Some “green energy” reminds us of leprechauns

Wind power, New England’s prime renewable resource, remains a favorite of “green energy” enthusiasts–as long as it isn’t harvested in Brookline. If it were, Brookline would likely sprout a crop of environmentalists with outlooks different from ones we often hear now. That has already happened in several Massachusetts towns hosting wind turbines, from Falmouth and Kingston in the southeast to Princeton and Florida in the northwest.

Today’s giant machines are much more intrusive than farm windmills that once dotted the countryside in days before rural electricity and small wind turbines that began to appear more than 30 years ago in California and several European countries. As tall as 50-story office towers, their huge moving parts weigh many tons.

According to German standards, safety and health require about a mile between residents and giant wind turbines. New England standards, requiring far less, were often proposed by the wind-power industry; they tend to favor its interests. Their failures to protect nearby residents from health problems and life disturbances, caused by turbine noise and flicker, have resulted in trenchant protests.

When Falmouth and Kingston, MA, tried skimping on distances for just a few giant turbines, they drew lawsuits from angry residents; some Falmouth operations have been curtailed. Another bitter dispute over turbine noise has been reported in Vinalhaven, ME. Opposition movements in western Massachusetts aim to block any more wind turbines in the Berkshire region. That is where the only two sizable wind-power plants in Massachusetts are located, with a total of 29 giant turbines, and where the state’s strongest land-based winds are found.

Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont now have a total of 334 giant wind turbines, producing around 90 percent of New England’s wind-powered electricity. The former enthusiasm for wind power in those states has faded. Instead, dozens of local protest groups and regional organizations have sprung up, opposing wind power and trying to curtail current wind-power plants. Town after town has enacted laws restricting wind turbines.

Wind energy is often regarded as far “cleaner” than electricity generated with fossil fuels. However, the difference turns out to be more apparent than real. The key problem is that in most places the wind doesn’t blow all the time, while electricity customers expect their lights to stay lit. To make sure that happens, electricity grids keep wind-backup generators running–enough to replace a substantial fraction of power being generated by wind turbines.

Ramping up and down, backup generators other than hydro and nuclear will produce higher emissions than achieved with sustained generation and release emissions when not generating. The extra emissions from fuel burned to maintain wind backup are rarely tallied. When they have been, wind-powered electricity looks little cleaner than electricity generated using combined-cycle natural gas.

In New England, wind remains a tiny part of the energy supply, despite hoopla from the Patrick administration in Massachusetts and the Shumlin administration in Vermont. For 2012, the latest year in federal data, wind provided just over 1 percent of New England generation. For the entire U.S., wind provided 3-1/2 percent that year. Preliminary data show U.S. growth to over 4 percent in 2013 and higher growth in New England–owing to a bumper crop of new turbines commissioned in 2012 that was followed by a market crash in 2013.

Overall, wind power has failed to make much progress toward a socially responsible source of energy for New England. Manufacturers opted to develop giant, noisy turbines costing millions of dollars each–rather than building less expensive versions of small, quiet ones. That approach made wind power into a game of money and politics, mostly run by and for a few big companies. The intrusive, costly machines have turned thoughtful environmentalists who might have been supporters into opponents.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, April 8, 2014

Robert Bryce, New study takes the wind out of wind energy, Forbes, July 19, 2011

Net generation by state by type of producer by energy, U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2013

Net generation by energy source, U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2014

George Taylor and Thomas Tanton, Hidden costs of wind electricity, American Tradition Institute, 2012

Will Boisvert, Green energy bust in Germany, Dissent, August, 2013

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