Buffalo BEAST - Buffalo's New Best Fiend

August 10 - 24, 2005
Issue #81

  ..Buffalo's Best Fiend
The BEAST 25 Most Loathsome Buffalonians
Queen City Loathing

Legislative Juice
Palmiero Charged for War Crimes
Matt Taibbi

Here Comes the Sun
But it's Not All Right
Alexander Zaitchik
A Mighty Wind
Green Power Threatens Corporations
Kit Smith

Tough All Over
Upstate Sucks; No One Cares

Shawn Ewald


Ohio Player
An Interview with Rep. Sherrod Brown
Matt Taibbi


Bush Names New Planet "Little Arbusto"
N Sorrentl


God Hates Boy Scouts
Scott Wagner

The BEAST Blog
Buffalo in Briefs
The Sports Blotter
The Week in Sports Crime
Page 3
Separated at Birth?
Kino Korner: Movies
[sic] - Letters
 Cover Page

Idiot Box
Perry Bible Fellowship
Bob the Angry Flower

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A Mighty Wind
Wind Power Threatens Corporate Bottom Line
By Kit Smith

It seems like every time a wind farm is proposed, The NIMBYs start screaming foul. But are these true NIMBYs, or are they corporate wolves dressed up in green clothing?  Scrutiny of most arguments against wind energy suggests that critics are either under-informed or dishonest.

Common arguments against wind power include the risk to birds and bats, large environmental footprint, property value decline, noise pollution, and, in the case of off-shore farms, effects on marine life and geomorphology. The inconsistency of wind as a flow source combined with the current lack of ability to store wind generated power is cited as a reason for scrapping wind energy all together. Finally, there is the specter of government subsidies for alternative energy sources in general. 

But a little homework reveals most of these points as moot.

Extensive research by both the Department of Energy (DOE) and Western Ecosystems Technology Inc. (WEST) revealed collision mortalities for birds to be remarkably low, only 0.01-0.02% as compared with 25-50% from buildings. Communication towers are a far greater threat, but nobody is condemning the cell phone. Migrating bats were at first overlooked, but now their vulnerabilities are known, they are being studied extensively. (Who needs bats anyway, really?) Even conservationists agree that if built in the right locations and run in a sensitive way (turbines can be shut down during migration season) turbines won’t kill birds or bats.

The “footprint”—the amount of space taken up by a wind farm—is typically between 0.25 and 0.50 acres per turbine. This does not include the 5-10 turbine diameters of spacing required between wind turbines. That “dead space” is included in the calculated perimeter of the wind farm. But actually the land between the turbines is still usable for its original purpose, be that farm (which is most common) or wildlife habitat. Furthermore, the turbines can always be dismantled, leaving behind no brownfield.

Despite ranting to the contrary, a DOE study found that property values actually increased faster in areas within a five-mile radius of an existing wind farm than in similar communities farther away. Noise generation in general has been dramatically reduced since the inception of wind turbines in the 1970s; turbines are quieter than most busy offices. You can have a conversation at the base of them. Design changes have limited low-frequency noise to below human thresholds.

Europe is far ahead of us in this arena, both in terms of researching existing problems and from a technology standpoint. The Wind Turbine Noise Conference being held in Berlin this October includes presentations on understanding the acoustical behavior of turbine using acoustic imaging and localization, and quantification of noise sources on a wind turbine. Get it? Actual data, not someone’s opinion stated as fact. Oh those whacky Europeans!

The same is true with offshore wind farming. Offshore farms are desirable because wind currents are stronger and more consistent. Concerns for marine life are of course legitimate. Denmark, the world’s leader in offshore wind power, addressed these concerns directly by running demonstration farms for the purpose of environmental impact assessment. Again, Denmark is generating actual data, and applying it to ensure minimal environmental impact.

Wind power generation is intermittent and generally difficult to predict, true, and often good winds exist in areas with limited grid capacity. However, battery and flywheel technologies are already available for single-turbine generated energy storage. It’s only a matter of time, and research focus, before the same is true of wind farm generated power.

Finally, what about the enormous subsidies pouring into the green energy movement as a whole? This artificially lowers the cost of wind energy to the consumer, making it seem competitive when really it’s not. Wind power subsidies should be stopped. Absolutely. Just as soon as we quit subsidizing fossil fuels. Yes, you read that right.

A review of ten separate studies of the amount of subsidies going to the fossil fuel industry exposed values ranging from $200 million per year in to a high of $1.7 trillion (in 1999 dollars.)  For comparison, the CATO Institute reports wind power as having received $900 million worth of federal subsidies between 1978 and 1996, for an average of $50 million per year. Hmmm. 50 million versus 1.7 trillion. And how many wind-farmers are rich?

