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Wind Energy 101 for the New York Times

From:  Eric Bibler, President, Save Our Seashore (Wellfleet, MA)

To:  NY Times

Date:  10-7-10

Re: “For Those Near, The Miserable Hum of Clean Energy,” by Tom Zeller, Jr.

Re: “Huge Wind Turbine Farm Opens Off Coast of England,” by Julie Werdigier

I am writing to raise further objections to your reporting on wind turbines in recent articles that appeared in the New York Times, including the two captioned above.

Your reporting on this topic is habitually so uninformed and so superficial –- constantly repeating the same errors and evincing the same formulaic treatment of the issues –- that it is hard to know where to begin.

Therefore, let me first offer some general criticisms before getting to the specific shortcomings in these articles:

1. Efficacy of Wind Energy — Does It Actually Work?

Every article that appears in the New York Times –- without fail –- takes the efficacy of wind energy as a given.

This is a gross failure which completely ignores the core question about an industrial policy which is being pursued at breakneck speed, which is more heavily subsidized than any other industry in the history of our country, which has a profound effect upon our physical environment and our daily lives, and which is absorbing a staggering flow of taxpayer dollars and user surcharges. Your reluctance to address the core question about this technology –- does it actually work? –- is appalling and irresponsible.

What is more, your uncritical support of the efforts of large political institutions –- local, state and federal governments –- to steamroll, marginalize and silence all opposition to this industrial policy, including people who want to discuss the actual benefits and the adverse consequences of the policy or who want to consider better alternatives, diminishes the tradition of the NY Times to encourage the expression of a well-supported point of view that is contrary to entrenched interests or the common wisdom. The NY Times should know that it is just this discovery process that is the hallmark of democracy and our best hope against being swept away on a tide of uninformed popular sentiment in pursuit of one disastrous policy or another.

One wonders how your reporters and your editors can have covered this important story for so long and have learned so little about the technology. For those of us who have done our homework and who have taken the trouble to consider the basic engineering, and the unavoidable, severe limits of the technology, your articles seem to be nothing more than a rehash of industry press releases with an occasional, but not very respectful, nod to anyone who urges a closer examination of these issues.

When is the last time that the Times, if ever, made a close examination of the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of wind energy? When is the last time that the NY Times ever referenced the fact that not all of the “anti-wind” faction are self-interested NIMBY’s but that some of us –- committed environmentalists all –- believe that pursuing this policy is a monumental waste of time and money, replete with adverse effects, that is hostile to the environment and which accomplishes almost nothing in terms of reducing our consumption of fossil fuels and the consequent emission of greenhouse gases?

There is a strong, factual case to be made that all of these statements are true. In fact, I have never known anyone who actually learns these facts to waver in their belief that wind energy is nothing more than a “faith based” technology, and not a real solution to our problems –- a dangerous, expensive and tragic distraction from the real business at hand, which is to truly satisfy our current and future energy needs even as we reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases.

Others have eloquently outlined these arguments in the pages of your newspaper on the Op Ed page, but your reporters, and your editors, seem somehow impervious to the idea of doing any research that reaches beyond reporting of the latest wind energy installation and the battle between “clean energy advocates” and governments on the one hand, and whining NIMBY’s on the other.

2. Responsible “Clean Energy” Advocates vs. NIMBY’s, Troglodytes and Global Warming Denialists

The New York Times frequently, almost always, frames its stories as “clean energy advocates” –- responsible types like the government –- vs. whining NIMBY’s. Your continued repetition of this formula is unfortunate, to say the least, in that it demeans the opposition, obscures or ignores relevant facts and avoids consideration of the issues that really matter.

Is it really possible that you can have spilled so much ink on this topic and NOT discovered that there are qualified professionals in the fields of electrical engineering, acoustic noise, medicine, land conservation, ecology, environmental science, bird and bat wildlife biology, urban planning and many other fields, who have grave concerns about this technology? Have you really not discovered all of the work that is being produced by people who do not live anywhere near a wind turbine who feel compelled to alert the rest of us to specific, documented problems with the implementation of such an industrial policy –- starting, first and foremost, with the fact that it doesn’t really accomplish much even though it costs five times as much as conventional power?

No. Your story, as always, is about responsible clean energy advocates vs. the vocal minority of NIMBY’s who balk at being the sacrificial lambs when hard choices are required to save the planet.

This is a superficial, comic book characterization and unworthy of the New York Times.

