Wind Power: Questionable Benefits, Concealed Impacts

By Paul Driessen Created: March 12, 2011 Last Updated: April 12, 2012
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GREEN: Visitors looks at the wind turbines at Delabole Wind Farm on Feb. 22, in Truro, England. Wind Power has not so green side effects, Paul Driessen writes. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

GREEN: Visitors looks at the wind turbines at Delabole Wind Farm on Feb. 22, in Truro, England. Wind Power has not so green side effects, Paul Driessen writes. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

America is running out of natural gas. Prices will soar, making imported liquefied natural gas (LNG) and T Boone Pickens’ wind farm plan practical, affordable, and inevitable. That was then.

Barely two years later, America (and the world) is tapping vast, previously undreamed-of energy riches—as drillers discover how to produce gas from shale, coal, and tight sandstone formations at a reasonable cost. They do it by pumping a water, sand, and proprietary chemical mixture into rock under very high pressure, fracturing or “fracking” the formations, and keeping the cracks open, to yield trapped methane.

Within a year, U.S. recoverable shale gas reserves alone rose from 340 to 823 trillion cubic feet, the Energy Department estimates. That’s 36 years’ worth, based on what the USA currently consumes from all gas sources, or the equivalent of 74 years’ of current annual U.S. oil production. The reserves span the continent, from Barnett shale in Texas to Marcellus shale in Eastern and Mid-Atlantic states—to large deposits in western Canada, Colorado, North Dakota, Montana, and other states (and around the world).

Instead of importing gas, the United States could become an exporter. The gas can move seamlessly into existing pipeline systems, to fuel homes, factories and electrical generators, serve as a petrochemical feedstock, and replace oil in many applications. States, private citizens, and the federal government could reap billions in lease bonuses, rents, royalties, and taxes. Millions of high-paying jobs could be “created or saved.” Plentiful gas can also provide essential backup power for wind turbines.

Production of this much gas would reduce oil price shocks and dependence on oil imports from the likes of Gadhafi and Chavez, while lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Talk about a game changer!

Green Power

What’s not to like? Plenty, it turns out. The bountiful new supplies make environmentalist dogmas passé: the end of the hydrocarbon era, America as an energy pauper, immutable Club of Rome doctrines of sustainability and imminent resource depletion, the Pickens’ Plan and forests of wind turbines.

What to do? Environmentalists voiced alarm. HBO aired “Gasland,” a film about alleged impacts of fracking on groundwater. Its claims have been roundly debunked.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed a multiple personality disorder. Its Drinking Water Protection Division director told Congress there is not a single documented instance of polluted groundwater due to fracking.

EPA’s Texas office nevertheless insisted that Range Resources was “endangering” a public aquifer and ordered the company to stop drilling immediately and provide clean water to area homes. EPA officials then failed to show up at the hearing or submit a single page of testimony, to support their claims.

Meanwhile, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced plans to conduct a “life-cycle” or “cradle-to-grave” study of hydraulic fracturing drilling and gas production techniques, to assess possible impacts on groundwater and other ecological values. Depending on whether the study is scientific or politicized, it could lead to national, state-by-state, or even city-by-city drilling delays, bans—or booms.

The industry and many states that have long experience with drilling and are confident the needed regulations, practices, and testing procedures are already in place. They voice few worries, except over how long a life-cycle study could take or how political it might become. In fact, it’s a very useful tool.

But if a life-cycle study is warranted for hydraulic fracturing, because drilling might pass through subsurface formations containing fresh water, similar studies are certainly called for elsewhere: wind turbine manufacturing, installation, and operation for instance.

Life-Cycle of Wind Turbines

Turbines require enormous quantities of concrete, steel, copper, fiberglass, and rare earth minerals—all of which involve substantial resource extraction, refining, smelting, manufacturing, and shipping. Land and habitat impacts, rock removal and pulverizing, solid waste disposal, burning fossil fuels, air and water pollution, and carbon dioxide emissions occur on a large scale during every step of the process.

Over 95 percent of global rare earth production occurs in China and Mongolia, using their technology, coal-fired electricity generation facilities and environmental rules. Extracting neodymium, praseodymium, and other rare earths for wind turbine magnets and rotors involves pumping acid down boreholes, to dissolve and retrieve the minerals. Other acids, chemicals, and high heat further process the materials. Millions of tons of toxic waste are generated annually and sent to enormous ponds, rimmed by earthen dams.

Leaks, seepage, and noxious air emissions have killed trees, grasses, and crops and cattle, polluted lakes and streams, and given thousands of people respiratory and intestinal problems, osteoporosis, and cancer.

In 2009, China produced 150,000 tons of rare earth metals—and over 15,000,000 tons of waste. To double current global installed wind capacity, and produce rare earths for photovoltaic solar panels and hybrid and electric cars, China will have to increase those totals significantly—unless Molycorp and other companies can rejuvenate rare earth production in the United States and elsewhere, using more modern methods.

Made in China turbines are shipped to the USA, trucked to their final destinations, and installed on huge concrete platforms; new backup gas generating plants are built; and hundreds of miles of new transmission lines are constructed. That means still more steel, copper, concrete, fuel, and land. Moreover, the backup power plants generate more pollution and carbon dioxide than if they could simply run at full capacity, because as backups for turbines they must operate constantly but ramp up to full power, and back down, numerous times daily, in response to shifting wind speeds.

Wind farms require roads and 700–1,000 ton concrete-and-rebar foundations, which affect water drainage patterns in farm country. The 300–500-foot-tall turbines affect scenery, interfere with or prevent crop dusting over hundreds of acres, and kill countless birds and bats. Farmers who lease their land for wind turbines receive substantial royalty payments; neighbors are impacted, but receive no compensation.

Despite these ecological costs, wind farm projects are often fast-tracked through NEPA and other environmental review processes, and are exempted from endangered species and migratory bird laws that can result in multimillion-dollar fines for oil, gas, and coal operators, for a fraction of the carnage.

Perhaps worst, all this is supported generously by renewable energy mandates, tax breaks, feed-in tariffs, “prioritized loading orders,” and other subsidies, courtesy of state and federal governments and taxpayers. In fact, wind power gets 90 times more in federal subsidies than do coal and natural gas, per megawatt-hour of electricity actually generated, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. And wind-based electricity costs consumers several times more per kilowatt-hour than far more reliable electricity from coal, gas, and nuclear power plants.

Simply put, the wind might be free, when it blows. But the rest of the “renewable, green, eco-friendly” wind energy system is anything but.

It might be far better all around to simply build the most efficient, lowest-polluting coal, gas, and nuclear generating plants possible, let them run at full capacity 24/7/365—and just skip the wind power.

Life-cycle studies would be a positive development—for all energy sources. In fact …

“Think globally, act locally” might be a very good motto for EPA and wind energy advocates.

Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, and Congress of Racial Equality. Libery Features Syndicate,


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