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Wind Energy: Not Green. Not Clean

by Michael Costello
Lewiston Tribune, March 20, 2010

I have bad news for all you sanctimonious, Prius-driving, organic-hemp grocery store tote bag-hauling environmentalists. Those wind turbines that blight eastern Washington's landscape are not reducing your carbon footprint at all. According to an investigative report by Portland, Ore., television station KVAL, those windmills are actually increasing the Northwest's carbon emissions. And that Washington Initiative 937 you greenies voted for a few years ago - it isn't going to work.

Initiative 937 was passed by Washingtonians a couple of years ago and pretty much mandated that Washington derive 15 percent of all energy from wind and solar by 2020. That's going to be problematic for at least a couple of reasons, both having to do with the realities of wind power.

Wind energy has been touted for years as a safe, carbon dioxide-neutral source of free electricity. The government at the state and federal levels has poured billions of dollars of subsidies into wind turbines, claiming that they would reduce carbon emissions and someday liberate us from dependence upon foreign oil. It's all touchy-feely nonsense. And in the Northwest at least, our carbon footprint is increased by wind turbines.

The problem with wind power is that you need wind. And the wind does not blow all the time and it certainly does not synchronize with episodes of our greatest demand. During the period of peak demand in the Midwest during 2008, wind farms were generating electrical power at only 2 percent of capacity.

So in order to have wind power, we need a backup source of energy. In the Northwest, our backup source is hydroelectric. When the wind blows and the turbines generate power, we generate less electricity from our dams. That doesn't stop the rivers from flowing. It just means that we capture less of it for generating electricity.

"So when the wind blows, the dams stop generating electricity, and when the wind stops, the dams continue to generate electricity," said Todd Wynn of the Cascade Policy Institute. "So, in fact, wind power is just offsetting another renewable energy source. It's not necessarily offsetting any fossil fuel generation."

According to the Bonneville Power Administration, wind power does not reduce carbon emissions at all and probably increases net carbon dioxide production. And that's because building windmills requires the simultaneous construction of backup power sources and most of these are fueled by coal, oil or natural gas. And these backup sources cannot simply be turned on or off as needed, but need to be left idling so that they can be revved up quickly when the wind falls off. The technical term for these idling fossil fuel-powered generators is "spinning reserve." We Northwesterners are now just about out of hydroelectric spinning reserve and will soon have to start pairing our windmills with fossil fuel-burning spinning reserve unless we want to start experiencing brown outs and blackouts.

Another study done recently suggests that this might hit the psyches of our greenies pretty hard. According to Canadian psychologists Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong, publishing their results in the journal Psychological Science, people who imagine themselves as morally superior for their environmental attitudes are less ethical than the average person. The authors found that when environmentalists strut into their local organic food store with their reusable shopping bags, they believe that this moral exhibitionism licenses "selfish and morally questionable behavior." In the psychological trade this is known as "moral balancing" or "compensatory ethics."

According to The Guardian: "The pair found that those in their study who bought green products appeared less willing to share with others a set amount of money than those who bought conventional products. When the green consumers were given the chance to boost their money by cheating on a computer game and then given the opportunity to lie about it - in other words, steal - they did, while the conventional consumers did not. Later, in an honor system in which participants were asked to take money from an envelope to pay themselves their spoils, the greens were six times more likely to steal than the conventionals."

For many Americans, plastering the back of their Prius with environmentally sanctimonious bumper stickers is all the morality they need.

So what will these poor souls do when they learn that their treasured windmills have a carbon footprint? My guess is that they'll slap on another couple of bumper stickers, then go back to their cheating, lying ways.

Michael Costello is a research technician at Washington State University.
Wind Energy: Not Green. Not Clean
Lewiston Tribune, March 20, 2010

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