Nader Blows Hot Air
By Dr. Sallie Baliunas 01/08/2002

Energy is an essential economic and national security asset, a fact placed in stark relief after the cruel terrorist war on America began Sept 11, 2001.

But as important as energy policy is to the future of America's economy and safety, policy discussions through the 1990s were thrall to optimistic but unworkable ideas on energy resources. While these ideas may have been good politics, they are based on bad science and obscure important national security concerns.

Blowin' in the Wind

One example is the notion that a significant amount of energy or electricity can be supplied in America by wind power. In a recent article, Ralph Nader states that at present it is technologically feasible to generate 20% of America's electricity needs with wind power.

Now, wind power has its virtues. In rural areas where wind is sufficient, wind towers can pump water, or even supply, through local generators, some energy to run ranches or farms. There are areas of the country where the wind blows strongly enough, often enough, to be collected by a string of wind towers that can help power a small community.

And wind power has charmed environmental activists, especially those set against fossil fuel and nuclear sources of energy, which together supply over 92% of America's energy. The activists argue for wind towers, which seem to collect energy as freely as the breezes blowing by, with no residue like carbon dioxide emission and spent nuclear fuel rods.

But how realistic is a figure like 20% for wind power as a source of America's electricity needs, even in the next 20 years?

Not very, according to the Energy Information Administration of the Department of Energy. The EIA reports that wind met a dismal 0.12% of U. S. electricity consumption in 1999. And the EIA's equally gloomy projection is that although by 2020 wind power will double, it will supply a mere 0.25% of U. S. electricity needs. That is a factor of 200 less than the forecasts of those embracing the wind.

The technology of wind towers has improved in the last decades to the point where wind towers can operate near their theoretical efficiency limits. Why not just plant millions of wind towers, collect all this free energy, and liberate America from fossil and nuclear fuels?

Here the hard facts of science rub raw the breezy optimism. First, wind is not a reliable source of energy because wind blows intermittently. Second, wind power is diluted, meaning it must be collected over a vast landscape.

Besides being an unreliable source of power, the variable speed of wind is another damper on the amount of power a wind tower can deliver. Typically towers are tuned to operate optimally at wind speeds of about 30 miles per hour. At somewhat higher speeds, towers must shut down or risk damage to the moving components. At lower speeds, the power yield decreases as wind speed slows, by the cube of the velocity. In other words, compared to wind blowing steadily at 30 miles per hour, winds of 10 miles per hour produce a sharp drop in power to just under 4%. The intermittency of winds even in the best location means that wind towers produce peak power only around 20 - 30% of the time.

Big Footprints

Apart from wind's variability, the diluteness of wind power means that wind farms must have hundreds of towers, spaced over many square miles in pristine, isolated locations with appropriate meteorological conditions to approach the power generated by a conventional coal plant. The largest planned wind farm, to open in 2002 on King Mountain in Texas, has a peak capacity (that is, if the wind were to blow at optimal speeds 24 hours per day, which it will not, neither there or anywhere else in the United States) of under 300 Megawatts.

Because wind towers must avoid each other's slipstream to effectively collect power, they must be spaced far apart. A hypothetical wind farm of 1000 Megawatts, discounted for wind's intermittency, would extend, according to EPA figures, over some 400 square miles. That contrasts with a typical 1000-Megawatt coal plant that may extend over tens of acres of land.

It's ironic that environmentalists who fret about the footprint that oil-drilling facilities would leave in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge don't seem to care about the enormous footprints of wind farms.

Besides their enormous footprint on the land, there are other concerns about wind towers. One is their noise, so the towers must be sited in isolated locations. Another is the impact of support services to make a farm that would produce a significant amount of power, for example, comparable to the amount that a more compact coal plants supplies. Roads to build and service the towers, plus high-voltage transmission lines, must be constructed and maintained to deliver power from the wind farm to distributed customers. Without such support facilities -- and their significant environmental imprint -- wind energy is not retrievable, no matter how optimally the wind blows.

There is also aesthetic blight on pristine locations. The ungainly towers are 200 to 300 feet tall, with blades cutting circular swaths roughly 100 to 200 feet in diameter. The King Mountain farm will have 214 turbines. A facility that could generate enough power to replace a typical coal plant would require upwards of 2,000 towers.

"Condor Cuisinarts"

Not least of our concerns should be the impact of the invisibly whirling blades on birds. Raptors are vulnerable to blade collision. When Enron Corporation considered a wind power facility in the Tehachapi Mountains north Los Angeles, the National Audubon Society stated to the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce,
"It is hard to imagine a worse idea than putting a condor Cuisinart next door to critical condor habitat." Condors went all but extinct in California, and efforts have been underway for about 20 years to increase their population. Condors have been seen near Tehachapi. So rare are the condors that staff working at Mount Wilson Observatory just north of Los Angeles gazed at first with perplexity, then with awe, when a pair, swaddled with electronic gear and antennae to monitor their journey, perched on the stately 150-foot Solar Tower Telescope several years ago. Because rare and endangered species exist, their risk by wind towers will have to be assessed on a site-by-site basis.

Finally there is the politics of wind power. According to the group Energy Market & Policy Analysis in Virginia, the low, effective power output, huge environmental imprint and generous governmental mandates and financial incentives of wind farms benefit primarily the wind farm developers, at the expense of taxpayers and electric utility ratepayers. These hidden taxes skew the true value of wind power - as a boutique source of small-scale power production in a few, limited locations.

Given fair market forces and the undemocratic facts of science, wind power seems unable to supply reliable and significant power for the U. S. and its economic growth. While bloviating about wind power makes good politics, it is poor energy policy.

Dr. Baliunas is Deputy Director at Mount Wilson Observatory, co-host of, Senior Scientist at the George C. Marshall Institute and astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The remarks herein are personal views and imply no institutional endorsement by any of her affiliations.

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