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Blowin’ in the Wind: Debate swirls around wind energy

Wind TurbineThe United States has enough wind energy potential to provide twice as much energy than we currently use. Yet last year, wind farms delivered only one percent of our energy use. Data from the Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Lab show that wind could completely replace mountaintop removal mining and lead the Southern Appalachians into a more sustainable energy future. Rorry McIlmoil of Coal River Mountain Watch believes that wind energy can completely rejuvenate his home state of West Virginia, which has already lost 470 mountains and 1,200 miles of streams to mountaintop mining. But wind energy opponents, led by John Stroud of Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy, argue that wind is a false hope with more hidden environmental costs than benefits, and energy conservation is a more important first step.

McIlmoil and Stroud—two leading voices in the wind energy debate—face off on the future of wind power in West Virginia, where several wind farms are already under construction.

Wind Energy Works

Wind power can generate a significant portion of our electricity needs, and compared to coal power, it has far greater benefits to our health, environment, and economy. If we want a healthier and more  economically sustainable future, we should all be supporting wind power and ending our dependence on coal.

The end of coal may be sooner than we think. West Virginia congressman Nick Rahall says that the most productive coal seams may be mined out within 15 years. Federal studies show that coal production in Central Appalachia can be maintained at current levels for one to two decades. West Virginia already experienced Peak Coal, as indicated by labor productivity measures, about ten years ago. Even a dramatic shift to surface mining failed to improve productivity, suggesting that even the thinnest of the remaining coal seams are getting even thinner and more costly to produce.

This bodes ill for electricity prices, which are already skyrocketing. Appalachian Power recently requested a rate increase to 11.1 cents per kilowatt-hour for West Virginia residents by 2011 to recover costs related to the rising price of coal. If that increase is granted, it would make wind power cheaper than coal-fired power, and there is no reason to expect that the price of coal will decline anytime in the future. So, if it’s cost stability for electricity we’re looking for, we should be supporting wind.

One popular myth spouted by wind energy opponents is that wind power would hardly put a dent in our consumption of coal, and that we would just end up destroying beautiful mountain vistas. This simply is not true. A study conducted for the West Virginia Division of Energy in 2002 showed that wind energy in West Virginia could provide enough energy to supply the state with 95 percent of the electricity consumed each year, and 33 percent of all electricity generated by power plants in the state. This would require a total of 1,915 wind turbines, which in turn would require a total development of 400 acres of mountain ridgeline with wind turbines—less than a single mountaintop removal mining site. All told, wind energy would require 12 mountains the size of Coal River Mountain with comparable wind resources.

Currently, West Virginia burns over 30 million tons of coal each year to generate 97.8 percent of its electricity, and in the process releases nearly 100 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Millions more are released during the extraction, transportation, and processing of the coal. West Virginia is one of the biggest emitters of carbon in the nation. We blow up mountains, foul rivers, destroy whole ecosystems and communities, and endanger the health and lives of our citizens…for coal.

Developing West Virginia’s wind power would prevent 35 million tons of carbon from being released each year, and over 12 million tons of coal from being extracted. That would amount to a reduced demand of five million tons of mountaintop removal coal annually, resulting in a good number of mountains being saved from mountaintop removal mining.

Wind power doesn’t destroy mountains, pollute our water, or degrade our communities. It provides lasting, safe jobs in the construction and maintenance of the wind turbines. If we make a concerted effort, we could develop all 15,600 megawatts of wind energy in West Virginia within about 30 years, but we’ll have to develop it even faster than that in order to ensure an available energy source for when the coal runs out.

The benefits of wind power extend far beyond just the replacement of mining. They will also replace the burning of coal for electricity, which comes with its own health and environmental issues. Overall, and hands-down, wind power is the greater environmental and social choice for energy production, and by supporting it, we are supporting the preservation of the remaining lands and waters that have yet to be impacted by the mining or the burning of coal.

Rory McIlmoil coordinated the Appalachian Voices wind power campaign.

Wind Energy Blows

Wind turbines destroy rural America, wilderness, bats and birds, and wildlife habitat on a grand scale. They also destroy the tourism industry, real estate values, and the home building industry. Wind turbines deface our highest and most scenic mountains, and they will not produce a meaningful amount of electricity or reduce our carbon output.

I oppose Big Wind because it doesn’t deliver what it promises. Wind energy is not reliable. Wind blows at the right speeds to produce electricity only 30% of the time. So wind must always be backed up by fossil fuel plants.

In Germany, a world leader in wind generation, 92 percent of wind turbines are backed up with fossil fuel plants. When the wind starts blowing, and the wind turbines start producing electricity, the coal-fired power plant keeps burning coal at the same rate because they cannot be readily ramped up and down without damaging the furnaces. Also, the wind might die down any minute, leading to a blackout if the backup is firing full-tilt. The coal plants just keep burning coal and dump the heat. If they do ramp down the coal-fired furnaces, they burn less efficiently and actually produce more carbon than they would if the wind turbines were not operating. If we build enough of these so-called wind farms, we will be in the situation that Germany finds itself today, where they have to build more fossil fuel plants just to back up their wind generation.

Wind generation is not a long-term solution for mountaintop removal. Instead, I support efforts to reduce the use of coal to save our mountains.
Wind energy will not do that. It only adds to the destruction.

So why are we building wind turbines as fast as the government can shovel our money out the door? Follow the money. The takeover of wind energy by big business has shifted the focus of our power system from reliability to profitability, and shifted the management of our power system from electrical engineers to investment bankers—and their lobbyists and politicians. Billions have been invested in useless wind turbines, while our national electricity infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate.

Even if industrial-sized wind turbines did work, I would oppose them. Do we really want to litter our highest ridges with thousands of 500-foot tall spinning structures, all so we can have a TV in every room of the house, or an extra microwave in the den?

Wind turbines perpetuate the extractive economies that have historically kept areas like West Virginia essentially poor. The vast majority of the benefits leave the state, and the local residents are left with a degraded environment, loss of property values, and negative health effects of living too close to wind turbines.

There is also a real danger to the state’s tourist business as the numbers of wind turbines increase. The turbines will replace the mountains as the dominant feature of the valley. Our highest mountains and some of the grandest scenery remaining in the state lies along the eastern highlands where coal is not present (and because coal is not present). The wind industry has set its sights on devouring these ridges.

And then there is the jobs issue. The wind farm in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, will employ 200 workers for about 12 months to put up 124 turbines. The majority of these will be out-of-state setup crews. Upon completion of construction, there will be at best six to eight permanent jobs.

Opponents of wind energy are often accused of being NIMBYs—not in my back yard. But the real NIMBYs are the urban folks who do not care about whose backyard they ruin just so long as they can continue to live their energy-intensive lifestyle. Wind energy makes us feel okay about the amount of energy we use because now it is supposedly “clean” and “green,” when in reality it is neither. It keeps us from having to make the serious energy choices related to our lifestyles. •

John Stroud is the co-chairman of Mountain Communities for Responsible Energy.

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