"A lot of good arguments are spoiled by some fool who knows what he's talking about."
~ Miguel de Unamuno
In the Beginning
By the dawn of the twentieth century, European sensibilities and burgeoning technologies, filtered through the American experience, had brought a closing to the vast North American frontier. A centuries-long march to the beat of seemingly inexhaustible abundance was replaced by a dawning recognition of limitation, of natural resources ravaged and lost. Passenger pigeons, once the most common bird in colonial America with numbers in the billions, had become extinct, along with several other species. Many more were on the edge of extinction. The bodies of millions of native songbirds dangled around fashionable ladies' millinery. Miners even used birds to assess air quality in coal shafts.
Habitat for much of our native flora and fauna had also been transformed or eliminated. Most of the Eastern hardwood forests had been timbered while millions of acres of wetlands had been built over, such as the sweeping Klamath marshes in Oregon. Industrial development, including incipient factory farming practices, had already altered much of the natural agricultural landscape. Coal, steel and railroads combined to forge giant cities like Chicago out of virtual wilderness in only a few decades. Electricity, refrigeration technology, and the internal combustion engine would soon conspire to bring new settlement in places so environmentally sensitive that most wildlife could not survive the intrusion.
John Muir's new Sierra Club, founded in 1892 "to make the mountains glad," was, from its beginning, caught between the growing power and expansive ambitions of the United States and its ongoing paradoxical relationship with nature, torn as it continues to be between celebrating the natural world and ruthlessly subduing it. Muir, the Club's first president, understood the concern that drives much of contemporary environmentalism: Wherever human beings are, there's much less of everything else. And he vowed to protect the remaining wilderness.
An articulate, physical Scotsman, Muir had previously helped preserve the Yosemite Valley and the Sequoias, along with many other wilderness areas. His ideas sparked the creation of the national park system. His writings were widely read and discussed at the highest levels of government, giving readers pause to reflect on what a proper concord between culture and wild nature should be. Muir believed the wilderness was sacred, and what remained of it should not be exploited or rudely intruded upon.
His environmental foil and archrival, Gifford Pinchot, whom Muir's good friend Theodore Roosevelt appointed as first director of the US Forest Service in 1905, felt differently. In contrast to Muir's preservationist bent, Pinchot argued for what he called "conservation," the sustainable use of natural resources for the benefit of the people, working "harmoniously" with nature. A proposal to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley for the welfare of the earthquake-ravaged city of San Francisco, a prospect that Pinchot dubbed "the highest and best use that could be made [of the land]," brought the two men on a collision course. Muir responded, "Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the hearts of man," and committed the fledgling Sierra Club to a decades long opposition, which ended for him in heartbreaking failure, although he died before the huge dam was constructed in 1923.
Renewables Lost and Found
Nearly one hundred years later, the Sierra Club continues to urge that the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir be decommissioned, at taxpayer expense, and opposes all large-scale hydro projects, arguing that, even though they provide renewable energy and don't emit carbon, they nonetheless harm sensitive wetland ecosystems vital for sustainable environmental health. This builds on Muir's original opposition to the project, which was primarily motivated by his desire to protect the beauty of the valley. He helped promote the idea that natural vistas, in themselves, nourish the human spirit.
Throughout its existence, the Sierra Club has worked, often controversially, to preserve sensitive habitats, protect threatened and endangered species, enlarge public understanding about the myriad interconnections that form the web of life on the planet, and reduce the size and scope of the human enterprise over land and water. These efforts helped produce laws that, among many other things, brought the national bird back from the brink and proscribed oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and offshore in order to protect the wilderness, keeping faith with its founder's vision. Policies consistent with these ideas form the basis of contemporary environmental sensibility and appeal to a broad spectrum of people.
Such high ground as applied to energy production, however, has situated the Club atop the steepest slopes. But none steeper than its militant commitment to the perceived threat of Climate Change. Today, it not only embraces the proposition that a surfeit of carbon dioxide, mostly from human activity, is precipitously and dangerously warming the earth's climate. It also helped stoke the idea. The organization's leadership maintains that Global Warming is the greatest environmental crisis facing the earth, and demands an immediate and forceful political response to reduce CO2 emissions by eliminating fossil fuel use. Since coal-fired units produce about half of the nation's electricity and about 40% of all CO2 emitted, while the coal industry itself practices such environmentally damaging extraction techniques as mountaintop removal, the Sierra Club now seeks to shut the entire industry down.
