Frostburg State University’s president Jonathan Gibralter wrote in praise of renewable energy initiatives, particularly wind technology, mentioning, among other examples, Denmark, and implying that Danish wind projects were leading the way to a better European energy future. Gilbralter is doubtless prospecting for more government grant funds in the renewable energy marketplace, as university presidents are wont to do these days. However, he knows little about his subject, which is an increasing problem with academics on an economic mission. For grid security reasons related to how Danish winds blow most when demand is least, Denmark exports 84% of its wind energy to Norway and Sweden, where it replaces hydro generation, with no savings of carbon emissions. “Increased development of wind turbines does not reduce Danish carbon dioxide emissions,” said a prominent Danish energy official.
Indeed, renewable energy is not all it’s cracked up to be. A few generations ago, hydroelectric dams symbolized clean, sustainable, renewable energy. Because it generates bulk levels of reliable, highly responsive power, hydroelectricity became the symbol for renewable energy during much of the 20th century; it still provides the nation with 5% of its electricity production. But it is now clear hydro is so environmentally treacherous, responsible for degrading millions of acres of invaluable watersheds, that no one outside China and some third world countries is building new hydro dams; many are being dismantled across the continent, at taxpayer expense. Although all power generators have downsides, none are as destructive to as much land as hydro. Simply because a power source is renewable and produces cleanly without burning carbon does not mean it is green.
As an intervenor in Maryland Public Service Commission wind hearings, I could not substantiate a single claim the wind industry makes for itself, including the one justifying its existence: namely, that it would abate meaningful levels of carbon emissions and back down the coal industry. None of the other examples President Gibralter provides as evidence for wind technology’s effectiveness would pass even casual scrutiny. Since it provides no capacity and produces such desultory energy, conventional plants must accompany wind energy, providing most of its power over time.
University presidents should embrace the skepticism of science, rather than be seduced by deceits of fashion. They should not confuse the trappings of science—the engineering grandeur of a huge wind turbine, for example—with the real work of science, which would insist upon verifying the machine’s performance.
24 January 2008
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