Wind Energy and Its Controversy


This article was published by Newsletter, issue #20, 2006-06-10.

Growing demand for energy, combined with depletion of oil and natural gas fields, is naturally leading to higher energy costs throughout the world, including the United States. Price increases in America are not limited to automotive gasoline and diesel, nor to natural gas piped into homes. Electricity costs are increasing as well, largely because much of that electricity is derived from burning natural gas. Over half of the electricity consumed in California, for instance, is produced by power plants fueled by natural gas. Primarily as a result of these energy price increases, Americans are getting much more interested in alternative energy sources, including wind power.

But does this greater interest in wind power translate into greater results — current or in the near future? That seems to depend upon whom you consult. Owners and operators of commercial wind farms and, on a smaller scale, individual windmills, would likely answer in the affirmative. They might point to the fact that over $14 billion of new wind power equipment was installed throughout the world during 2005, a 25% increase over the previous year. In addition, most countries are increasing their wind energy capacity — in some cases, such as Canada and Australia, doubling that capacity. Here in the United States, we installed more than 2400 megawatts (MW) of new capacity in 2005 — more than any other country, and enough to provide electricity to more than 680,000 average American homes, every year. This new capacity contributed to the national total of 9149 MW of power at the end of 2005.

This figure would get another boost upon successful completion of a new project recently revealed by the state of Texas. On 11 May 2006, state officials announced plans for a future wind farm that will consist of up to 500 windmills, making it the largest in the United States. The windmills will utilize 400-foot turbines, and altogether will produce at least 500 MW, which is enough electricity for 125,000 homes. The wind farm will be located approximately 10 miles off of Padre Island, in the Gulf of Mexico, and will cost anywhere from $1 billion to $2 billion, upon completion sometime in 2011. In addition to generating much-needed power, the project is hoped to create new jobs in the state, given that the project will be built and operated by Superior Renewable Energy, of Houston.

Six years may seem like a long time to wait before this particular wind power provider goes online. It may even be longer than that, given the ecological concerns that have already been raised. Apparently there are species of rare birds that pass through the Padre Island area every year, on their way to their winter grounds located down in Mexico and Central America. Some environmentalists argue that the huge and heavy turbine blades, spinning at high speeds, will end up killing many of these migrating birds. In addition, every summer the Gulf of Mexico sees other things moving through the air — and on a much larger scale than flocks of birds — in the form of hurricanes, which presumably could do to the floating windmills exactly what they did to the floating oil rigs during 2005, when the hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated over half of the rigs in the Gulf.

But the sources of energy production need to be located somewhere. Detractors of wind energy progress can easily argue that an energy source — even one as clean and renewable as wind power — will have a difficult time making significant headway in the United States, which appears to be saddled with the attitudes of NIMBY ("Not in my backyard!") and BANANA ("Build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody.") Witness the bitter fight over a proposed 130-turbine wind farm off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where residents claim that the wind turbines will be unsightly. These citizens no doubt expect the power company to provide cheap and reliable electricity to their homes, but they are not willing to allow that energy to be produced anywhere in sight of those homes. Perhaps their views on the matter will change in the future, as hydrocarbon-based fuels climb in price, and all the other "out of sight, out of mind" energy sources become much more costly.

Copyright © 2006 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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