In the 1970s, however, as part of the call for energy independence in response to the Arab oil embargo, the organization worked hand-in-glove with President Jimmy Carter to replace oil generation with coal, in the process ironically increasing coal generation. In the same era, the Sierra Club began to disown nuclear power generation, which also doesn't burn carbon, in the wake of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Hollywood films, although for a large part of its history, it was a staunch supporter of nuclear, since it was the only "clean" energy source that could replace hydro.
Consequently, the organization today actively opposes the firm capacity responsible for providing 78% of the nation's electricity, and it is equivocal about the use of natural gas, which supplies virtually all of the rest. Even though natural gas burns about 40% cleaner than coal, it still is a fossil fuel, which will eventually be depleted.
So how to make electricity in the Sierra Club's world of the future? The answer: RENEWABLES! Lots of wind and solar—but not impounded hydro. And a move away from central grid dependency by making wind especially part of a distributed generation micro-grid system located near demand centers. All this would be supported by the so-called smart grid, requiring substantial new transmission lines in an effort to improve efficiency and reliability, thereby saving fossil fuel and avoiding carbon emissions while conserving demand by moving it to off-peak hours. The image, but hardly the reality, is one of downsizing and intimacy, and a transition away from centralized control.
As evidence in support of these ideas, the Club promotes the thought experiments posed by Stanford's Mark Jacobsen, who recently co-authored a cover story for Scientific American, A Plan for a Sustainable Future: How to Get All Energy from Wind, Water, an Solar Power by 2030, which argued that four million, 5MW wind turbines, could replace a large wedge of coal. (For a good response, see William Tucker's commentary in the American Spectator: http://spectator.org/archives/2009/10/28/unscientific-american). It also harkens to the "science" promoted by the National Renewable Energy Lab, which recently claimed "wind could displace coal and natural gas for 20 to 30 percent of the electricity used in the eastern two-thirds of the United States by 2024"—but only with a major transmission build-out. (See my comments: http://www.masterresource.org/2010/01/selling-industrial-wind-government-the-media-and-common-sense/). Last week, the NREL released yet another report showing the wind potential in the western US and offshore alone could provide for the electricity needs of the nation many times over.
Wind technology does nostalgically embody Muir's doctrine of using nature's own resources to put the quietus on nature's evil avatar, human technological hubris. It's the stuff Muir's dreams were made of. Energy religionists have run the Sierra Club for some time, and they practice a high church kind of back-to-nature faith in wind as an effective weapon in the war against carbon that is akin to dogma (and as such is not susceptible to right reason). In this, virtually every mainline environmental group has common cause with the Sierra Club in its desire to bring King Coal to his knees, and is similarly inclined about decommissioning coal, nuclear, and hydro power plants.
Between the Gush for Wind and the Hard Place of Reality
The physical nature and enormous size of industrial wind projects has caused a lot of blow back. Between Maryland and West Virginia, for example, there is potential for around 2000 wind turbines, each nearly 500-feet tall; they would be placed atop 400 miles of the Allegheny Mountain ridges. About 20 acres of forest must be cut to support each turbine—4-6 acres to accommodate the free flow of the wind per turbine; one or more large staging areas for each wind project; access road construction; and a variety of substations and transmission lines. Cumulatively, about 40,000 acres of woodlands would be transformed into an industrial energy plant far larger than any conventional facility. Most of this montane terrain contains rare habitat and many vulnerable wildlife species.
How can such a looming industrial presence be reconciled with the goals of maintaining choice natural habitat while reducing the impact of human activity? For the Sierra Club, the answer is: The use of siting guidelines and wildlife assessment studies that would restrict limited liability wind companies from placing their huge machinery in the most sensitive places and away from rare and threatened species of plants and animals. If the war on carbon is to be won, and if skyscraper-sized wind turbines are part of the price for winning that war, then accommodation must be made. In the words of one wind developer, "some will have to sacrifice if we're to have the clean, green energy from the wind" replacing coal and putting a stop to mountaintop removal coal extraction practices.
