Is alt-energy a distraction from real solutions?
Wind power is perhaps the most interesting test case of whether America's immediate energy future lies in alternative sources such as wind, conservation and power-down, or some combination of the two.
Today, wind is the clean, renewable energy source with the most promise. The industry says that wind power can be sold as cheaply as electricity from coal, natural gas and nuclear power, but without the pollution and health and safety problems of those traditional sources.
Yet wind it is also the most controversial alternative energy source. Dozens of local communities nationwide are now struggling over whether to accept wind turbines. Critics on the national level question every claim of wind's benefit - especially that wind is an efficient power source in the first place - while adding their own concerns about danger to wildlife and scenic views.
Both wind-power supporters and opponents replied to my column last week (The bizarre dance of wind power, July 10), but I found that the most interesting points were raised by those who don't want wind power in their own communities or anywhere else. Here, I will address two responses to my column, each representative of many other comments.
Right-wing think tanks and disinformation
Joseph L. Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, wrote to say that my coverage was biased, because while I singled out his group and other think tanks who oppose wind power as right-wing or corporate funded, I failed to mention that the sources I seemed to favor were biased towards the left or towards alt-energy companies.
"Ross Gelbspan, the Clean Air Task Force, Audubon Society, League of Conservation Voters and nearly all the other authors and national organizations he cites favoring wind power are leftist ideologues or are paid by corporations and foundations to promote subsidies for alternative fuels. Shouldn't he have revealed their biases?" Bast wrote.
It would be hard to find a journalist with more credibility on global warming and the role of corporate-funded disinformation campaigns than Ross Gelbspan.
Now retired, his 31-year career as a reporter and editor included stints with The Philadelphia Bulletin, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. At the Globe, he conceived, directed and edited a series of articles that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984. In 1998, he first exposed how right-wing think tanks were trying to cast doubt about global-warming science in his book The Heat is On. In 2004, he came out with another book on global warming, Boiling Point, praised by Al Gore and honored as one of the best science books of 2004 by Discover Magazine.
Then, let's turn to the groups I cited. I am sure all the birders who carry pocket guides out into the woods would be surprised to hear that the Audubon Society, founded in 1905, is either a home for leftist ideologues or is a paid shill for alternative fuels, as Bast claimed.
I asked Dr. Michael Burger, director of bird conservation for Audubon in New York state, about Bast's charges. "Most people in the environmental movement place us in the center of that group," Burger told me. "We have a reputation of being a middle-of-the-road, science-based organization. We have been lobbied by alternative energy companies for support, and we have always turned them down."
This month, Burger's group purchased credits to offset all the power they use in their six offices statewide with wind energy. They think wind power will help slow global warming and reduce local pollution. But they remain focused on ecology. "Our mission is not to promote renewable energy, but to protect habitats for birds and other wildlife," Burger said.
Burger told me that the Audubon Society doesn't support all wind farms. The power his group has chosen comes from turbines in Nebraska that have documented no bird or bat kills. When I asked him if, as someone whose job it is to protect birds and bats, he felt pretty good about well cited wind turbines, he said yes.
Indeed, all the other organizations Bast mentioned are, like the Audubon Society, simply mainstream environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, which I also cited - and which the Heartland Institute is most certainly not.
I am glad to hear that Bast considers himself an environmentalist. But if he really cared, as an environmentalist does, about the health of animals and people, then he would certainly object to many of the activities of his group over the past couple decades.
In the '50s, faced with mounting concerns over the health effects of cigarettes, the tobacco industry began a disinformation campaign to convince the public that cigarettes did not cause cancer. That's when you saw all those ads with physicians in white coats displaying their favorite brand of smokes.When reputable medical experts began to connect smoking to cancer, the industry hired its own paid experts to raise doubts about the genuine medical research coming out from hospitals and universities.
"Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exissts in the mind of the geneeral public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy," read an internal public-relations memo from the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company in the 1960s.
Big Tobacco's disinformation campaign continued into the 1990s, when the Heartland Institue joined the fray, and their paid experts began coming out with reports denying the dangers of secondhand smoke. Working with Heartland board member Roy E. Marden, manager of industry affairs at Philip Morris, Bast's group tried to defeat a ban on smoking in public places in California.
Marden is still on their board, and Heartland is still blowing smoke for Big Tobacco. On July 6, Bast himself wrote a piece saying that secondhand smoke isn't so bad. Bast also cohosts the "Heartland Smoker's Lounge," a Web site dedicated to "defending smokers."
Recently, Heartland has joined industry-front groups like the Cooler Heads Coalition and the Greening Earth Society to create false doubt about global-warming science. Part of this campaign seems to be to disparage wind power and other renewable energy sources.
Doubt, you might say, is their product. Does that sound familiar?
