Dirty Secrets of Renewable Energy
Bradley, Robert L., Jr., USA TODAY
One of the centerpieces of the environmentalist agenda long has been the regulation of fossil-fuel consumption, Although anti-pollution controls are the accepted short-term solution to a number of the environmental problems posed by fossil fuels, many people believe that the long-term answer is gradual replacement with other, less environmentally threatening fuel sources. That philosophy perhaps can be described best as eco-energy planning, the belief that government intervention in the energy economy is necessary to maximize environmental protection and, in the end, the nation's economic vitality.
Renewable energy -- power generated from the nearly infinite elements of nature such as sunshine, wind, the movement of water, the internal heat of the Earth, and the combustion of replenishable crops -- is widely popular with the public and governmental officials. The prime reason is because it is thought to be an inexhaustible and environmentally benign source of power, particularly compared with the environmentally problematic alternative of reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power. Yet, all renewable energy sources are not created equal. Some are more economically and environmentally viable than others. The list of renewable fuels that once were promising, but now are being questioned on economic or environmental grounds, or both, is growing.
Wind power currently is the environmentalists' favorite source of renewable energy and is thought to be the most likely to replace fossil fuel in the generation of electricity in the 21st century. Hydropower has lost favor with environmentalists because of the damage it has done to river habitats and freshwater fish populations. Solar power, at least when relied on for central-station or grid power generation, has infrastructure that is very energy-intensive (and thus fosters the air pollution situation it is intended to solve). Moreover, it is highly uneconomical, land-intensive, and thus a fringe electric power source for the foreseeable future. Geothermal has turned out to be depletable, with limited capacity, falling output, and modest new investment. Biomass is uneconomical and an air pollution-intensive renewable.
This leaves wind power, beloved as a renewable resource with no air pollutants and considered worthy of regulatory preference and open-ended taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies. Despite decades of liberal subsidies, though, the cost of generating electricity from wind remains stubbornly uneconomical in an increasingly competitive electricity market.
On the environmental side, wind power is noisy, land-intensive, materials-intensive (concrete and steel, in particular), a visual blight, and a hazard to birds. The first four environmental problems could be ignored, but the deaths of thousands of birds -- including endangered species protected by Federal law -- has created controversy and confusion within the mainstream environmental community.
Relative prices tell us that wind power is scarcer than its primary fossil fuel competitor for electricity generation -- natural gas, used in modem, state-of-the-art facilities (known in the industry as combined-cycle plants). That is because wind power's high up-front capital costs and erratic opportunity to convert wind to electricity (referred to as a low-capacity factor in the trade) more than cancel out the fact that there is no energy cost for naturally blowing wind. In California, for instance, where about 30% of the world's and more than 90% of U.S. wind capacity is located, wind power operated at only 23% realized average capacity in 1994. That compares with nuclear plants, with about a 75% average capacity factor; coal plants, with a 75-85% design capacity factor; and gas-fired combined-cycle plants, with a 95% average design capacity factor. All those plants produce power around the clock. Wind does not blow around the clock to generate electricity, much less at peak speeds.
The cost of wind power declined from around 25 cents per kilowatt-hour in the early 1980s to about five-seven cents (constant dollars) in prime wind farm areas a decade later. By the mid 1990s, wind advocates reported that a new generation of wind turbines had brought the cost down below five cents per kWh and even toward four cents per kWh in constant dollars. A Department of Energy (DOE) estimate was 4.5 cents per kWh at ideal sites. However, even at the low end of the cost estimate. the total cost of wind power really was around six-seven cents per kWh when special tax breaks (a 1.7 cent production tax credit and accelerated depreciation or capital investments), as as more subtle cost items has high transmission expenses and erratic output, are red in. The all-inclusive in the mid 1990s was approximately double the cost of new gas-fired electricity generation and triple that of existing underused generation.
It is erroneous to conclude that, even if wind is not competitive at present, it soon will be. Wind is competing against improving technologies and the increasing abundance of natural resources. The cost of gas-fired combined-cycle plants-the most economical electricity-generation capacity for central-station power at present -- has fallen in the last decade because of improving technology and a 50% drop in delivered gas prices adjusted for inflation. The energy-efficiency factors of gas turbines have increased from just above 40% in th early 1980s to nearly 60% today. Forecasts by the DOE and other sources expect continued efficiency improvements in the years 2000-2015 for gas-fired generation. One forecast is that new gas-fired generation of virtually any capacity will cost $200-450 per kW, generating power at two cents per kWh.