More than a few Sierra Club members and local chapters have resisted the national organization's encyclicals on wind precisely because such hulking intrusion seems inimical to environmental common sense. The chair of the Maryland Chapter's Conservation Committee, one of the nation's leading naturalists, resigned in large part because of this concern. In response to such dissidents, the Club's national leadership insists that it, and not its member chapters, be the final arbiter of what wind projects meet its standards: "It is important for the Club to speak with a unified, clear voice in its reaction to wind energy projects. It will not be good for the Club if one chapter is focusing totally on concerns about impacts on birds while the chapter in the next state is urging the public to support wind projects as a crucial element in reversing the impacts of global warming." The organization enforces its authority under threat of expulsion, as was the case when its executive chairman, Carl Pope, in the wake of another controversy, excommunicated the entire Florida 35,000-memmber chapter for four years.
To "manage the negative environmental impacts of wind," the Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, the American Bird Conservancy, Greenpeace, and the Audubon Society all recommend guidelines that, if followed, provide wind projects with their environmental seal of approval. Even on public lands. And with no evident sense of irony for the Sierra Club—since this is a policy taken from Gifford Pinchot's playbook. John Muir is likely turning in his grave.
Siting guidelines that appear to make the wind industry more environmentally friendly, cognitively dissonant as the prospect seems to be, make sense only if the premise behind the policy is true, only if the technology can back down coal and offset significant amounts of carbon emissions.
What is the scientific evidence that age-old technologies like wind, dressed up in high couture fashion, can provide clean, reliable, affordable, secure electricity to the masses, as the ruminations of Jacobsen and the optimism of the Department of Energy suggest?
Astonishingly, with 35,000 industrial wind turbines extant on this continent, no coal farms have closed because of the wind technology, and there is no empirical evidence there is less coal or natural gas burned per unit of electricity produced as a specific consequence of it. Contrary to the hopes of the Sierra Club, wind evidently is not an alternate energy source.
When the provisional ideas of ongoing scientific inquiry become politicized and then supported by a concatenation of groups seeking to profit from the ideas, both financially and ideologically–when science meets James Cameron and becomes entertainment for the masses in order to sell soap or sophistry, then we'll get flying pigs, everywhere. Wind is not progressive, cutting edge, or effective, as the Sierra Club maintains. It is rather antediluvian, uncivil, and dysfunctional.
As a justification for wind promotion, science has become, for the Sierra Club and nearly all prominent environmental groups, not a method of seeking truth, but rather propaganda employed to prosecute its war on carbon. They routinely confuse engineering mechanics with science, and publish all kinds of techno-gismo birth announcements about saving the earth from those badass Big Oil/Big Coal corporations. But rarely do they provide the consequent obituaries. Or demand measurement of actual wind performance, which is the essence of scientific inquiry.
Promoting siting guidelines for such a rude, intrusive, shaggy beast of a technology implies that if wind machines were properly situated—somewhere, just not in the Sierra Club's neck of the woods—they might actually do some good. This is the thinking behind the movement known as Responsible Windpower—an oxymoron at virtually every descriptive level, for it does little more than give a second-story burglary ring a ladder and an alibi.
Citizen wind opposition to the outsized nature of the technology began as a "not-in-my-backyard" phenomenon, eventually becoming a prod for the Sierra Club's current wind siting guidelines. Responsible Windpower campaigns gave succor to those who support wind as a credible energy source, allowing them to save face with mainline environmental groups while protecting hearth and home, and vulnerable wildlife, from the worst of wind's gigantic presence.
The wind industry perversely encourages discussion about wind plant siting and wildlife studies, much in the way cigarette manufactures once encouraged health-warning labels. But debate over set backs, noise levels, proximity to vulnerable flora and fauna, etc, distracts from the central issue: whether the technology provides the benefits claimed for it. Even as this discussion takes place, however, limited liability wind companies routinely ignore siting prescriptions, knowing there's virtually no enforcement against wrongdoing. Siting guideline discussions and he said/she said bird studies foster a lot of dithering.