3. Failure to Distinguish Qualitative Differences Between Wind Energy — Which Is Not “Firm and Reliable” — and Energy from Conventional Sources, Including Nuclear Energy

As noted, your articles consistently and uncritically refer to wind energy as a “clean energy alternative”; proclaim the importance of developing this “alternative” source; trumpet the number of homes that new installations can support, assuming an equivalency between electricity from wind factories and electricity from conventional sources which us utterly false and misleading; and marginalize all opposition to this idea as a “vocal minority” that is concerned about views of the landscape or troubled by noise that is “no louder than the hum of a refrigerator.”

First, articles in the New York Times almost always refer to the “theoretical maximum output” or the “installed capacity” or the “rated capacity” of giant wind turbine projects with scant, or no, mention of the fact that wind factories never produce anything close to their theoretical potential. On average –- at unpredictable, sputtering intervals –- wind factories may produce between 20% to 35% of their rated potential for the simple reason that they do not produce any power if the wind doesn’t blow, or blows too hard.

Second, your articles often employ a lazy and inaccurate formula, saying that a wind energy installation will produce X megawatts of power sufficient to provide power to Y number of homes.

The truth is that wind energy can never stand alone and must always be paired with a conventional power plant that does produce “firm and reliable” electric power. If you build a “1GW Wind Energy Plant,” you will really only produce 250MW of power, on average. And you must ALSO build a 1GW Conventional Plant for two reasons: a) to fill the gap between the “theoretical” and the actual output; and b) because if you don’t, there are numerous periods when you won’t have any power.

In truth, it is much more complicated than that because the conventional plant must overlap the wind energy plant substantially, operate must less efficiently, burn much more fuel than if it were operating on a stand alone basis, and, at the end of the day, consume almost the same amount of fuel and belch out almost the same amount of greenhouse gases that it would without the “assistance” from the wind energy plant.

How many homes does a wind energy plant provide power to –- all by itself? The answer is: zero.

Do we ever build wind energy factories –- those gargantuan onshore and offshore installations covering hundreds of square miles –- in order to replace power produced by conventional fuel? No. Never.

When we build a gargantuan wind energy plant, we must always –- always –- build or commit a conventional power plant to operate in conjunction with it in a manner that is woefully inefficient as it strains to make up the deficiencies from the wind energy plant.

This is the arrangement that the NY Times accepts at face value as “clean energy.”

4. Footprint Required to Capture Very Weak, Very Diffused Wind Energy

Since the NY Times never reports this basic architecture of wind energy –- or examines the actual benefits (which are paltry) in relation to the expenses (which are huge, both economically and environmentally) – it goes without saying that they NY Times uncritically accepts the assertions of politicians, policy makers and various other people with stars in their eyes, that we could ever realistically integrate “20% renewable energy” into our electrical grid.

Not only is this energy wildly variable and chaotic –- which renders it almost useless –- and not only is it utterly dependent upon other, more reliable sources to do the heavy lifting in terms of providing energy to businesses and consumers, the amount of space which we would need to dedicate to such “alternative energy” projects simply doesn’t exist.

The elementary fact is that fossil fuel and nuclear fuel are both incredibly dense. They contain vast amounts of energy in a small space which can be converted to electricity.

Wind (and solar) energy, on the other hand, is very weak and widely diffused. In order to convert it to (extremely low quality) electrical energy, you need a gigantic gathering mechanism to gather this feeble energy and concentrate it to make it usable.

It follows, therefore, that wind (and solar) energy invariably require a massive footprint in order to deploy the gathering mechanism –- the massive arrays of wind turbines (or solar panels) and all of the attendant infrastructure to service this mechanism and transmit the electricity to where it can be used.

This isn’t a complicated notion. All you need to determine the size of the footprint and the fallacy of the notion that such installations can ever provide “20% of our electricity” is a few facts concerning the space requirements of these technologies, the math skills of a sixth grade child and a Number 2 pencil.

Consider the following:

Suppose you want to build a 1GW wind energy power plant. What do you need?

The first thing you need is a 1GW natural gas power plant to back it up. How much money are we saving so far? Let’s assume that you need 20 acres for the gas plant.

The next thing you need is some land for your wind turbines. You can also head offshore, but this will cost you approximately twice as much, as your 450 foot machines will be that much harder to service when the transmissions, gears and blades burnout every five years or so (yes, this is true) and the marine environment will be even more hostile than the working conditions on land. Let’s stick to land.