Wind blades have killed thousands of birds in the U.S. and abroad in the last decade, including endangered species. Although bird kills are not considered a problem by everyone, they are for environmental groups that lobbied to put the laws on the books, made cost assessments for dead birds and other wildlife after the Exxon Valdez accident, and vilify petroleum extraction activity on the North Slope of Alaska as hazardous to wildlife. Such groups as the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society have criticized wind power's effects on birds, but many energy planners have ignored the situation in their devotion to wind power, in light of the limited number of acceptable alternatives.
There have been numerous mentions of the avian mortality problem in the wind-power literature. Indeed, it was a California Sierra Club official who labeled wind towers "the Cuisinarts of the air." An article in the March 29-Apr. 4, 1995, issue of SF Weekly was particularly telling. The cover story in the San Francisco newspaper was an exposed written not by a free-market critic, but by Amy Linn, an author sympathetic to the environmental agenda. The article concerns the world's largest wind-power farm -- the 625 MW Altamont Pass project-owned by independent developers with long-term purchase contracts with Pacific Gas and Electric. Some major points of the article were:
* "It now appears that windmills are annually killing thousands of birds worldwide [including] ... red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, turkey vultures, assorted owls, and Federally protected species like Aquila chrysaetos, the golden eagle. And it turns out that the Bay Area ... is the windmill bird-death capital of America."
* The National Audubon Society has called for a moratorium on new wind farms until the bird-kill situation is solved, a position industry opposes.
* Some of the bird kills at Altamont Pass area Federal crime under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act; killing bald eagles also is a crime under the Bald Eagle Protection Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering prosecution.
* Traditional environmental groups will not condemn wind power, see as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They hope that the mortality is not too great and that current remediation efforts will succeed.
* "So intense has the windmill `avian mortality issue' become in wind and wildlife circles, some fear for their jobs if they speak out; others fear for their research dollars, while the companies fear for their futures."
* "How many dead birds equal a dead fish equals an oil spill?," asks the author. One wind energy expert responds. "The tradeoffs aren't easy; there aren't any charts or formulas to guide you."
* Environmentalists blocked a proposed wind farm in eastern Washington state because of potential avian mortality.
* Federal money is going toward trying to find a solution to the bird-kill situation, such as a study by the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Linn pointedly concludes her article: "By accepting the compromises of the real world and enthusiastically supporting the establishment of the wind industry, [environmentalists] entered the devil's bargain that now prevents them from fighting the power companies.... Here in the almost wilds of Altamont Pass, the environmentalists and Kenetech have reached the point where solutions become problems -- the point at which there is blood on the answer."
The avian mortality effect of wind power is different from bird mortality due to stationary objects. Explained one study, "Wind farms have been documented to act as both bait and executioner; rodents taking shelter at the base of turbines multiply with the protection from raptors, while in turn their greater numbers attract more raptors to the farm."
Ten thousand cumulative bird deaths from 1,731 megawatts of installed U.S. capacity are the equivalent of 4,400,000 bird deaths across the entire capacity of the U.S. electricity market (approximately 770 gigawatts). A 20% share of U.S. capacity, a figure the American Wind Energy Association put forward some years ago in Congressional hearings, would equate to 880,000 cumulative bird deaths. Calculated on an average operating capacity basis, the number would rise severalfold. Not every potential wind farm would be an Altamont Pass, which was sited to be near existing transmission systems with little thought to bird activity, but the mortality-per-megawatt ratio of existing capacity should give pause.
A 1992 study commissioned by the California Energy Commission (CEC) conservatively estimated that 39 golden eagles were being killed at Altamont Pass each year, a significant figure given a total population of 500 breeding pairs. On a percentage basis, the estimated mortality rate per year at Altamont Pass is eight times greater than the bald eagle kill from the Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989, and it recurs every year.
