Wind Breaks

Why the favorite energy source of environmental activists is unsustainable


Anticipation of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Summit in late August has the environmentalist media complex in full throat this summer. The World Wildlife Fund has just issued a bogus report declaring that humanity's unchecked activities will cause the "earth to expire in 2050." Will that be on the morning or the afternoon of October 11, 2050, or will it be October 23? The WWF report rehashes many of the claims made in a similarly alarmist report issued by the activist group Redefining Progress last month.

With its July/August cover story, Mother Jones is doing its bit to promote the "sustainable development" cause. The article is devoted to the favored energy supply of environmentalist ideologues: wind power. Activists such as Worldwatch Institute founder Lester Brown have been touting wind as the solution to the world's energy needs for more than two decades. Despite their over-the-top panegyrics, wind power today supplies less than 0.5 percent of America's electricity, at nearly double the cost of conventional power sources. But at long last, that's about to change. Or so Mother Jones suggests.

Unfortunately, the claims of wind power enthusiasts are still full of hot air. Let's start with their curious notion of sustainability. One might be forgiven for thinking that to be sustainable a power source would have to be economically viable–that is, it would have to be competitive with other power sources, especially in terms of cost. Yet Mother Jones cheerfully admits that wind power does not meet this basic test. Electricity produced by even state-of-the-art windmills often costs two to three times as much as conventionally produced power.

The "boom" in U.S. wind power development celebrated by Mother Jones is fueled entirely by state government mandates requiring utilities to produce some percentage of their electricity from "renewable" sources. "Laws requiring power companies to get some portion of their energy–typically between 3 and 8 percent–from renewables are now on the books in a dozen states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Arizona," notes Mother Jones. In 1999, for example, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush signed into law a mandate designed by Environmental Defense and Public Citizen requiring Texas utilities to produce 3 percent of their power from "renewables" by 2009. Without these mandates, it is doubtful that a single windmill would be constructed in the U.S.

Often activists wave aside the extra costs of wind energy by claiming that consumers would be happy to pay extra for power produced by "renewables" if given the chance. But a recent Cato Institute study suggests otherwise. It found that 80 utilities in 28 states offer consumers special packages of energy produced from renewable sources. "Because of higher costs, no more than 1.5 percent of the retail customers in any state have signed up for such independently marketed programs, and participation in utility-sponsored programs is generally around 1 percent or less," the Cato report notes. To pay for such uneconomic projects, utilities hide their costs by rolling them into the general rate base, which hikes prices for all consumers.

Analyst Glenn Schleede from the Houston-based Institute for Energy Research recently examined the economics of a project cited by Mother Jones, a giant windfarm being built in North and South Dakota by Global Winds Harvest. Schleede points out that electricity produced by the project likely will cost at least 2 cents more per kilowatt-hour than conventionally produced power. The project is economically viable for Global Winds Harvest only because the company can take advantage of special breaks such as an accelerated depreciation provision that allows them to write off their total capital costs ($500 million) in five years.

Because of this provision, companies often buy wind farms to offset their profits and reduce their federal tax burden. The tax break gives wind power a huge advantage over conventional power plants, which have to be depreciated over 30 years. In addition, Global Wind Harvest will receive a federal production tax credit of 1.7 cents for each kilowatt-hour of electricity it produces in the first 10 years of operation. By Schleede's estimate, this amounts to an annual subsidy of about $21.5 million. Think how livid green activists would be if nuclear power plants were offered similar subsidies.

And windfarms are far from environmentally benign. If you think a conventional power plant occupying 20 acres is an eyesore, think about this: In a January 2000 article in Foreign Affairs, Richard Rhodes and Denis Beller estimate that a 1,000-megawatt windfarm (equivalent to a medium-sized conventional power plant) would occupy 2,000 square miles. That means replacing the 604,000 megawatts of total generating capacity in the United States with windmills would occupy 1.2 million square miles, a third of the country's total land area. And even that wouldn't really work, since windmills typically produce only a third of their rated capacity because the wind doesn't always blow.

Not only do windfarms take up a lot of space; they're also noisy and hazardous to wildlife. While Mother Jones acknowledges this latter concern in passing, Sierra Club representatives have called windmills "cuisinarts of the air" because they kill so many hapless birds that fly into their rotating blades. Given these drawbacks, it's not surprising that people in Massachusetts are organizing against the construction of a proposed wind power project off the coast of Cape Cod.

Mother Jones admits that even with subsidies windmills could produce only 10 percent of the power the United States needs. The problem is that the wind doesn't always blow when a utility needs it. For reliable power, utilities will still have to depend on conventional sources. No wonder Robert Bradley, president of the Institute for Energy Research, argues that wind power is an extravagance that exists only because of state mandates. Clearly, the answer to America's power needs is not blowing in the wind.