A fair assumption is that you’ll need one square mile of spacing for every 6MW to 7.8MW, depending upon the type of machine. If you use 400 foot machines, it’s 6MW. If you think you can get away with the truly mammoth ones in your neighborhood, you may be able to squeeze as much as 7.8MW into every square mile. But the bottom line is that they have to be spaced out to avoid interfering with each other.

Let’s say that the smaller turbines (6MW per sq. mile) are 2MW “rated capacity” and are a mere 400 feet tall. The mammoth ones are 3MW of “rated capacity” and are 450 feet tall.

If you use the “small” wind turbines, you’ll need approximately 167 square miles of territory, assuming perfect efficiency –- no obstructions, no roads, no bridges, no ponds, rivers, lakes or pesky homeowners to dodge. If you use the large wind turbines, you’ll “only” need 128 square miles of land.

If you use the smaller ones, you’re going to have to put up 500 of them –- and all of the new roads, foundations, transmission lines and so forth. If you put up the 450 monsters, you’ll “only” need 333 of them.

On land, you’ll be lucky if they produce 25% of their “rated capacity” on average. If you use them to generate revenue under a typical subsidy program, you will derive a handsome revenue from spinning the electric meter backwards and producing 250MW of garbage electricity that you dump into the grid whenever you feel like it, in fits and starts, whether anyone wants it or not. Of course, only a fraction of this can actually be captured and used efficiently.

It’s not your job to provide usable electricity. Your job is to produce “clean, renewable, sustainable” garbage –- and get paid for it. The natural gas plant is there to provide the electricity to meet actual demand and the utility is there to cope with the havoc that you wreak upon their management plan and their grid.

So what is the bottom line cost benefit analysis here? We make a multi-billion dollar investment in a redundant, inferior, inefficient and troublesome exercise in wishful thinking. We dedicate somewhere between 128 and 167 square miles of land to the project and all agree that it is in our best interests to convert this land into an open air industrial plant and to scar the earth and the environment with hundreds of miles of new roads –- large new roads –- and transmission lines. We colonize the appropriate amount of farmland, or conservation land, for this purpose, we permanently impair the ability of wildlife to inhabit this area (because of the chronic noise) and we sacrifice a few whining NIMBY’s who find their lives unspeakably altered to a degree that many will find so intolerable that they actually abandon their homes –- but we will have our “clean” energy, come hell or high water.

This is the fundamental plan that the NY Times uncritically accepts. This is the stark outline of the plan, whose space requirements and whose pitiful inefficiencies are non-negotiable and unalterable, which the New York Times blithely characterizes as “clean energy.”

5. “Responsible Siting” of Wind Energy, and Other Fairy Tales

The New York Times, like many other sober minded institutions, including, regrettably many conservation organizations who failed to resist pressure from their least informed members, has embraced the notion of “Responsible Siting” of wind energy installations.

This is a sort of high-minded disease that infects all those who want to sound responsible, and even many people who know that wind energy is fundamentally unworkable, but who are afraid to say so because it is so unpopular and unpalatable to mainstream (and less informed) “environmentalists.”

Mr. George Price, Jr., the Superintendent of the Cape Cod National Seashore –- and an ardent supporter of the heretical idea that industrial wind turbines should be installed in the heart of this national park, a dedicated conservation area –- has given one of the most cogent expressions of this philosophy when he has stated, on numerous occasions, that:

“It is not a question of IF we should have [industrial] wind turbines, but WHERE to put them.”

Similarly, groups ranging from Mass Audubon to the Sierra Club to the Federal Advisory Committee on the Siting of Land-Based Wind Turbines have all enthusiastically embraced a policy of “Responsible Siting of Wind Turbines.”

The problem is that these pronouncements assume –- as does the New York Times –- that any question as to their utility or their efficacy has already been settled, even though no record exists that this question has ever been thoroughly examined!

We defy you, or the Superintendent, or Mass Audubon, or the FAC on Wind Turbine Siting to show us any calculations that they have published or considered in a serious way concerning the actual savings in fuel consumption or emissions from employing this highly disruptive strategy.

At best, your newspaper –- like these organizations –- recites the “average production” of electricity from any wind installation and then ASSUMES a direct substitution for power generated by coal or from some other source. This is fundamentally false. There is no direct substitution of one for the other –- and never can be –- and the necessity of pairing wind energy with other sources inevitably makes the conventional back up less effective. Furthermore, a vast amount of the sputtering electricity from a wind energy source is inevitably wasted because it is almost impossible to employ this output to meet demand from consumers.

