Fighting for the Environmental High Ground

Supporters and foes of Highland New Wind Development’s proposal to erect 19 windmills on a 4,300-foot-high ridge in Highland County presented their case yesterday in a State Corporation Commission hearing. The arguments in a nutshell, according to Greg Edwards with the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Wind energy’s supporters see it as preferable to power generated by burning coal or other fossil fuels. Wind power, they say, can cut pollution that sickens people and contributes to global warming.

Opponents see windmills as a threat to migratory birds, bats and other wildlife. The mammoth structures will scar a pristine landscape and hurt tourism, they say.

It is imperative that the United States — and that includes Virginia — develop clean, non-polluting sources of energy. It’s an imperative for reasons of energy security, reducing acid rain and other local forms of pollution and, if you believe Al Gore, slowing the onset of global warming. If Virginia can’t build a wind farm in remote, sparsely populated Highland County, then it’s unlikely we’ll ever build a wind farm anywhere in the state.

Foes cited a study of Pennsylvania and West Virginia wind farms that revealed “unacceptable fatality rates for birds and bats.” Now, I’m all in favor of protecting wildlife, and I’m open to the idea of halting the project — if the carnage is bloody enough.

But I would like to know what those “unacceptable” rates are. How many dead birds and bats? Are any of them endangered species? Has anyone devised a way to reduce wildlife fatalities? If so, how effective is it, what would it cost, and would it imperil the financing of the wind farm? These are all questions the SCC need answers to before ruling against the windfarm.

Just remember: According to the Energy Information Administration, electricity usage is expected to rise anywhere between 11 percent to 17 percent by 2015.

(Photo credit: Campaign to Protect Rural England.)

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25 responses to “Fighting for the Environmental High Ground”

  1. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Similar arguments have been raised against cell phone and other radio towers. The FCC will consider opening a rulemaking proceeding to address that issue later this week.

    As with most things, we need some reasonable balance among competing interests.

  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    It’s not this simple… but how many birds die from wind turbines verses how many die from eating mercury-laden critters (the mercury coming from mercury power plants)?

    Probably not a good idea STARTING with the premise that critters must die.. so we can microwave popcorn….

    HOWEVER…. I note a recent survey that asked if people would be willing to have a coal-powered plant or nuke near to where they lived to supply them with electricity…

    I doubt seriously that those wind turbines in Highland would generate much more power than that needed to power Highland and perhaps adjacent counties.

    National Geo did an article last year showing how much footprint would be needed for an equal equivalent of electric power generation .. and of course the nukes won hands-down and you’d have to cover the most of the rest of the undeveloped parts of the East Coast if you wanted wind or solar….

    I’m not even convinced that even if each of us could generate enough power simply by roofing our homes with solar panels that everyone would want to do that….

    … so much easier for that power line.. to snake … down a right-of-way.. for miles and miles.. until a plant – far away from us… spews out clouds of stuff.. we’d never want to see or breath in our own backyards…

  3. Ray Hyde Avatar

    That’s funny, just a couple of weeks ago I watched two back to back programs on the Discovery Channel. The first was about all the gloom and doom associated with the end of oil and the second was about all the promise of renewable energy.

    One demonstration was based on taking energy from wave machines, and sugessted that only a couple of square miles in the North Sea could generate enough electricity to power Britain. They didn’t seem to think footprint was a problem.

    But you are right. Even if Solar power was cheap enough, having it in your back yard will make you responsible for maintenance and engineering, which most people are not capable of. We will still want to subcontract out to the power company, and they weill still need a way to distribute power to where it is needed.

    Some have even claimed that extracting renewable energy, in itself, will upset the energy balance and disrupt weather patterns, etc.

    It probably isn’t a desirable idea to start with the premise that critters must die to supply us with power. But if we want to start with the other premise, we must prove that there is some way to generate power that does not kill critters. So far, the evidence for that position is not good.

    Of course, we could do without power, or with much less, but then which critters do you think will die first?

