For the many people whose favorite color is green, wind power ventures are good news. Plenty of congratulations and high hopes greeted the announcement of the new Offshore Wind Technology Center in Chesapeake, a collaboration between Northrop Grumman and Gamesa. Lots of individuals and organizations were tickled by the federal government’s decision to start leasing wind farm sites off Virginia Beach this year.
Any engineering, manufacturing and construciton jobs they bring will be welcome in Hampton Roads. The joint venture between Spain’s Gamesa, which knows wind power, and Northrop Grumman, which knows marine environments, can help position this part of Virginia to take advantage of what they hope will be a surge of offshore wind projects.
But wind power isn’t “green” just because it’s non-polluting. It takes on that hue from the many greenbacks that are required to bring it on line. Wind’s power source is free, but it’s expensive to turn it into electricity and get it where it’s needed.
If we look at the new generating capacity we need going forward, wind power costs more than power from natural gas or bio mass, nuclear generation or hydroelectric, conventional coal or “clean coal” (if we ever figure out how to do that). The Department of Energy figures that only solar generation is more expensive – much more expensive.
So if we want public policy to pursue the wind alternative, we must do so recognizing that we’ll pay. We’ll pay in higher electricity rates or we’ll pay in subsidies that pour public money into wind power to keep those electricity rates from showing the full effect, or we’ll pay some of both. But we will pay.
Of course, we pay in various ways for other sources of energy, too. We don’t pay a lot for electricity generated from coal, because it’s the cheap way to make power. But it’s cheap in part because we haven’t forced coal-fired plants to install the equipment that would cut down on the powerful amount of pollution they spew into our air, pollution that makes its way into our soil and water, our lungs and nervous systems. So we pay in other ways: in lakes and rivers contaminated by mercury, in higher rates of asthma and lung disease and death. We pay in the toll that mining takes on miners and mountainsides.
And lest we be naive about what gets subsidies, we pay through tax credits for utilities that use coal, too.
But if we try to avoid those costs, financial and medical and environmental, by turning to wind, we’ll pay the significant price it exacts.
Part of it is due to the fact that it’s generated only when the breeze is blowing. It has to be backed up by plants that produce power from other sources, so there’s the cost to build and operate them, too.
Part is due to the fact that one of the best places to catch the wind is off shore, but it costs a lot to get it to land. The lines that carry it have to be very long, because unless wind turbines are very far out, they are visible from shore, which some waterfront communities aren’t happy about.
Spain is often held up as a success story for wind power. But that story has hit a troubling chapter. Spain has had to cut back on the subsidies that made possible its embrace of wind, an embrace so enthusiastic that last year wind produced 17 percent of Spain’s power (in the U.S., 2 percent comes from wind). In Spain, and other countries, that commitment to green added to the debt that is now an albatross around its economic neck.
With the future of subsidies uncertain, there’s concern about whether Spain will meet the European Union’s goal of 20 percent of power from renewable sources, since new projects dry up when subsides do. Without them, wind power doesn’t work, not in Spain and not in the United States.
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