My cousins and uncles have been raising corn and soybeans in the Midwest for years. The rich loam and moderate climate are ideal for the kind of large-scale agriculture that has dramatically boosted American food production over the past half-century.
But as I drove through the farmland of northwest Indiana last month for a family gathering, I was surprised to find a new crop growing among the cornstalks.
Lining I-65 on the route to Chicago were wind turbines by the hundreds, turning slowly in a light breeze as far as the eye could see. Arising on these acres, and not in the windswept American West, are the continent’s largest wind farms.
Not a moment too soon, you may say. Yesterday New Yorkers consumed more electricity per hour than ever before. It sounds like a flirtation with brownouts to me. The grid doesn’t carry any of that Indiana wind power to us, but I figure that my cousins’ crop of juice offsets what could be competing demand for the electricity that keeps air conditioners running in the Northeast.
A failure of the power grid could cripple our economy. We can’t afford to run short of energy.
People don’t like the idea of new fossil fuel plants in their neighborhoods, and the use of nuclear power remains controversial in the U.S. So there has been a sharp upturn in the past few years in both wind and solar power around the country, including in New York.
But Americans are unsettled about alternative energy. We like the idea of renewables, but the specifics of wind turbines and solar panels give us pause. As consumers, we choose cheaper products based on fossil fuels; as voters, we reject tax policies that could encourage clean energy growth, because they could cost us a few dollars a week.
Meanwhile, our energy demand continues to grow.
Still, there’s some good news in the drive for clean energy, and it’s happening close to us. Last month, the Texas subsidiary of a giant Portuguese firm paid almost $1.3 million to some local governments in the northern Adirondacks, the first of many payments in lieu of taxes for a group of 70 wind towers, each 492 feet tall, that now dominates the landscape along a stretch of Route 11 in Clinton County. They’re the latest installation of giant wind turbines upstate.
Meanwhile, the New York Department of State, which has some regulatory authority over our shorelines, released a study this month intended to lay the groundwork for selecting offshore areas for wind turbine construction. It draws together information on topics ranging from where commercial fishing takes place to which offshore waters are breeding grounds for such endangered species as right whales and Atlantic sturgeon.
That’s where the development of alternative energy sources often falters. Many people don’t like the idea of giant turbines on ridge lines and sea horizons. People worry about habitat loss from installation of solar panels and chemicals used in manufacturing them, and about hydropower’s impact on natural streambeds and fish. Each energy source has its drawbacks.
And there’s practicality to consider. The wind installation in Indiana covering hundreds of square miles provides enough power for about 250,000 homes – a lot, to be sure, but not so much in the context of the 115 million American households.
Technically, some engineers say, America could draw the majority of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. Given the political power of the fossil fuel industry, of course, that scenario seems unlikely. But who can predict what forces might influence voters’ thinking and thus change the energy outlook for the nation?
Globally, the outlook is more depressing. A new study from the University of Colorado, cited by Brad Plumer in The Washington Post, finds that the share of clean energy worldwide has stagnated over the past two decades. As America has focused on renewable energy, the use of such fuels as oil and coal has kept pace in other countries, notably India and China. America is beginning to clean its air, but the rest of the world is steaming to catch up with our legacy of pollution.
But don’t even begin to feel smug about the juxtaposition of renewable energy in the Adirondacks alongside all the coal burning in China. In our global economy, the manufacturing fueled by fossil sources in Asia creates products consumed by clean-air advocates in America. We’re all in this together.
The other day, in a car showroom near my office, a salesman apologized that he had no hybrid or alternative fuel models to show. “With gas under four bucks,” he said, “people aren’t looking for efficiency anymore.”
Which suggests that the longer-range view for our energy future must range beyond windmills sprouting from Midwestern cornfields and Adirondack ridges, to both what fuels we choose and how much of them we consume – issues for our conscience as well as our wallets.
Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union.