In 2011, wind energy generated 2.9 percent of our electricity. And, yes, its level of generation has more than doubled since President Obama has taken office. While there is no doubt that his policies have benefited the wind industry, the major policy influencing wind power growth has been renewable electricity standards that 30 states and D.C. have requiring a specified amount of electricity be generated from qualifying renewable technologies by a certain future date. Both these mandates and subsidies have led to wind being used even when it is destructive to wildlife and detrimental to other technologies on the grid.
Wind, like all sources of energy, has both good and bad attributes. Some of the attributes people seldom consider when thinking about wind is, for example, its propensity to kill birds, bats, and other flying objects that come within its path, cause noise pollution which deprives people of sleep, require large land areas for its turbines, and provide only a fraction of the electricity that traditional technologies provide.
Renewable Electricity Standards and Other Pro-Wind Policies
Thirty states and the District of Columbia have renewable electricity standards that require increasing amounts of electricity generation from qualified renewable technologies. Since wind power is one of the least expensive qualified renewable technologies, its generation has increased by 116 percent and its capacity has increased by 83 percent since 2008. Of course, federal policies such as the production tax credit, the stimulus, and the 1603 Treasury program have helped encourage its development as well. These policies have also changed who pays for the increased cost of electricity from just the users within the states that have the mandates to the U.S. taxpayer as well. That means that residents of the southeastern United States, for example, that do not have good wind resources help pay for wind energy consumed in states that want the increased wind power and have the wind resources.
Further, taxpayers are paying huge sums to subsidize wind power. According to the Energy Information Administration, subsidies for wind power in fiscal year 2010 were almost $5 billion, 19 percent more than the subsidies that fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal) received. And, 97 percent of the wind subsidies were due to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.[i] Further, in 2010, wind power produced just 2.3 percent of our generation, making wind energy subsidies cost $56.29 per megawatt hour, while coal subsidies were just $0.64 per megawatt hour and natural gas and petroleum subsidies were the same as coal on a per megawatt hour basis. That is, wind subsidies were 88 times higher than those for coal or natural gas and petroleum on a unit of production basis.
The production tax credit (PTC) is set to expire at the end of this year. However, the American Wind Energy Association as well as other lobbying organizations for the wind industry wants it extended. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the estimate to the taxpayer for a one-year extension is $12 billion since any wind unit constructed next year will get the 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour of wind-generated electricity for the next ten years. Over the past 20 years, wind producers received $20 billion in subsidies for the PTC and current wind producers that opted for the PTC and have not yet generated for their 10-year subsidy period will still receive $10 billion more in subsidies even with the credit expiring at the end of this year.
According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, wind producers that opted for the Department of Treasury’s 1603 program received $7.7 billion in subsidies between 2009 and 2011.[ii] These subsidies are in lieu of the production tax credit and paid the recipient with cash worth 30 percent of the investment cost associated with the project. The 1603 Treasury program expired at the end of 2011.
Other Wind Issues
Electricity grid-related problems. A grid-related problem that stems from the use of wind power is the ramping up and down of fossil fuel generators and in some cases nuclear generators to accommodate wind generation when the wind is blowing. When wind capacity was small, natural gas turbines were able to deal with most of the ramping. But now, coal is also being ramped up and down based on the output of the wind units and in some cases, nuclear units are paying penalties because they cannot be ramped up and down in concert with wind generation’s waning and peaking. Nuclear and coal fired plants, like most machines, work most efficiently at constant speeds, and are not therefore designed to respond to the whims of whenever the wind blows. The ramping results in increased carbon dioxide emissions because greater coal fuel consumption occurs when a coal unit is ramped up and down than if the unit is run continuously. This is a similar phenomenon to when automobiles are in stop and go traffic compared to their being run continuously at optimum highway speeds. Efficiency is therefore sacrificed in order to accommodate politically-dictated sources of energy which produce energy when it is least needed, such as at night.
Another grid-related issue results from the fact that a wind producer cannot control when wind will produce electricity. The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) had planned to shut down wind turbines when excess electricity is produced from hydroelectric power when high water levels result from storms or spring runoff from melting snow. However, because of the definition of the PTC, wind turbines need to operate in order to obtain the subsidy. As a result, renewable advocates and environmentalists indicated that BPA should spill water over the dams instead of shutting down wind turbines. According to BPA, curtailing hydropower production in this way conflicts with a mandate to protect endangered salmon and other fish and meet water quality standards in rivers. Because the force of falling water creates air bubbles that dissolve as gas in waterways, the gas can harm fish and violate the Clean Water Act. This put BPA in a dilemma between meeting renewable mandates and providing subsidies for wind power, while protecting wildlife and meeting the Clean Water Act. It is also obviously inefficient to dump valuable hydropower when it could be used to produce clean, renewable, carbon-free energy.
