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Gone with the wind: hidden costs to ‘green’ projects

For the past few years, there has been a faint push by green groups on campus to advocate the need for wind turbines of some sort to power campus energy demands – or at the very least, some form of alternative energy source – to demonstrate UR’s commitment to a sustainable future. The organization Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW), for instance, have had an ongoing “wind analysis” project to determine the feasibility of installing wind turbines on campus. In truth though, implementing such projects and alternative energy campaigns at UR are neither “green” nor savvy. Yet, from college campuses across the country to policymakers at every level of government, there’s a continued urge to push wind energy as a viable alternative.

The hypocrisy among traditional green groups who advocate wind energy is obnoxious. When reality sets in, wind is impractical and inefficient. The density and quality of energy produced by hydrocarbons like oil and natural gas easily surpass the meager energy output supplied by wind turbines. And, above all, wind turbines are noisy, visually unappealing, endanger wildlife and may even increase greenhouse gas emissions – all in the name of feeling good about the environment. There’s certainly little objection to small pet projects like the one ESW is looking into. Rather, the problem arises from the fact that ESW and many green groups fail to take into account cost, benefit and consequences when promoting green policies beyond campus.

The noise emitted by 400-foot wind turbines and the cluttering of vast expanses of countryside are nuisances, especially for residents living amidst these towering giants, but never mind that. What’s ironic about the push for wind energy by environmentalists is that it is at odds with the very agenda they traditionally advocate, like species conservation, animal rights and the prevention greenhouse gas emissions.

For one thing, only about 2 percent of U.S. energy is comprised of wind, yet according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wind turbines kill half a million birds each year. Some of these birds include the red-tailed hawk, American kestrel and golden eagle, all of which are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

What’s ironic about this is the reaction environmentalists had about the aftermath of the BP oil spill and the sudden threat the spill had on bird species in the Gulf of Mexico. Somehow though, when wind turbines across the country are involved in killing thousands of birds annually, the green community turns a blind eye to it. There’s a clear double standard here among greenies, and this chunk of the story is indicative of a larger problem with environmental policy – the lack of the rule of law.

Furthermore, the greenies amongst us have always been tough to push taxpayer subsidies and special government privileges on the wind industry, even when little to no economic value is produced. Perhaps companies like Solyndra, SpectraWatt and Ener1, to name a few, have not been enough to discourage government financing of “green” firms, let alone any business.
Finally, what is most disturbing about the wind energy debacle is that even if it does reduce carbon dioxide emissions, despite evidence to the contrary, the cost of doing so would be so expensive that the savings would be miniscule. In reality, wind energy is not a cost-effective way to reduce emissions. In fact, due to the relatively high cost of running natural gas generators as compared to coal-fired generators, forcing wind energy down the throats of energy companies and utilities will inadvertently displace many natural gas-fired generators, which emit half as much carbon dioxide as coal. Why environmentalists are not praising natural gas as a viable alternative, despite its cleanliness and enormous domestic supply is a mystery.

Ultimately, what green groups on campus ought to do before advocating pet projects or worse, advocating policies beyond campus, is weigh costs, benefits and consequences. The spillover of routine environmental “activism” has flowed into Washington’s propping up of industries that cannot compete in the marketplace – this is a road to cronyism and will hardly do anything to spur energy innovation. After all, how is it fair that the wind industry is getting eight times as much in tax credits and subsidies than those in the fossil fuel sector? Rather than a handful of engineers and bureaucrats directing where we get our energy, it should be the millions of individuals in the marketplace who ought to decide what is best for their needs and their values. The puppeteering that Washington is so fond of performing seems outright condescending, as does the “activism” that greenies like to take part in without having first seriously looked into the consequences of their actions.

Yuwono is a member of the class of 2014.