So the fundamental question is not, in fact, “Where should we put them?” but “If we should build them” in the first place!

Here is a question for the New York Times to explore, and to keep uppermost in the mind of its reporters and editors whenever they do a story on wind energy:

Is there any place on Planet Earth that we can justify the dedication of hundreds of square miles of land –- or ocean –- and billions of dollars in expenditure for a technology that doesn’t accomplish anything useful? Do any “responsible sites” exist, anywhere, for such mammoth installations if they don’t actually work?

Can we countenance the diversion of such vast resources into such a futile endeavor, once we comprehend its limitations, knowing that we are diverting precious resources from other, more fruitful approaches to solving the core problem of greenhouse gas emissions?

Shouldn’t someone –- the New York Times, for example –- approach this Modest Plan with some degree of skepticism before it jumps on the bandwagon and accepts these claims at face value?

One can only hope.

Specific Corrections to the Vinalhaven / Zeller Article

To be fair to Mr. Zeller, this article was better than most. Nonetheless, it falls into the usual trap of giving short shrift to critics and then quoting a whitewash study commissioned by the American Wind Energy Association –- an industry trade group –- as if it were an authoritative source. The article says that when it comes to claims of adverse consequences to health:

“For the most extreme claims, there is little independent backing.”

As the reporter must know, Dr. Nina Pierpont –- an accomplished scientist with degrees from multiple Ivy League institutions in medicine and science –- has done groundbreaking work in performing clinical studies on the adverse effects of noise to the health and being of nearby residents, and has published these results. Dr. Pierpont coined a term to describe the constellation of symptoms associated with this phenomenon, calling it Wind Turbine Syndrome, and wrote a book about it to share her findings.

Other researchers, including Dr. Michael Nissenbaum (Harvard) have done similar clinical studies in places like Mars Hill, Maine, which provide additional support for the idea that wind turbines produce numerous unhealthy effects upon nearby residents because of the specialized nature of this highly intrusive noise.

Representatives of the National Institute of Health have also declared that there is obviously a cause and effect relationship and a serious problem in this regard.

I ask Mr. Zeller the question: What is not independent about these studies?

After reporting that there is really no backing for these claims, Mr. Zeller trots out a “study” commissioned by AWEA –- and rushed out in anticipation of Dr. Pierpont’s book last fall –- “debunking” these claims.

The AWEA study has been thoroughly discredited by Dr. Nissenbaum and others for many obvious shortcomings. Within this study, you will find a novel theory advanced by one of the researchers that people all over the world who complain of these symptoms are probably suffering from a “Nocebo Effect” –- which is to say that they only report the symptoms because they’ve read that this is how they are supposed to feel. They’re all hypochondriacs. It’s all in their heads.

He doesn’t offer any support for this “theory.” He merely posits it to explain how so many people can mysteriously complain of the same dire symptoms.

You may be interested to know that the AWEA white paper concludes, majestically, that “no further study is necessary” on this subject. When is the last time you read a scientific paper on any topic worthy of examination that concluded that “no further study is necessary”?

Finally, many of us attended a recent lecture by one of the chief researchers on the AWEA study and confronted him with numerous questions on his methods. He was surprised that there were “so many well informed people” in the audience and, when asked how he managed to ignore so much evidence contrary to his findings, he actually declared that he “just read the material that was provided to him by AWEA, and rendered his opinion based upon those sources.”

That is what Mr. Zeller counterposes against the work of Dr. Pierpont, Dr. Nissenbaum and many others –- who are NOT conflicted by the fact that they are being paid by an industry association –- to show that the “real” or “independent” research contradicts them?

Are you kidding me?

The study by the Energy Department –- you did catch that part, right?  – THE ENERGY DEPARTMENT –- employs a similarly ludicrous approach to determining the adverse effect upon property values from wind turbines.

Did it occur to Mr. Zeller that the Energy Department –- the cheerleader-in-chief within the federal government of our critical national mission to carpet the country with wind turbines –- might be less than impartial on this subject? Apparently not.

In a nutshell, the Energy Department report prescribed such a wide radius around the wind turbine installations –- three miles, if memory serves –- that it totally obliterates the difference in the effect on property values for houses that are, say, 1500 feet from those that are three miles away.

