Some people think wind turbines are lovely. They possess purity of function, simple geometric shapes that signal, with each slow rotation, the vast invisible energy all around us.
Not everyone shares this appreciation. To some, the great fans are a blight on the landscape; they are noisy, a source of incessant movement. Some even suspect they radiate harmful energy.
Intense opposition to the proposed Pretty Prairie Wind Farm in southeast Reno County is unsurprising. It has given rise to hostility and suspicion. Some of this is understandable, some is deserved.
At the core of the controversy is an inconvenient truth: our appetite for energy is boundless. Energy is opportunity and when it is available, it is consumed quickly. All organisms, whether plant or animal, neglecting opportunity quickly became extinct.
Until humans discovered highly dense energy – first coal, then oil – they didn’t gain much traction. Current estimates are that 2,000 years ago – about 10,000 years after agriculture was invented – Earth’s human population was around 300 million. By the Middle Ages it was roughly 750 million. Coal emerged as the chief energy source in the 1700s, and the first commercial oil well in the United States was drilled in 1879.
By 1900, Earth’s population was 1.7 billion. It has now passed 7.5 billion. The discovery of incredibly cheap, dense energy made this possible. Producing this energy, much of it in the past century, suddenly released carbon that had been removed from the atmosphere over millions of years. It was humans’ bad luck that atmospheric carbon affects the rate at which Earth’s heat dissipates into space.
And so here we are: addicted to staggering quantities of energy, with carbon emissions from energy use that keep climbing (by more than 10 percent since 2010) and atmospheric carbon levels that are 30 percent higher than ever seen in the past one million years.
Hence wind farms.
They are making a difference. As this is being written, strong winds are blowing in the central United States, and half the power put onto the central grid comes from wind farms (coal- and gas-fired power plants are contributing less than 40 percent). It is estimated that last year, wind farms for the first time generated more energy in Kansas than coal-fired power plants.
Some critics argue that the push for renewable energy in the United States is futile because carbon emissions from other nations are growing. China’s carbon emissions passed those of the United States in 2006 and now are double.
But it’s also true that per capita carbon emissions in China are less than half those in the U.S. And because carbon remains in the atmosphere for centuries, aggregate emissions matter – so far the United States has pumped twice as much carbon into the atmosphere as China.
This is not the time to abandon efforts to wean ourselves from fossil-based energy. Instead, it’s a good time to examine how we get it done.
Contrary to popular belief, studies show that wind has become the cheapest source of energy. Even without subsidies, it is cheaper than a fully depreciated coal-fired plant. This analysis does not factor in the societal cost of pumping more carbon into the atmosphere.
But at the same time, the total costs of implementing wind must also be counted.
The old question, whether a tree falling in the wood makes a sound if no one hears it, now has a cousin: Are wind turbines a blight on the landscape if nobody sees them?
Probably not. The corollary is, they are a blight to some citizens in populated areas. Compensation goes only to the owners of the land on which the turbines are built. That’s not fair to everyone else who happens upon them.
If wind developers were required to compensate communities, based on the density of surrounding population, development would be steered toward less populated areas.
Some might find functioning wind farms pleasing, but surely everyone agrees abandoned turbines are a ghastly sight. The logistics and cost of removing these behemoths – some in Kansas are nearly as tall as the St. Louis Arch – are formidable. Wind developers promise to remove them when they are no longer used, but promises are worthless if a developer is insolvent. How can we be certain there will be money to remove lifeless turbines in 30 or 50 years?
Here’s how – require the developer to put money into an escrow. The state should have the authority to demand and enforce that.
Another hurdle is the odious strategy by wind developers to rely on confidentiality clauses, even gag orders. Counties entertaining wind farm proposals should demand that all contract language be revealed during the application process. The public interest is never served by secrecy.
Wind farms can be – ought to be – in the public interest.