Finally, to Bast's charge that I must be an ideologue or have a "financial self-interest" in alternative energy, I have never received any money from any energy company, alternative or otherwise. But if I'm an ideologue because I fear global warming and want to do anything reasonable in quick order to avert a climate crisis, then I plead guilty.
Now, let's look at funding for the Heartland Institute. You be the judge as to their credibility on the issue of alternative energy as a way to kick fossil fuels:
• $561,500 from Exxon Mobil
• More than $400,000 from oil money-backed foundations.
I would sure hate to be an environmentalist in that kind of environment - basically, a corporate-funded, right-wing think tank. Sorry, Mr. Bast.
Good intentions, but lack of valid evidence
Jon Boone's comments raise more interesting issues, because, I believe that, unlike Bast, Boone has a genuine concern for the environment.
After I got his letter, I called Boone. We had a long chat, and I became convinced that he is a thoughtful and intelligent man with respectable birding and ecology credentials. He consults with the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in New York, he helped to found the North American Bluebird Society, and today he gives nature tours throughout Western Maryland, free of charge.
Later, he developed educational materials on the problems of wind power, which he distributes free of charge through his Stop Ill Wind Web site.
And though anti-wind activists do pass around articles from Web sites of right-wing think tanks like the Heartland Institute, Boone did not seem to appreciate their support. "I think the right-wing think tanks have created a major problem for progressive politics for the last 30 years," Boone, a self-professed liberal Democrat, told me.
Let me reply, then, to Boone's main points.
First, he was correct on the issue of electricity lost over power lines, and I have edited the section he mentioned as follows:
It is better if the length of those lines is a short as possible. For power made from burning fossil fuels - coal, natural gas and oil - two-thirds of the initial energy available is lost as waste heat in the power plant. Wind doesn't have this problem, since there's no fuel to burn. But as with other sources, wind power losses occur over power lines. "The grid in the United States loses an estimated 10 percent of all electricity generated before it can be sold to the customer - an amount roughly equal to the electricity generated in the entire continent of Africa," according to the Department of Energy.
Of course, this edit just makes wind power sound more attractive; I'm sure not what Boone had in mind.
Second, he said I gave too much credence to industry spokespeople like Dave Groberg. But if he had read my column more closely, he would have seen that I gave twice as much ink to local wind opponent Dave Buhrman. And the idea for the story came not from wind industry PR reps, but from my own experience meeting wind-power opponents in West Virginia.
Boone's most interesting point was less about my story than about the true potential of wind power. Like hydroelectric power, the big hope of Boone's youth, wind energy is "fraught with difficulties," he told me. Boone has questioned whether wind power is much of an energy source at all. He has presented complex arguments about the interactions between wind turbines and the electric power grid, stemming from the fact that wind power is intermittent - the wind doesn't always blow.
I am not a scientist, so I lack the expertise to evaluate such claims. Therefore, like most responsible journalists, I seek reputable scientific studies to guide me. Reputable studies contain independent research published in peer-reviewed academic journals. Such studies carry scientific weight lacking in either self-published material put out by citizens such as Boone or claims put out by the industry on the other side.
I asked Boone if there were independent scientific studies available to support his views. Unfortunately, he said, he did not know of any. Wind power is too new, and the industry is too secretive.
Yet academic researchers have already started questioning other alt-energy ideas. Take ethanol as an example. For years, Cornell agriculturalist David Pimentel has been researching ethanol and publishing his findings, mostly negative, in refereed scientific journals. Just this month, a report came out from the University of Minnesota showing that ethanol made from corn will probably not be much help in replacing gasoline.
Industrial wind power has been around for more than three decades, and surely the wind industry is no more secretive than the ethanol industry, dominated as it is by agribusiness conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland.
If qualified scientists thought that there was a problem with wind power, surely one of them would have published something on it by now. Yet wind opponents can produce no peer-reviewed, published academic research against wind power. They do have a large body of self-published, unverified material that they pass around on the Internet - but this is opinion, not sound science.
Boone told me that the burden of proof should fall on the wind industry, and not on critics like himself. Guilty until proved innocent, I guess.
"It is the obligation of those making claims to substantiate them before introducing their products to the marketplace, not those who would question those claims," Boone told me. He said that wind power should have to prove itself first, before new wind farms are funded or built, the same way that drug companies have to prove that new pills are safe and effective to the FDA before they can be sold to the public. He said he's willing to apply this precautionary principle to traditional power sources like coal, too.
If you know anything about coal mines and nuclear plants, this sounds like extreme wishful thinking. Think about the Sago Mine or Three Mile Island.
Current regulations for coal mines and coal and nuclear power plants are already inadequate. On top of that, existing regulations are routinely flouted, as enforcement is lax at both federal and state levels. Activists must regularly sue oversight agencies just to get them to enforce their own health, safety and environmental regulations. It is a fantasy to hope that FDA-style approval will be required on all coal or nukes any time soon.
So why demand that wind power alone among energy sources must answer all critics - even if they lack verified scientific evidence and rely on hearsay?
