hiring local services as they make the transition to part- or full-time residents.
Wind developers also covet those ridge tops, but for different reasons. It’s an opportunity for them to make money – risk-free and at taxpayer expense. While there’s nothing unusual about businesses scrambling to take advantage of government handouts, the justifications of the wind developers for getting this special kind of treatment need a dose of informed public scrutiny. Indeed, industrial wind development in general could use a major reality check.
The advocates of Big Wind claim their huge, wind-powered turbines can reduce the number of coal-fired power plants in operation, thereby reducing CO2 emissions. The general public believes this claim, and politicians respond by passing laws that give competitive advantages to Big Wind in the form of tax credits, subsidies, mandated market share and regulations that compel grid operators to accept electricity generated by wind ahead of the more reliable base-load producers. This special treatment puts wind power generation in first place, as the most highly subsidized sector of the electrical generation business on a per kilowatt-hour basis, with nuclear power generation coming in a distant second.
Thanks to massive promotion efforts by Big Wind, conscientious citizens unknowingly think they are being helpful pressuring legislators to pass laws that are so advantageous to industrial wind development. For affluent suburbanites in the metro-D.C. area and elsewhere, it is a relatively painless way to absolve oneself for the greenhouse gases created by a consumptive, energy-intensive lifestyle characterized by tract McMansions with three-story atriums and grand foyers heated and cooled with electricity delivered from the power plants of West Virginia.
Al Gore’s recent documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” has added to the concern that doing nothing to curb greenhouse gases is leading us to global disaster. But there is another inconvenient truth that needs to be acknowledged: industrial wind development will do little, if anything, to reduce greenhouse gases. In fact it may actually contribute to the problem rather than alleviate it.
First, it is really a misnomer to call it wind “power.” In grid parlance, “power” means available energy on demand. Given the random nature of wind, wind technology does not produce dependable power. It only adds “fluctuating energy” to the grid that must then be accommodated and balanced by an inefficient use of dependable, dispatchable power provided by sources other than wind. Having coal- and gas-fired power plants constantly ramping up and down to balance the erratic input of energy from wind plants will likely result in putting more CO2 into the atmosphere than the wind plants will supposedly take out. Recent investigative reports documenting these inconvenient truths about industrial wind turbines can be found on the Web, including at www.protectpendleton.com.
That Web site was created to help citizens of Pendleton County separate fact from fiction regarding a wind developer’s intention to cap a prominent mountain in that county with 44 426-foot turbines. Those turbines would occupy 6 miles of mountaintop and would at best deliver a meager 26 megawatts into a grid with an already installed dispatchable capacity of 165,000 megawatts.
Pendleton County is in the heart of the area that is now targeted by wind developers, and it is arguably the most scenic county in the state. No offense intended, but McDowell County might be a more suitable place for industrial wind turbines, if they could actually produce useful power. McDowell’s landscape has already been industrialized and despoiled such that the addition of turbines to the topless humps of former mountains wouldn’t change the way things look, and it might be welcomed for the tax revenues and slight employment opportunities it could provide to a depressed economy.
Pendleton County is at the extreme other end of suitability for industrialization. It has the fourth-lowest unemployment rate in the state, and it has as a major component of its economy a thriving vacation-home/retirement-haven real-estate market that will be severely impacted if industrial wind turbines are placed on its mountaintops.
Opponents of these industrial wind projects have no quarrel with wind power where it makes sense – at the homeowner level of application. Small-scale, home-based units, using net metering and requiring no additional transmission lines or other infrastructure, not only save electricity but usually transform homeowners into conservation apostles, doing anything they can to slow the turning dials of the electricity meter.
Advocates of industrial wind seem to fall into two camps: the dreamers and the schemers. The dreamers are engineers who think they can invent their way out of the inherent flaws of industrial wind by trying to make the turbines ever larger and more efficient, while hoping an industrial-scale electricity storage system will eventually present itself. They’ve had this same dream for over 30 years now. The schemers know it’s not going to happen, but they’re quite willing to lobby for legislation that guarantees a payoff to anyone with money to invest.
Imagine if Congress enacted a law requiring 20 percent of all goods coming into the United States be transported on cargo sailing ships to cut pollution caused by marine diesel engines. The dreamers would build massive, carbon-fiber-hulled ships equipped with titanium masts and Kevlar sails; and the schemers would make sure that investors got tax breaks, credits and subsidies for each ton of cargo hauled. When the wind didn’t blow, diesel powered, ocean-going tugboats would be dispatched to pull becalmed vessels into port with no net change in pollution and with major disruptions in product deliveries. Because the cargo sailing ships didn’t have engines on board, owners would still get tax credits, and consumers could blissfully believe that their goods were being delivered by clean and green energy. That’s the real story behind Big Wind. It’s called consumer fraud and the state of West Virginia does not have to be a party to that fraud.
By Arthur Hooton
Hooton lives in Pendleton County and is a member of Friends of Beautiful Pendleton County, a citizens group that has intervened in the site certificate application process initiated by Liberty Gap Wind Force for construction of an industrial wind facility on Jack Mountain.
The Charleston Gazette
16 May 2007
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