  4. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Here is a link to the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s page discussing radio tower siting issues as they relate to migratory birds.

  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I always thought that tides had the promise of tremendous energy.

    Like a river that flows both ways at different times.

    and I also wondered why not have wind turbines offshore … also

    but the operative word with respect to wildlife is turbine – something massive that rotates and has “fins” and anything in close proximity to it… at risk from those fins….

  6. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    … with respect to critters.. bigger problem than just birds… bats per se… the siting discussions tend towards migratory routes… but mortality still occurs at non-migratory locations…

    In the end.. whether we’re talking about birds, beaver, deer, etc… our modern “must have” items… like cars, power lines, towers… exact a toll… and the focus is on best ways to mitigate .. as opposed to total removal. of .. roads, towers, power lines, etc….

    Let’s try to be consistent in our criteria though… for instance, we don’t stop construction of one particular road because critters get killed.. while ignoring all the other roads where the same thing happens.

    Ditto with wind turbines… find and use a consistent acceptable criteria and let’s not have an environment where some turbines are outlawed specifically because of critter mortality.. and 200 miles away, the same exact tower with the same exact mortality issue is “ok”.

  7. Claire Ward Avatar
    Claire Ward

    At the risk of sounding like a nut, I argue in favor of the bats. The proposed wind turbines are very close to maternity colonies for the official bat of the Commonwealth (Virginia Big-Eared Bat), which is designated as endangered by both the state and federal governments.

    Additionally, wind turbines have been implicated in heinous mortalilty rates for bats (migratory and non-migratory). No one has any idea why bats’ fabled echolocation systems do not detect turbine blades. So, let’s give the little fellows a chance.

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Some day.. take a trip on I-40 through Oklahoma/Texas and see dozens.. perhaps hundreds of wind turbines…
    Others are throughout the west..

    I dunno about bat mortality out there.. I don’t even know if there is a consistent approach …

    but I know this… bats are very quick… I’ve seen them turn 180% in a split second.. and I find it just how to conceive that a turbine blade is going to “sneak up on them”. I can see the problem with slower moving birds who don’t have “radar”…

    but also consider… that if Hawks and Eagles were being killed – that there WOULD BE a TREMENDOUS uproar – and rightly so… apparently… we have a situation where the bigger birds are not being killed (unless I am terribly uninformed.. which could be the case) … or we’re talking about smaller birds… and while I don’t discount any of this – I’d like to see actual numbers.

    I don’t think it does anyone any good to foul the air with “what ifs”… as the fundamental premise for not going forward…

    In the end, each of us turns on that light switch and expects light – and each one of us has, in effect, made a choice when we turn on that light switch.

    Right now – most of us are voting for … mercury in our rivers and the Bay and nuke waste that will be around for a gazillion years… we’re voting FOR that right now – if we admit it …. to ourselves.

    In arguing against newer technologies, are we, in effect, voting to retain the status quo?

  9. Michael Vaughan Avatar
    Michael Vaughan

    NONE of the power generated by this proposed wind turbine project will support the energy needs of Virginia. It will ALL go outside the state. And, that ALL is very little indeed. Without federal subsidies (paid for by taxpayers like you) these projects would NOT be economically viable in virtually all cases.

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I’m not in favor of the subsidies – HOWEVER – I’m also NOT in favor of allowing subsidies for Nukes and Coal-Powered Plants either.

    The “subsidy” for coal power is especially egregious because it allows companies and their shareholders to evade responsibility for pollution – that ultimately harms millions and costs billions in health care impacts.

    Right now – as we speak – DEQ is posting rivers in Va warning that fish contain mercury and folks should be careful about how much we eat – especially children and pregnant women. This is the legacy we have now for coal-powered energy.

    Level the playing field for ALL energy production – and then let innovation, competition and “clean” power standards provide the environment for power production.

    Also – use “Smart” meters which incentively rewards lower use and less use during peak periods.

    All users of electricity should pay exactly their share of what it costs to produce “clean” power.