American kestrels and red-tailed hawks also were considered at risk from Altamont Pass, according to the CEC study. Although those facts could be ignored by the pro-wind-power community, the National Audubon Society's call for a moratorium on wind-power projects in bird-sensitive areas (a position spearheaded by Audubon's San Francisco chapter) can not. Jan Beyea, Audubon's vice president for science policy, explained the national chapter's stand:
"We do not want to see the wrong types of wind turbines built, nor do we want to see them built in the wrong places. That is why I, and some Audubon chapters, have called for a moratorium on new wind developments in important bird areas. This has gotten some of our environmental friends worried and some in industry very angry. The National Audubon Society is not taking such a strong position eagle because of a concern for individual bird kills; rather, we are concerned about possible impacts on populations in the decades ahead when wind turbines may be all over the country."
Beyea elsewhere expressed specific concern about "golden eagles in California and the situation with the griffon vulture in Spain. We are also wondering what's going to happen to cranes and ducks that migrate through Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas." With opposition from local Audubon chapters in Maine, Oregon, and Washington, Beyea warned that "wind power could face the same fate as low-head hydro, which was dropped from the environmentalist agenda and from significant government support, even though, in fact, there may have been a middle ground that could have been located through dialogue."
Avian mortality is not unique to the U.S. Windpower Monthly reported that the largest wind farm in Europe was "wreaking havoc with the natural order of raptor life on two continents." The feature story added: "The data collected so far include telling photographs of decapitated vultures that collided with some of the site's 269 wind turbines [that were] ... either killed on impact or by electrocution on power cables. All of the species are protected by Spanish and European Union law."
The "From the Editor" section of the same issue echoed the concerns of the National Audubon Society, explaining the decision to show on its cover a full-color photograph of a bloody vulture cut in half by a windmill blade: "The decision to print this month's cover was not taken lightly. It will have a significant impact, both on the world of wind power and elsewhere.... There is a real problem with bird deaths at Tarifa. It cannot be kept quiet and it will not go away of its own accord.... There are parallels between the problems of raptors in the Altamont Pass ... and the Tarifa controversy."
Proponents of wind power have argued that the bird-death situation is being addressed effectively and should not slow the growth of the industry. Yet, the issue, studied since the mid 1970s, continues unabated two decades later. Like the claims that wind power soon will be economical, assertions that (in the words of a U.S. Windpower representative) "we have almost met our objective of being an environmentally benign power resource" ring hollow. Even if a technological breakthrough addressing bird kills is achieved, any incremental cost of using that technology would further worsen the competitive plight of wind power.
Free-market energy policy
If central-station power from wind, solar, or other renewable energy sources become economical on their own merits, there will be no complaint from free-market quarters. In fact, free-market advocates likely will be defending cheap renewable energy from zero-tolerance environmentalists who will condemn even air-emission-free energy for its other environmental costs. For now, the harsh environmental opposition to hydroelectric power, the only meaningful alternative to fossil fuels in the renewable portfolio, should be reconsidered. A public policy initiative to repeal relicensing requirements and to privatize waterways to allow market decision-making about existing and new hydropower facilities is long overdue to replace the current political conflict over these now "public" resources.
It is possible that the primary source of energy in 50 or 100 years will be renewables, as a study by Shell International predicts. Then again, present trends may continue to make wind and solar backstop fuels, as synthetic oil and synthetic gas are today, while fossil fuels, and even nuclear power, continue to be abundant and increasingly nonpolluting as a result of technological change through the 21st century. Government planners and the ecoenergy planners can not know if a transformation to preferred renewables will occur or what the specific parameteres might be if it were to happen. The results of a complex, evolving market discovery process can not be known ahead of time.
For economic and environmental reasons, energy subsidies to favored renewable sources such as wind power should be terminated. Such a public policy initiative not only would save taxpayers and ratepayers money, it would end the unintended environmental consequences such as wanton killing of birds. It is time to save the environmentalists from themselves, while promoting energy abundance and sustainability into the 21st century.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Dirty Secrets of Renewable Energy. Contributors: Bradley, Robert L., Jr. - Author. Magazine title: USA TODAY. Volume: 126. Issue: 2636 Publication date: May 1998. Page number: 34+. © 2009 Society for the Advancement of Education. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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