Why Wind Power Isn’t the Answer: As a new study confirms, turbines would have to be stacked across state-sized swaths of the American landscape.
October 30, 2018 | Robert Bryce | City Journal
On October 8, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report warning that nations around the world must cut their greenhouse-gas emissions drastically to reduce the possibility of catastrophic climate change. The report emphasizes “fast deployment of renewables like solar and wind” and largely ignores the essential role nuclear energy must play in any decarbonization effort.
Four days earlier, to much less fanfare, two Harvard researchers published a paper showing that trying to fuel our energy-intensive society solely with renewables would require cartoonish amounts of land. How cartoonish? Consider: meeting America’s current demand for electricity alone—not including gasoline or jet fuel, or the natural gas required for things like space heating and fertilizer production—would require covering a territory twice the size of California with wind turbines.
The IPCC and climate-change activists love solar and wind energy, and far-left politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have called for a wartime-style national mobilization to convert to 100 percent renewable-energy usage. But this credo ignores a fundamental truth: energy policy and land-use policy are inextricable.
The study looks at 2016 energy-production data from 1,150 solar projects and 411 onshore wind projects. The combined capacity of the wind projects totaled 43,000 megawatts, or roughly half of all U.S. wind capacity that year. Miller and Keith concluded that solar panels produce about 10 times more energy per unit of land as wind turbines—a significant finding—but their work demands attention for two other reasons: first, it uses real-world data, not models, to reach its conclusions, and second, it shows that wind energy’s power density is far lower than the Department of Energy, the IPCC, and numerous academics have claimed.
Further: “While improved wind turbine design and siting have increased capacity factors (and greatly reduced costs), they have not altered power densities.” In other words, though Big Wind has increased the size and efficiency of turbines—the latest models stand more than 700 feet tall—it hasn’t been able to wring more energy out of the wind. Due to the wind-shadow effect, those taller turbines must be placed farther and farther apart, which means that the giant turbines cover more land. As turbines get taller and sprawl across the landscape, more people see them.
Rural residents are objecting to wind projects because they want to protect their property values and viewsheds. They don’t want to see the red-blinking lights atop those massive turbines, all night, every night, for the rest of their lives. Nor do they want to be subjected to the health-damaging noise—both audible and inaudible—that the turbines produce.
Why the hardball tactics? Simple: rural residents stand between Big Wind and tens of billions of dollars in subsidies available through the Production Tax Credit. In September, Lisa Linowes, cofounder and executive director of the Industrial Wind Action Group, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit that tracks the wind industry, published an article on MasterResource.org. “The US Treasury estimates the PTC will cost taxpayers $40.12 billion in the period from 2018 to 2027,” Linowes wrote, “making it, by far, the most expensive energy subsidy under current tax law.”
The punchline here is obvious: wind energy has been sold as a great source of “clean” energy. The reality is that wind energy’s expansion has been driven by federal subsidies and state-level mandates. Wind energy, cannot, and will not, meet a significant portion of our future energy needs because it requires too much land.
Miller and Keith’s paper shows that the ongoing push for 100-percent renewables, and, in particular, the idea that wind energy is going to be a major contributor to that goal, is not just wrongheaded—it’s an energy dead end.