That just seems like another way to delay wind power, which, in the absence of peer-reviewed, independent scientific research showing any reason to doubt its effectiveness, seems unwarranted.
In West Virginia, it is easier to get a permit for a mountaintop-removal coal mine than for a wind farm. It is hard to argue that our priorities on wind and coal make sense.
Since he didn't have any published peer-reviewed studies, for an unbiased expert view, Boone told me, talk to the management of the electrical grid. Do they really want more wind power? Do they think it's an effective source of energy?
So I called PJM Interconnection, which manages the Mid-Atlantic power grid from its offices in Valley Forge, Pa.
"We are neutral on power sources, and don't prefer one over another. Our goal is to have a level playing field for any type of fuel source, whether it's wind, or coal or nuclear or methane recovery," PJM spokesperson Ray Dotter told me.
"Sometimes there's a concern about the intermittency of wind power, but given our size, we can handle more. We have several hundred megawatts online now, and we could handle several thousand more." Dotter would not commit to a number, but to me it sounds like the grid could handle five or 10 times more wind power than they get now.
What about wind power not being an effective source of electricity?
"I don’t quite understand that argument," Dotter told me. "I'm not defending wind. All power goes through revenue-quality meters, which are government-certified and are very accurate. A plant only gets paid for what that meter says they produce, and on our system, they wouldn't get paid unless they were actually producing power. For any plant, if they're not moving that meter, if they're not pushing power out, then they wouldn't get paid."
Since wind-power producers are getting paid, obviously, they are producing electric power.
I understand why wind-power opponents like to claim that wind energy is inefficient or even a hoax. It takes their opposition to turbines beyond the arguments that some people think they're ugly and that they kill birds and bats, which the Audubon Society and other mainstream conservation groups are working with the wind industry to fix.
But when the management of the electrical grid says that wind power is OK, unless you're a committed conspiracy theorist, doesn't that settle the issue?
Wind will succeed or fail as a business
Despite the tiny percentage of federal energy subsidies it receives, in the end, like all electricity, wind power is a business, not a social service. If for-profit companies want to risk their own capital to build wind turbines, isn't that their problem?
In our capitalist system, investors have the most at stake. The public has only put in a few bucks per capita at most in subsidies for wind and other renewables. But America is already wasting far larger amounts on needless handouts to coal and oil. Not to mention the lives lost and the $300 billion we've already spent in Iraq to protect our access to Middle East oil. Anything for wind will just be lunch-money by comparison.
It is petty to bemoan the puny subsidies given to wind power until we discuss why we're giving anything at all to fossil-fuel companies that stand to make record profits this year. With gas prices at $3 a gallon, and coal prices at historic highs, why do corporations like Exxon Mobil and Peabody Energy need public assistance?
If wind power is successful, then America has made valuable progress towards the clean, domestic, renewable power we'll need to fight global warming and increase our energy independence.
So whom should we believe: local activists with unverified claims who oppose wind power (and, perhaps unwittingly, spread disinformation put out by corporate-funded think tanks), or trusted environmental organizations like the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club who support wind power as a response to global warming?
"These environmental groups continue to shoot themselves in the foot with placebo measures, so that they don't have to hammer their constituents with the recurring (and evidently unpopular) message of, ugh, conservation," Boone wrote me.
In the absence of any peer-reviewed scientific research questioning wind power's effectiveness, and given that the electrical grid management thinks wind is OK, there's no valid evidence to call wind power a placebo. There's much more evidence that wind power is one of the most promising bets for clean, renewable energy that's cost-effective today. But I couldn't agree with Boone more on the need for conservation.
In the companion book to his new film "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore presents a chart of greenhouse gas "wedges," basically pieces of a whole picture for the U.S. to reduce global-warming gases and stabilize them to a safe level. The plan is based on a Princeton University study.
The largest collection of wedges, accounting for about half of Gore's planned reductions by 2050, would come from conservation and energy efficiency. But conservation is not the whole picture. Another quarter or so of reductions would come from switching from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy.
Sure, some alt-energy ideas, like corn ethanol, will surely not pan out. But that doesn't mean that all work on alt-energy is a distraction from the important work of conservation, or even of making a radical transition to a much lower energy society, as peak oil theorist Richard Heinberg has written in his 2004 book Powerdown.
Alt-energy is no silver bullet. We should get used to the idea that we will have to make some big changes in our society and do more with much less. America has only 5 percent of the world's population, yet we produce 25 percent of its global-warming pollution. That has to change.
Yet we can cut back our energy use while we pursue alt-energy sources like wind power.
Americans are not so empty-headed that we can't walk and chew gum at the same time.
Erik Curren is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press. Curren is the author of Buddha’s Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today. More information about Curren's works is available on-line at www.alayapress.com. The views expressed by op-ed writers do not necessarily reflect those of management of The Augusta Free Press.
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