    Then… we won’t have any more arguments about taxpayers and wind power… or any other kind of power.

  11. Ray Hyde Avatar

    I suspect that if you level the playing field for all power production, then coal still wins, hands down.

    Part of the problem is not solvable: at some level we cannot remove the contaminants. So if you get the Mercurey or radioactive elements out of coal down to the part per billion level, well, when you burn a billion tons of coal….

    Then of course, nuclear power plants are not fully insured, which is a huge subsidy, and they are not responsible for their waste, which is another huge subsidy.

    Perfectly clean power is going to man infinitely high costs, somewhere you have to make a decision as to what you can live with and what you can afford.

  12. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    not infinitely high – just more competitive “clean” alternatives. (see how the comparison actually “works”)

    We can remove most of the mercury right now with BAT (best available technology) and many companies are already doing so – in those states that require it – but not in Virginia where Dominion is hiding behind the New Source Review rules.

    Sometimes it seems to me that the biggest advocates of open markets and level playing fields are really neither.

    so.. truly right now… consumers of electricity in Virginia .. knowingly or unknowingly are generating mercury pollution .. when they COULD be using CLEAN power – that probably would be very competitive in costs – if the playing field required coal to be ONLY relatively cleaner than it is now – and by no means as clean as wind or solar.

    When we say wind and solar are not competitive – what we mean is that we can’t AFFORD to …. not generate mercury pollution – right?

    Put the mercury pollution controls on the coal-fired plants – set up a smart meter system that rewards conservation and off-peak usage and at the end of the day – it’s a win-win for everyone – especially critters, children and pregnant women.

  13. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I have to fess up. I think I mentioned Dominion as evading pollution controls.

    In checking the news today I discovered I was wrong.

    They could have joined Duke Power in going to the Supreme Court but they instead chose not go to court
    and instead to upgrade at least one of their plants – Chesterfield – perhaps all of them.

  14. Michael Vaughan Avatar
    Michael Vaughan

    After all is said, a fundamental fact remains: we can enormously reduce environmental damage by the simple instrument of CONSERVATION. If ordinary folks cannot find within themselves the will power to do this, then our political leadership should create the carrots & the sticks to force a change. Of course, they believe they will be punished by us “children” if they have the moral courage to lead us rather than test the wind everyday with another poll to ascertain what we want, then give us some more candy and toys to play with.-

  15. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I certainly agree but I don’t think it is realistic to expect elected officials to “force” people to do something they don’t want to do… we don’t want nor need dictators who decide for us.

    But I DO think that any elected leader can advocate that we all pay our fair share for goods and services that we use and that in doing so – market forces – simple economics will guide each of us to do what is not only in our own best interests but the best interests of society as a whole.

    If we PAY what it actually costs to produce relatively clean electricity – these things happen:

    1. – we use care in using it
    2. – we use care in buying things that use electricity
    3. – because we “conserve” we use less … and pollute less

    Right now.. we have a system where each one of us contributes to mercury poisoning of not only critters – but ultimately ourselves and our children and most of us have no clue that we are doing it much less even if we do know – how to fix it.

    That’s why I say that when we say Wind Power (or name your low impact power producer) is “too expensive” (and kills birds to boot) .. that our reference for comparison is wrong to start with because we tacitly accept the premise that the status-quo mercury pollution .. cannot be avoided. It can – perhaps not 100% but other countries including Canada have laws that require BAT to reduce it while in this country we refer to those activities as “anti-business”.

    My question is how can Pro-children’s Health be “anti-business”? How did we end up this way?

  16. Ray Hyde Avatar

    I stand by my statement. Perfectly clean means infinitely high costs. Think of examining every atom in a ton of coal and picking out the ones that are mercury, radioactive, cadmium, etc.

    Even using BAT is not always the best idea. You may be spending an awful lot of money that doesn’t buy you very much. I am not suggesting this is the case with regard to coal plants.

    And it isn’t even simply a matter of environmental cost vs economic or health costs, either. Sometimes it boils down to one environmental cost vs another.