The obvious intent –- brilliantly achieved, if the reporting of the New York Times is any guide –- was to include so many homes that were relatively remote from the machines (and out of earshot) that it would average down the drastic effects on the fewer homes that are close to the installations.

Tell your reporter to call me and I will provide him with other, more granular studies –- as well as numerous first person testimonials and contacts –- that clearly demonstrate the opposite.

Think about it: do you really think that if I erect a billboard or a water tower or an electric transmission line behind your house that it has no effect upon your property value? If so, you need to get out of Manhattan a little more often.

Zeller also says that the noise from wind turbines can be mitigated by adjusting the blades or slowing them down. Well, yes and no.

The most troublesome noise from wind turbines is the repetitive, unnatural impulse –- at very low wavelengths –- that is created when each blade passes the tower at one second intervals. This impulse can be “managed” but it cannot be eliminated.

More to the point is the fact that slowing the blades or tilting them to spill more of the wind has a direct effect upon the output of the wind turbine, and substantially reduces the operator’s revenue. Because the “power curve” of a wind turbine is nearly vertical –- meaning that small changes in wind energy produce large changes in power produced (up to a threshold), any operator who tries to accommodate residents is only able to do so at great cost.

Now you tell me how that one is going to play out.

Is the operator going to forgo hundreds of thousands of dollars –- or millions of dollars –- of revenue in order to make nearby residents more comfortable? Or is his threshold for THEIR pain and discomfort naturally going to be much higher than they might like?

Once again, it’s a matter of greed –- and, of course, noble good intentions regarding our national mission to produce more alternative energy –- on the part of the operator (and the New York Times) vs. the selfish whining of the sacrificial lambs who have the misfortune to live in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Specific Corrections to Vattenfall / Werdigier Article

Werdigier, in addition to adopting the NY Times’ usual formulaic paradigm for reporting on yet another wind energy project, makes numerous factual errors, including the following. Incidentally, I wrote to her about these errors and never received a reply.

I have a strong hunch that the figures that you reported for the project’s “output” came from a press release issued by the operator or by some agency of the U.K., since it inflates some very pertinent figures in a very misleading – but typical – way.

First, she reports that the project consists of 100 wind turbines and “is expected to generate 300Mw of power.” This is virtually impossible.

I don’t know the rated “name plate” capacity of each wind turbine (I didn’t look it up), but let’s assume for the sake of argument that each wind turbine has a “rated capacity” or “name plate” – a theoretical maximum – of 3Mw. If that were true, the “installed capacity” of the project would be 300MW.

The “average” output from the wind turbines – a wildly variable, unpredictable, skittering output that ranges from 0% (when the wind doesn’t blow at all, or blows too fast) and 100% – is more likely about 25% to 30% of the “rated capacity.” This fraction of the nameplate which is actually realized – a very low quality output relative to the output from traditional sources (more on this later) – is also called the “capacity factor.”

What that means in practice is that the actual output is more like 75Mw to 90MW, not 300MW.

Second, in the lead of the story, Werdigier says that the project will produce an amount of power sufficient to supply 200,000 homes.

This figure is also demonstrably false – even if it is based upon the smaller, 75MW to 90MW figure rather than the inflated 300MW one.

As noted previously, this gives the impression that the wind installation is capable of substituting for some other source of production and is capable of directly supplying homes with power. This is both false and misleading about the actual operation and the presumed benefits of the project.

Finally, Ms. Werdigier wraps her story by repeating the goals enunciated by the British government and by Vattenfall for future wind energy installations –- without reference to the fact that many observers have termed these goals to be wholly unrealistic.

Surely there must be someone at the New York Times who is in charge of the reporting on this important topic. I can’t bear to believe that you allow so many reporters to cover this story independently without any guidance from a senior editor with direct responsibility for the accuracy of the reporting.

I would appreciate it if you would forward these comments to all of your energy reporters and to the editor who has overall responsibility in this area.

I think that you might also consider forwarding a copy of this note to members of your editorial board who seem to have such a shallow understanding of what is actually at stake here –- and of the engineering details of wind energy – the actual nuts and bolts of the technology. If they are interested, I would be happy to arrange a visit to the Board from a panel of experts whose views they would be sure to find thought provoking, at a minimum.

In any event, I hope that you will consider these comments carefully and feel free to contact me if you would like any further clarification, or if you would be interested in a referral to many authoritative sources of information, including knowledgeable contacts, that should prove useful in your future reporting.