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Wind energy industry looks out only for itself

Chelsea Harnish expressed a now oft-repeated and tired pro-wind mantra in her Sept. 2 commentary regarding Invenergy’s Poor Mountain wind farm project (“Fight climate change with wind power”).

I don’t doubt the passion of Harnish’s commitment to improving our planet’s environment. Moreover, I share her desire to promote good stewardship of our natural resources while creating employment opportunities that are consistent with this goal. Invenergy, BP, Dominion and the rest of the wind energy corporate giants are putting heavy bets on just such public sentiment, and they’re playing for keeps.

However, no one should assume that Big Wind has anyone’s interests in mind beyond those of Big Wind.

Rightly or wrongly, most people nowadays hold an overwhelmingly negative view of Big Oil. It is perceived as selfishly motivated, arrogant, manipulative, underhanded and undeserving of federal subsidies. Big Wind, on the other hand, gets a pass.

Why? Because somehow, the popular notion of Big Wind is that it is in business to improve our environment. So what if three acres of ridgetop must be clear-cut to accommodate a single windmill? Saving the planet is important. And what of the massive taxpayer subsidies? We’re all in this together and, after all, wind energy corporations are “good” capitalists, right?

The assumptions behind these questions are clear: Critics of Big Wind are obviously supporters of the fossil-fuel crowd, and must be silenced immediately in the name of a sustainable clean future.

Facts always trump hyperbole. Countering the blissful image of a peacefully spinning windmill is a growing mountain of research and testimonials to the contrary. Any casual browsing of YouTube will reveal scores of “buyer’s remorse” footage, documentation of living with shadow flicker, unexpectedly high levels of noise, and visually spectacular scenes of turbines exploding and catching fire.

Then there are the bare facts: Wind turbines operate at only 25 to 40 percent of rated capacity. Tax subsidies for wind power in the U.S. are 200 times greater than for oil and gas. A general 20 to 25 percent decline in property values results from placing 500-foot wind turbines in one’s viewshed. And local rodent and vermin infestations often result from the decimation of raptor and bat populations.

Regarding jobs, yes, wind farm construction does indeed create employment, if only temporarily. Upon project completion, just one permanent position is needed for 12 to 15 wind turbines. And as Spain and Denmark have discovered the hard way, the higher taxation required to pay for industrial wind subsidies has the net effect of eliminating three jobs in the general economy for every job created in the wind energy sector.

But let’s assume, for the moment, that all of the above is worth securing for ourselves a cleaner environment. We are still left with this counterintuitive, yet nagging, fact: Reliance on wind turbines actually creates more air pollution while increasing our reliance on coal and fossil fuels.

Even the U.S. Department of Energy freely admits that conventional power plants must routinely cycle up and down in order to meet aggregate demand when wind energy is not available in sufficient quantities. Like the engines in our automobiles, conventional power plants burn far more efficiently (and cleaner) when kept at a consistent speed. Without our ability to throttle up and down our “old school” power plants, wind turbines would not be workable even with generous federal and state subsidies.

There’s something else. Big Wind apparently has a palpable distaste for full disclosure. Why is this? What explains companies’ penchant for secrecy clauses in the options they purchase from land owners? Could it be their drive to seal the deal before the public becomes too uncomfortably well-armed with good questions? Why did an Eastern Oregon wind corporation recently offer $5,000 per person for oaths of silence about the nuisances from living near the Shepherd’s Flat wind farm?

More locally, how could BP Wind Energy think it could operate a 190-foot meteorological tower for more than a year without consulting with the Botetourt County planning and zoning department? It’s no secret that this same pervasive and systemic disrespect for the concerns of local property owners occurs virtually everywhere a wind farm is built.

Finally, who will dismantle all those rusting hulks – and at whose expense – when this fad has run its course? Do we really think this is the best that American technology can do? An answer in the affirmative would be cynically short-sighted. We can do better than this, and we will.

Bill Van Velzer

Van Velzer lives in Daleville.