Bird and bat and other wildlife deaths. As previously mentioned, wind turbine blades have killed birds and bats that have come within their path. Recently, for example, conservation groups have asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to reduce birds and bats being killed at the 28-turbine Criterion Wind Project, located near Oakland, Maryland, about 175 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. It is believed that this wind farm ranks as the deadliest to birds and bats in the United States on a per-turbine basis. Because bats eat insects that are agricultural pests, bat losses at wind projects are detrimental to agriculture resulting in farmers either suffering agricultural losses or having to use more insect-controlling poisons on crops. Neither option is appealing or economic. Based on 2011 data, if this Maryland wind farm does not take steps to reduce the number of birds and bats killed, between 13,238 and 26,477 bat deaths and approximately 8,960 bird deaths would result during the 20-year operational life of the project.[iii]
While salmon, bird, bat and other wildlife deaths are a factor in wind production, wind power actually gets an indirect subsidy from being exempt from enforcement from wildlife laws. According to energy expert Robert Bryce, “Despite numerous violations, the Obama administration—like the Bush administration before it—has unofficially exempted the wind industry from prosecution under the Eagle Protection and Migratory Bird Treaty Acts. If Congress extends the PTC, federal taxpayers will, in effect, be subsidizing the killing of federally protected birds.”
Noise pollution. In Maine, for example, local residents are plagued by noise, low frequency sound pressure and vibrations that turbines and their blades make under various wind conditions due to insufficient setback distances. Setback distances are based on safety guidelines from the turbine manufacturer. The current minimum setback is 1.5 times the height of the tower, or between 582 and 615 feet for most projects. Local residents believe the setback distance should be much larger.[iv] But, how far away is far enough? For example, a couple had to abandon their home near Denmark, Wisconsin because of the noise produced by a half-dozen 495-foot-high wind turbines built near their home, the closest of which was about 3,200 feet from their house. Shortly after the wind turbines began operating, the couple experienced headaches, ear pain, nausea, blurred vision, anxiety, and memory loss.[v] The most problematic noise generated by the turbines is the low-frequency sound (20 to 100 hertz) and infrasound (0 to 20 Hz). A 2001 report published by the National Institutes of Health said that exposure to infrasound can cause vertigo as well as “fatigue, apathy, and depression, pressure in the ears, loss of concentration, drowsiness.”[vi]
Land Area. Wind turbines also require a large land mass. Taking into account capacity or load factors, the land area covered by a wind farm of the same energy output as a nuclear power plant would be about 2,000 times as large.
Soon the Congress will decide whether the wind production tax credit that expires at the end of this year will be extended. The wind industry has grown in the United States mostly due to mandates for renewable generation from state governments and subsidies and government handouts. But wind energy is not the panacea that many environmentalists want the public to believe. It comes with its own set of problems as discussed above. And, because of its intermittency, traditional fossil energy generators are still needed to back up the power. So, we the consumers of electricity and taxpayers are having to pay two or three times—to build the wind turbines, to build the back-up power that is needed when the wind isn’t blowing, and to pay for the subsidies the wind industry claims they need.
[i] Energy Information Administration, Direct Federal Financial Interventions and Subsidies in Energy in Fiscal Year 2010, August 1, 2011, http://www.eia.gov/analysis/requests/subsidy/
[ii] National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Preliminary Analysis of the Jobs and Economic Impacts of Renewable Energy Projects Supported by the 1603 Treasury Grant Program, April 2012, http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy12osti/52739.pdf
[iii] American Bird Conservancy, Conservation Groups Call for Changes at Nation’s Most Deadly Wind Power Development, October 17, 2012, http://www.abcbirds.org/newsandreports/releases/121017.html
[iv] Morning Sentinel, Turbine noise a complex issue, May 1, 2011, http://www.onlinesentinel.com/news/report-turbine-noise-a-complex-issue_2011-04-30.html
[v] National Review, Wind Energy, Noise Pollution, February 2, 2012, http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/289920/wind-energy-noise-pollution-robert-bryce
[vi] National Institutes of Health, Infrasound, November 2001, http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/htdocs/Chem_Background/ExSumPdf/Infrasound.pdf