May 22, 2011

The great green wind scam

Not only will large-scale wind power blight Maine, but it won't lower emissions or reduce our oil dependence.

By JONATHAN CARTER

Mountaintop industrial wind development in Maine is both an ecological disaster and economic boondoggle. The mountaintop wind developers, or as I like to call them, "the mountain slayers and profiteers," are foisting upon the state an Enron-esque scam. This house of cards will collapse. The only questions are, when, how much damage will have occurred, and how many billions of dollars of stranded costs will the ratepayers and taxpayers have to pick up?

From an ecological perspective there is absolutely no way one can defend mountaintop industrial wind development.

Blasting and mountaintop leveling cause irreversible damage to soils, hydrological flows and the unique assemblages of plants and animal. Thousands of bats and birds will be killed and many species of wildlife, including bear, moose and deer, will be forced to flee from the massive ground vibrations and the pulsating of high- and low-frequency noise.

If, as envisioned by the state, 360 miles of mountaintop industrial wind structures are built (resulting in 50,000 acres of clearcut), the visual pollution of 400-foot towers with flashing lights, and the accompanying noise pollution, will penetrate thousands of square miles of the Maine wild lands. It would completely alter the bucolic nature of the quiet Maine countryside.

The biggest fraud being perpetrated by the mountain slayers and profiteers is that mountaintop industrial wind will somehow reduce our dependence on foreign oil and somehow result in lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Three years ago, before I started to examine the science around mountaintop industrial wind, I would have wholeheartedly agreed -- but the facts are the facts.

Mountaintop industrial wind use will not reduce our consumption of oil and will not reduce green house gas emissions. Only 1 percent of the electricity in the United States is produced by oil. In Maine we have two oil-fired electric power plants, which, because of the high expense, are only used when peak demand outstrips supply.

Three separate studies have now documented that industrial wind does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It is a simple concept to understand. Since wind energy is intermittent and unreliable, it cannot be counted on, and thus requires backup fossil fuel power availability.

When the wind blows, a fossil fuel plant has to be turned down or off. When the wind stops blowing (which can vary on a minute-to-minute basis), the power source has to be ramped up again. It is analogous to driving in stop-and-go traffic -- more fuel is consumed and greater amounts of carbon are emitted.

Yet the American Wind Energy Association (a lobbying group paid for by the wind developers) still is trying to paint industrial wind as a "green" renewable energy. This is analogous to the tobacco companies for years telling us that cigarette smoking is not hazardous to our health. And, like the tobacco companies, the wind industry has its paid-for scientists and environmental groups promoting its mantra.

If the ecological disaster of mountaintop industrial wind development is not enough to convince people to say no, then just consider the economic impacts.

Wind development would not even be a dream if it were not for the massive federal subsidies -- your tax dollars. If Maine constructs 360 miles of mountaintop industrial wind towers, $5 billion of your money will be placed in the bank accounts of the wind developers.

Currently, a wind developer can get 30 percent of a project's cost upfront from the U.S. Treasury. This does not include the loan guarantees, accelerated depreciation and potential production tax credits. While wind developers like to point out that they get a significantly smaller piece of the total energy subsidy pie than other energy projects, the fact remains that on a per-megawatt-produced basis, wind subsidies are 12 to 20 times greater. (Wind is subsidized at $23 per megawatt -- the next nearest subsidy is nuclear at $1.59 per megawatt).

The bottom line is that mountaintop industrial wind energy is two to three times more expensive than conventional sources. If you add the cost of the necessary new transmission lines and associated facilities, the price differential gets even bigger.

Why would it be in Maine's interest to destroy our mountaintops to create energy that is three times more expensive and will undoubtedly raise our electric rates? This becomes even more absurd when one considers that Maine already has a surplus of energy -- yes, we are a net exporter.

The Maine wind developers like to talk about the contribution of about $800 million spent to date on industrial wind in Maine. What they fail to mention is that most of this money was provided by federal government subsidies -- our tax dollars.

In addition, the bulk of the $800 million paid for turbines that were manufactured in foreign countries.

In truth, the economic benefit to Maine thus far has been small -- only a few hundred temporary construction jobs. The irony is that once these projects are completed, they create very few permanent jobs.

The increased cost to ratepayers and taxpayers for a small number of temporary construction jobs is many times more than the wages paid by the developers for these jobs.

So how do these developers get away with bilking billions of our tax dollars to generate wind energy by destroying our mountaintops with industrial turbines, which in the long run are going to significantly raise our energy costs? This is a con job and a scam.

By any measure, mountaintop industrial wind use is uneconomical. It will not only raise electric rates (which is terrible for business), it will also have the unintended consequence of undermining Maine's most reliable and profitable industries -- tourism and recreation. It is our "quality of place" that brings 34 million visitors each year. It is our quality of place that generates $10 billion in sales each year. Our quality of place is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

If we destroy the golden egg, our competitive advantage will disappear and folks will no longer want to come to "Vacationland," where every mountain has monstrous 400-foot towers with flashing lights. They might as well stay home in New Jersey.

Another unintended consequence of mountaintop industrial wind development is its impact on property values.

Recent nationwide studies have documented that property values plummet 20 percent to 40 percent within a two-mile radius of industrial wind turbines. There are already scores of folks in Maine who, because of the noise and visual pollution of wind turbines, would like to sell and move. However, most of these folks are stuck because nobody wants to buy their property.

How can we let these profiteers do this to Maine families?

In the final analysis, this house of cards the wind developers have built is going to come crashing down -- but not because these folks have seen the light, become less greedy and developed an ecological conscience.

Yes, like Enron, mountaintop industrial wind development is based on a pyramid scheme that is unsustainable. Industrial wind not only is unreliable, but the cost, even with the huge subsidies, cannot compete with the cost of natural gas.

At $4 per million BTUs, natural gas costs would have to more than double to become more expensive than mountaintop industrial wind, with its $6.65 per million BTU subsidy. Switching to natural gas on a national scale -- replacing coal -- would have the added advantage of reducing electricity generation-related greenhouse gases by as much as 75 percent.

In conclusion, I want to make it clear that I believe strongly that we need to move away from fossil fuels. We need to pursue renewables -- residential/community wind and solar, geothermal, micro-hydro, etc. Energy conservation and efficiency should be our top priority.

Unfortunately, intermittent and non-storable mountaintop industrial wind power is not the answer.

It is not the benign "green" industry some would like to have you believe.

The environmental damage to this place we love and call Maine will be catastrophic. It will significantly raise our electric rates, which will stifle business development and drain dollars out of the pockets of Mainers. It will reduce tourism and recreation revenue as well as strip Mainers of wealth through reduced property values.

The gold rush of wind developers, feeding at the trough of federal and state subsidies, must be stopped before Maine is transformed from a wild and bucolic paradise to an industrial wind wasteland.

Jonathan Carter is director of the Forest Ecology Network.

 

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