11 May 2006

Windbags on the Cape

If anyone should understand the value of a willingness to compromise, it should be a member of Congress. And yet, an all-or-nothing attitude seems to have taken hold of a growing number of Massachusetts congressmen who can't bring themselves to admit that finding a way out of our reliance on fossil fuels will require some kind of environmental trade-off.

How else to explain their opposition to the first serious attempt to bring wind power to the East Coast of the United States? Even politicians should know that the laws of thermodynamics dictate that there is no free lunch. Wind power is no exception. I don't mean the infinitesimal loss of heat energy that wind turbines extract from atmospheric circulation, but the more tangible physical and aesthetic tolls that comes with any industrial installation.

The people behind Cape Wind want to build the country's first offshore wind farm, and they want to due it on Horseshoe Shoal in the middle of Nantucket Sound, which is between the former whaling capital of Nantucket Island and sandy shores of Cape Cod. The environmental concerns raised by the project are minimal. If anything, the 130 support pylons will serve as a sort of vertical reef habitat for scores of species of invertebrates and the fish that dine on them. But that's not what the opponents are worried about.

What Sen. Ted Kennedy and the other opponents, now including Reps. William Delahunt, Barney Frank, Edward Markey and Richard Neal, object to is the damage the turbines will do to the view from shore, much of which is dominated by multimillion-dollar summer homes of captains of industry and other members of the demographic stratum to which the Kennedy clan belong.

Sen. John Kerry, it seems, is undecided. Surprise. According to the Associated Press, "Rep. Michael Capuano, is a probable 'yes' vote. The rest of the 10-member House delegation [from Massachusetts) was either undecided or refused comment."

When you consider that the turbines will be little more than a tiny spec on the horizon, as seen from the decks of the well-to-do back on the Cape, the visual-blot argument is a little hard to swallow. I've lived on the Cape and can personally attest to the minimal impact those windmills would have, even if they were half again as close to shore as the current plan calls for. Most days in the summer, sea mist makes anything more a mile or two from shore invisible.

There's talk that Kennedy managed to get Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens to side with him in some sort of back-room deal over national energy policy, but we'll probably never know the score on that level.

What we do know is that even wind turbines come with an environmental price. But it's not a very high price, relative to just about every other option. The most recent scientific study I could find on the subject is "The effects of wind turbines on antipredator behavior in California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi)" (Biological Conservation, DOI:10.1016/j.biocon.2006.02.016). The researchers found a higher incidence of cautionary antipredator tactics, such as returning to the area near their burrows, among squirrels close to turbines. They conclude that:
Though population level impacts of these behavioral differences remain to be explored, our results indicate that behavioral impacts of turbines on wildlife should be considered during future turbine development.
Not exactly the most revolutionary, or worrying finding. New Scientist has a short item on the study here for those without journal access.

Other studies have show more consequential effects on birds, which have been known to be dissected as they fly through the turning radius of smaller turbine blades. But bigger turbines pose less of a threat and the emerging consensus is that wind farms don't cause significantly more bird deaths that other large industrial installations. For example,
...design innovations such as slower-moving blades and fewer perching spots have made collisions less likely, said Janet Larsen, director of research at the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington nonprofit group dedicated to building an environmentally sustainable economy. Birders were jumping to conclusions about future projects because of old history, she said. Bird death "is not as valid a concern as it once was. It's a knee-jerk reaction."
The knee-jerk opposition to windfarms is not restricted to Congress, of course. Just about everywhere someone wants to build windmills, the NIMBY forces rear their ugly heads. I even came across a disparaging remark recently on the blog of the usually ultra-reasonable Chet Raymo, who calls wind power "unsightly."

But getting back to the laws of nature, rather than the United States, what the NIMBY types don't seem to understand is that only the very fortunate are able to take advantage of energy-generating opportunities that have no negative repercussions for the natural world. Nuclear power doesn't warm the planet, but leaves all that nasty radioactive waste behind. Biomass may be carbon-neutral, but it gobbles up precious farmland we're going to need as the world's population tops out (if we're lucky) at 9 billion. Photovoltaics are nice in theory, but still much too expensive to generate the gigawatts that modern society demands. Run-of-river and micro-hydro turbines are similarly attractive and insufficient.

Wind power, while suffering from intermittency, remains the single most economical alternative to fossil fuels. It's already competitive with every fossil fuel but coal. And once the cost of hydrogen fuel cells comes down, wind energy can be stored and used to power just about anything, including cars. Yes they will spoil a few vistas, kill the odd cormorant, and maybe scare a few squirrels. but I'd say that it's fair exchange.

Wind power opponents must be reminded that neither economics nor environmental politics allow for perfect solutions. Wind may not be perfect, but the alternatives are worse. in this case, it's a little ironic that while the need for sacrifice and compromise are readily accepted by scientists, the same cannot be said for politicians.


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