    Here is a hypothetical example. All those windmills are on steel towers set on concrete foundations. Steel and concrete take an enormous smount of energy to produce. What if it turns out that the windmill won’t save you as much energy as it takes to create all the infrastructure to support them?

    You seem to think we can make things as clean as we wish if only we will pay enough. That might be true, but it isn’t the point. Say it takes a dollar to prevent the first Mercury death, two dollars to prevent the second, four for the third, and so on.

    At some point we figure out that the next dollar could be better spent on something else that will save more lives cheaper, and is a better way to spend our money than on more BAT.

    I’ll say it again. There is no such thing as perfectly clean. To even attempt to achieve that goal is economically wasteful AND environmentally counterproductive. Blindly applying BAT just because it is available, without evaluating its worth, is simply stupid. It isn’t a matter of being pro-business, it is a matter of being pro-people.

    I know it is hard to accept, but conservation is not exempt from the law of conservation of energy and mass. The more mass you want to reject in terms of pollution, the more energy it is going to cost.

  17. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Here is another example. You have a gold mine. At $200/oz you can afford to extract half the gold from the ore, at $400/oz you can afford to extract 90% of the gold.

    So, when the price goes up, you can go back and re-work all that ore in the tailings pile. This is an enormous waste of energy, so you could argue that you would be better off to extract the 90% on the first pass, and just save the extra gold until the price goes up. The fact remains that you cannot afford to do it: you don’t have the cash flow. You can’t get those long term profits without the short term profits to get you there.

    Now, govt steps in and says we don’t want you to waste the energy, if you want to mine gold you MUST use the best available technology.

    Except, you still can’t afford to do it, so you go out of business. When enough mines go out of business, the price goes up until the biggest and best mines can afford to meet the demand and the rules.

    Then there are all kinds of unforseen issues. Cartels develope because of limitied supply, shipping costs are higher. Gold is used in sensitive electronic equipment used in hospitals, so more people die on account of the cost. Mineworkers are out of work, etc etc.

    It isn’t only a matter of what things cost and what we are willing to pay. We might be willing to pay and unable to. Or we might be paying for one thing and costing ourselves more in some other, seemingly unrelated, areas.

  18. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    In a related area, the FCC today adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking to balance concerns for migratory birds and the need for radio towers. Here’s a link to the news release.

  19. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Notice.. we’re talking about “migratory” birds – which I think is a very legitimate issue verses “birds” which I think is also important but in both cases – the data itself is required unless we want to take the stance that
    we cannot afford to have ANY birds killed.

    In which case.. I’d adopt Ray’s stance – which is a “No mercury at all” is not a reasonable stance.

    In both cases – we need to know the cost/benefit and for that we need the data.

    Our goal – should be “informed decisions” but I think it truly ironic if we put the question to people

    in the form of “would you rather have dead birds or children with mercury in their bodies”

    and they come back with “no dead birds cuz the mercury in kids.. is not really harmful”.

  20. Ray Hyde Avatar

    And to think, we used to play with mercury. Use it to make pennies look like dimes, etc.

    Come to think of it, maybe THAT’s whats wrong with me. Hee hee hoo hah hoo hah hee hee hee.

  21. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    wikipedia: “Mad as a Hatter”

    (this is one of 3):

    * Mercury poisoning suffered by many hatters in the 18th century and 19th century, when mercury was used in the manufacture of felt. Absorption of mercury through the skin can cause Korsakoff’s syndrome. These hatters so afflicted were also known as mad hatters.

    kidding aside. It’s a very serious problem that is very understated.

    EPA/DEQ’s job is to monitor methlymercury levels in aquatic critters and keep the public informed but simply do not.

    In California – they wanted a law that would require disclosing the actual amount of mercury in some foods known to be contaminated and the result was … that Congress (with help from the lobby folks) passed a law that ceded all authority to label foods to the Feds – where of course – they have no plans to address mercury in food).