At the very least, support for massive wind technology betrays sound environmental and scientific precepts, ideas that many knowledgeable environmentalists hold dear, while putting at risk vulnerable species and valuable habitat and furthering the cause of civil discord. Every environmental group has expressed grave concern about bird mortality and cell towers. Wind projects are much more problematic.
MBA types who wouldn't know a bat from a bowtie now run the national Sierra Club. Their interest is in gaining membership and revenue. In a critique aptly entitled, Torquemada in Birkenstocks, Jeff St. Clair said this about Carl Pope: "[He} has never had much of a reputation as an environmental activist. He's a wheeler-dealer, who keeps the Club's policies in lockstep with its big funders and political patrons. Where Dave Brower scaled mountains, nearly all of Pope's climbing has been up organizational ladders."
Environmental organizations that support wind technology by pretending that the ends justify the means, by falsely assuming that wind can do anything meaningful to alter our existing energy profile, are largely responsible for the depredations unloosed by the wind industry. Their imprimatur gives the industry a legitimacy it does not deserve. This "legitimacy" welcomes the industry's trade association to a place at the government table, which then compels politicians to bestow upon the wind lobby political favors, given the political penchant for compromise.
The result is what we now have, with the most recent embarrassment coming in the form of the US Fish and Wildlife Service recommending environmentally lunatic siting standards for birds and bats, allowing the wind industry to take even endangered species. This outcome is understandable only as a political result. And it was very predictable–even inevitable due to the circumstances. When you lay down with dogs, you often wake up with fleas.
The case for wind relies on self-serving academic and government reports that have the same basis in reality as college football polls, deploying slipshod methodology and half-baked thought experiments.
Yes, there's lots of wind potential out there, in the same way that there is, according to geologists, a trillion dollars worth of micro diamonds embedded in the soil. But it would take at least a trillion dollars to extract and refine them. With wind, the situation is much worse. Even after spending billions of dollars constructing those 2000 wind turbines across the mountains of Maryland and West Virginia, note how relatively little energy such an enterprise would actually generate—an average of 1200 skittering megawatts into a system that produces over 140,000, and typically less than 400MW at peak demand times. Even if the Sierra Club's conclusions about Climate Change are correct, wind technology can demonstrably do almost nothing about the situation.
Aside from the assault on the viewshed, made even more prominent because each turbine would be spinning differentially, visible for scores of miles in any direction, the threat to wildlife in Maryland and West Virginia would be profound. This is a lot of "sacrifice" to ask for so little in return. John Muir cannot be resting easy.
Because of its volatile variability, wind must be generally entwined with reliable, flexible fossil-fired units that operate inefficiently, in the process subverting much, if not all, of the CO2 offsets the technology might initially produce. Indeed, over 70% of any wind project's installed capacity must come from inefficiently performing companion generation. Although it's true that wind must displace existing generation upon penetrating the grid, this does not mean it is displacing coal—or carbon dioxide emissions.
Moreover, wind is not a distributed energy source. Wind projects must be located where the wind blows, irrespective of proximity to demand centers. In all relevant ways, they are equivalent to central plants, where supply is produced largely for consumption elsewhere. As such, the technology will require substantial, typically dedicated transmission lines, to bring its desultory, unreliable energy from remote locations. Already power companies and utilities are beginning to join together to oppose widespread (ultimately ratepayer) cost sharing to pay for the "transmission expansion to carry wind and solar… to distant markets." http://www.nytimes.com/cwire/2010/02/26/26climatewire-battle-lines-harden-over-new-transmission-po-77427.html?pagewanted=2
The bipolar if not schizophrenic Sierra Club position on wind is perfectly captured in its opposition to a proposed new transmission line from southwestern West Virginia to central Maryland, designed to integrate a higher level of unreliable renewables into the PJM grid more effectively. The Club's wind support evidently fails to understand the region cannot have lots of wind without the building of new infrastructure in habitat the organization seeks to protect.
The perversion of the scientific method, with its insistence on the elimination of bias, on falsifiability, and on verifiability—in order to "Believe in the Wind," as one national ad campaign urged—is the primary reason for the success of the industrial wind juggernaut. That so many environmental organizations engage in it is cause for alarm. Many naturalists—such as the dean of American ornithology, Chan Robbins, the raptor specialist Don Heintzelman, and Italy's award winning Anna Giordano, among others—are appalled.