This is not to say that wind power is a zero-impact panacea. Bat mortalities and long-term effects of vibration and noise will need to be continually monitored and reassessed. Decommissioned wind farms will retain remnants of the concrete foundations. But these minor obstacles do not explain the vitriolic opposition to wind energy. There appears to be another dynamic at work here.

There are very few big names in the wind industry. Two-thirds of the wind power industry is represented by companies with less than ten employees. Wind power doesn’t have connections in Washington. It doesn’t give us an excuse to start a war. We will probably never have a wind farmer president.

One of the most vocal, staunch, and cited opponents of wind power is the Heartland Institute, an organization which claims to be non-partisan while promoting privatized education and touting Michael Crichton’s correctness regarding the “panic” over global warming. Unsurprisingly, the Heartland Institute has received about half a million dollars from Exxon-Mobil, and their Board of Directors includes at least one Exxon-Mobil executive. Nonpartisan indeed. Like most raging libertarians, the folks at the Heartland Institute forgive and generally support Republicans because they both favor big business, and of course free-market strategy will save us all. Too bad they mistake corporate welfare for a ‘free-market’ policy.

Locally, recent articles have appeared in the Buffalo News and the Rochester Chronicle, written by Tom Golisano. You may recall Mr. Golisano as the founder of Paychex and one of the world’s wealthiest men, or simply as the guy who lost the gubernatorial race three times. Either way, he has become a critic of the proposed wind farm project in the Chautauqua area. In addition to the points already addressed, Mr. Golisano expresses concerns about ice throws, the strobe light effect of the turbines on sunlight, the red lights on the turbines, and the dimensions of the towers.

Doug Ward of WindPowerNY spoke with me and addressed each of these. He explained that ice “throws” is a misnomer; ice “shedding” would be more accurate. Even if the turbines continued spinning when covered in ice, their speed would be greatly reduced. Ice would be “thrown” maybe to the base of the tower. But these turbines go into automatic shut down if they become mis-weighted, as would be the case with any significant ice build up. Once the blades stop, ice would be deposited directly below them.

The strobe effect, blinking red lights, and tower size are more substantial concerns. Strobing happens during low sun position; morning and evening. The effect bothers some individuals while others fail to even notice it. The FAA requires blinking red light to be positioned on the towers. The wind industry is working to minimize the number of them, perhaps to every third tower or only the peripheral towers. Both of these issues are taken into account when siting a wind farm, and New York State has the most rigorous review process in the country.   

Finally, the proposed towers for the Finger Lakes project are quite large—a requirement for economics-of-scale reasons--though not as big as Golisano states. His article claims the towers themselves are 400 feet, with an additional 270 foot blade. In fact, the towers are approximately 260 feet, with an additional 120 foot of blade, making them not quite 400 feet total height.

So, Golisano: under-informed or dishonest? Well... the green power incentive was largely a Pataki initiative. And Golisano owns a house on Chautauqua Lake. When he says “there are more suitable and less harmful sites for these proposed wind farms,” it sort of comes off as, “I’m not against wind power as a concept, but can’t we find some poorer neighborhoods to put these ugly things?”

Luckily, yes! Oswego, home to a nuclear power plant, is already vying to get the first of GE’s offshore wind turbines. The cooling towers of the nuclear plant are large enough to dwarf the wind turbines, and there are almost no wealthy people there. In fact, residents there are hoping that placement of the prototype will win them the eventual siting of the GE manufacturing site for these turbines, resulting in many well-paying jobs.  

But the Finger Lakes Region could really use the wind farm money. And Doug Ward contends that many people in Chautauqua do want the project there. “It’s always easier to mobilize people against something. Also, if you track across the state, it’s the same faces at every anti-wind campaign. Not necessarily local people.”

Another point Ward makes is the consequences of failing to expand the shrinking economic base of Upstate New York. “These people live within a resource, a potential source of revenue for farmers.” And if they fail to make enough profit running these farms, they will be forced to sell them to the highest bidder, who will no doubt parcel them up into strip malls and subdivisions. Which is uglier, a windmill or a Wal-Mart?

The fact is, wind is clean source of energy. The environmental damage of traditional energy sources is not visible on a local level. Acid rain and global warming aren’t “visible.” Few of us live near acid mine drainage areas or nuclear waste facilities. Perhaps the aesthetic cost would seem less significant if we were more exposed to these monstrous environmental legacies. 

It’s possible that the wind farm is a less desirable option to individual “residential” turbines at people’s houses. But big business couldn’t make money off that either. And then it’s our doors the corporate wolves would be at.

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