    Contrast this with the brouhaha with bacterial contamination of spinach or mad cow.

    The main difference is that people don’t die of mercury poisoning AND the actual problem is very well known in terms of sources and the technology that exists to reduce the pollution – expensive – and will drive the cost of electricity higher.

    But again – back to the Wind Turbines – big hoop-de-do over dead birds… the idea behind the turbines… perhaps replace “some” coal-burning mercury emissions with “cleaner” power.

    The result? the perception that Wind Power has “it’s own issues”.

    What’s missing: an intelligent discussion about comparative benefits and risks.

    The bottom line: more people = more electricity = (you must choose one): more coal-burning plants or more nukes.

    The reality: conservation and “clean power” is not a tree-hugger ONLY concept – if one doesn’t like the choices above –

  22. Ray Hyde Avatar

    “What’s missing: an intelligent discussion about comparative benefits and risks”

    I love it when you and I agree.

    We are as different as kumquats and tomatoes, but in the end, those that take risks that don’t match the benefits will lose out. In the end those that make expenditures that don’t pay will lose.

    Like Bacon. I’m a social Darwinist.

    I support the conservation movement, but I want to see it happen in a way that can succeed.

    Like EMR, I believe the only alternative is catastrophe, I just disagree in terms of method.

  23. Ray Hyde Avatar

    I once built a mathematical model that wasd esigned to predict the cost of electicity in the future,

    I assumed that a hypothetical power company had generating capacity equal to 10% of the actual current generating capaciyt of the U. S.

    This was around 1975.

    The way the model worked was that you selected your own assumptions as to what your projection of enrgy usage would be, 30 years in the future, and the rate at wich it would increase.

    Then you could select your choice of modes of power generation: nuclear, coal, oil, gas. Wind wasn’t in the picture,yet.

    Each choice had two variables: how long in advance did you have to commit, and what was your capital cost vs ultimate operating cost. These figures wer based on actual data at that time.

    The model was built using a precursor to Lotus 123, called VisiCalc, and it took me three months to build.

    Somewhere I still have that model. Unfortunately, VisiCalc is long since dead.

    At the time, coal won hands down, no matter what scenario you chose. I seriously doubt the ansewer is any different today.

    After I ran the model every way I could think of, and after I ran every kind of variance analysis and sensitivity study I could think of, this was my final analysis.

    If you really want to promote nuclear power, you must first build a few hundred coal powered plants. Then nukes will look good

    Everyting else was a distant fourth. But, renewable power was not in the model, because it didn’t exist yet.

    The amazing thing is, that the model was built at enormous effort using tools that are crude by todays standards, and it was a student project.

    If someone asked me to duplicate, re-create, and update the model today, using modern COTS tools, I wouldn’t think of attempting it for under $100k.

    And that would be a very rough estimate, aw far as the model is concerned.

    It was a good model, in it’s day. But in the end, its predictions would have been worthless. Not because the predictions were wrong: coal still wins hands down.

    The model was wrong because it did not anticipate enough future changes, even if they turned out to be insignificant.

  24. Ray Hyde Avatar

    What drove me crazy was that nuke win out in the end. I simply cannot believe that is an allowable answer.

    But there it was in blsck and white. No matter how you jigger the variables.

    Except one.

    The whole thing depended on what you thought the electricity demand was, or would be.

    If you were willing to accept that people could live with less electricity, or if you were willing to accept that demand would decline due to less electricity being available (More deaths, or less population growth.)

    Then the answer was a lot different.

  25. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Commonwealth Edison, which serves Chicago and environs and is now a part of Exelon, seems to have bet its farm on nuclear. It seems to be doing acceptably well from both a customer service and a financial perspective. I understand that Comm Ed has devoted considerable resources to security, which the NRC, of course, requires.

    As several writers have already indicated, we need a fair articulation of the facts and an effort to find a balance or costs/benefits & risks/rewards. We need both conservation and reliable sources of energy. Somewhat similiar to transportion — demand management and infrastructure.

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