Annually dumping over 3 billion tons of CO2 into the earth and sky, which is in addition to the natural transpiration cycles of the earth, may have negative climate consequences that we now only poorly understand. Nonetheless, because they are so "energy diffuse" and require so much territory, wind and solar technologies offer only a tinker's chance of doing anything effective at the scale necessary to produce a modern quality of life for seven billion people. For much of the last century, the energy density of fossil fuels has been the lynchpin of our modernity, although they will eventually run out, perhaps in a few centuries. And they do have negative environmental consequences. But their overall benefits far outweigh the negatives in any reasonable comprehensive cost benefit analysis. Planning to successfully replace their capacity will demand great ingenuity and the most advanced technology—not hyped-up premodern gadgetry.
No thoughtful environmentalist should condone precipitously unleashing untested, unverified limited liability renewable technologies like industrial wind that oafishly intrude upon the land and water, claiming that "one day" other technologies will come along to make them all work more effectively. This is precisely what is happening now.
Bird and bat experts, card-carrying members of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, have rushed to wind's side, seeking to perform before and after construction wildlife risk assessment studies. As scientists, they are obligated to understand their work in context, and not pretend to know what they do not. In this case, however, too many blithely pursue their work as pundits, experts who tailor their findings to suit the needs of their clients. They are often paid by the wind industry. Many are admitted wind boosters out to save the world, staunchly using their credentials to promote wind technology while oblivious about its actual feckless energy performance.
They realize their work will do nothing to mitigate risk. But such work allows these "scientists" to make money while their employer gets to use them as political cover
Organizations like Bat Conservation International and Massachusetts Audubon, for a fee, seem to have been co-opted as public relations tools—giving the public the idea the wind industry is really concerned about protecting the environment. Nowhere, however, has any wind project been halted or even modified because of the work of these bird or bat experts.
Tall structures are the second leading cause of bird mortality in this country, behind the mortality inflicted by house cats, although the latter focuses more on less vulnerable species of birds. Tall structures placed in remote areas often wreak havoc with species that are at risk. Adding a rotating blade to these structures only begs for more slaughter.
Wind LLC avian risk studies mock the scientific method. Scientists are not just experts; they work in an analytic process characterized by rigorously evaluated if this, then that experimental "conditionals" constructed from hypotheses. Analysis of this kind is supposed to have predictive power because it comprehensively considers the many variables individually– and then works to understand how they integrate to create "regularities"—patterns with a certain outcome. These predictable outcomes—and the processes used to achieve them—are then scrutinized by other scientists for validation in a process known as independent peer review. A particular experiment, however honestly and intelligently conducted, can yield the "wrong" answer for a variety of reasons. This is why other scientists, using other instruments, other conditions, even other ideas, must check experiments.
Sponsored research should always be suspect. "Truth" does not necessarily lie in the middle between two points of view. Adequate preconstruction study does not mean that, because such study is made, therefore wind projects should be built. Rather, any studies should be made to determine whether or not they should be built at all.
The MacGuffin of Wind
Science will likely continue to drive itself crazy as the foil for the stuff that dreams are made of.... Faith-based delusions like wind abound in our culture, one reason for the success of the Harry Potter phenomenon, which marries science, technology, myth, religion, childhood rights of passage, and, not least, slick marketing plans with the skill of a McDonald's PR campaign. Wonkish wizards, indeed. Why not, then, fabulist wind machines, producing fantasy energy?
In twenty years, the Sierra Club will have moved on to shore up another world crisis with yet another crusade, and all people will remember, as the countryside is littered with the wind mess, is its good intentions, especially since there's no real accountability…. And it's such hard work these days persuading people about the importance of protecting threatened habitat and species…. Far better to pursue the MacGuffin of wind. And scare the hell out of people about climate change.
March 1, 2010
This is my J'Accuse to the nation's environmental organizations in opposition to their ignorance about the nature of wind technology and their eagerness nonetheless to embrace it, albeit with conditions. As a former member, I couldn't produce a mere polemic without also acknowledging the reasons that caused me and many others to join the Sierra Club years ago. Such a fall from grace because of its mindless crusade for wind and climate change deserves a critical riposte.