Renewable Energy: Be Careful What You Wish For

An unidentified company has filed a “pre-application” to construct 90 400-foot wind turbines in parts of Virginia’s George Washington and Thomas Jefferson national forests. Eighteen miles of national forest crest line would be affected by the proposal, says Rick Webb, an environmental scientist at the University of Virginia who opposed another wind farm proposal, since approved, in Highland County. (See the story on

Given the incentives to develop renewable energy resources, Webb sees the application as a sign of things to come. “This is the tip of the iceberg.”

Here’s what’s going on: Virginia, like many other states, has set a goal for electric utilities to generate a significant percentage of their electric power from renewable energy sources in the near/mid-term future. Dominion has been buying wind power projects, and in November it issued a Request for Proposal for more renewable energy projects. (Last week Dominion pronounced that it was “pleased” by the response, which included ideas for wind, hydro, biomass and solar.)

At present, wind power and biomass are the more economically competitive of the renewable energy sources. But they tend to be small-scale, and a large number of projects will need to be built to generate sufficient electricity to meet the state’s quotas for renewable fuels. Consequently, there will be intense pressure to build on the limited number of renewable-fuel sites that are available.

I don’t know for a fact that the proposal for wind farms in the national forest is directly tied to the Dominion solicitation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is — the timing is surely more than coincidental. Regardless, the hearings for the wind power proposal undoubtedly will be a replay of the controversial Highland County project — where concerns surfaced about the giant turbine blades killing birds and bats — compounded by the fact that the scenic vistas of national forest are being despoiled.

Thus, under the guise of environmental values, public policy in Virginia is promoting renewable energy. But under a different set of environmental values, we’ll find that many of those projects are undesirable.

To my way of thinking, energy conservation is the most pristine environmental policy of all — avoid consuming the electricity in the first place. Of course, our current regulatory apparatus encourages Dominion and other electric utilities to pursue renewable energy sources, whatever the cost, because they can pass on the cost to rate payers. By contrast, power companies in Virginia only undercut their market when they invest in conservation measures.

We’re getting what we wished for, and we may not like it.

(Credit for photo of mountain-ridge wind turbines: Appalachian Voice Front Porch Blog.)

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  1. Anonymous Avatar

    4,400 ft wind turbines?

    I don’t think so.

    4400 90-ft turbines, maybe?


  2. The Logician Avatar
    The Logician

    Jim – your last paragraph hits the nail on the head… any energy source, renewable or not, is going to leave its mark on the planet, with true conservationism coming through energy reduction, not energy greening.

    People need to understand that it’s not just traditional coal-fired plants, with their extensive mining and generated pollutants, that disturb the ecosystem. “Renewable” sources leave their own ecological footprints too:

    -Hydro-electricity generation requires damming of rivers and the creation of large reservoirs, drastically changing the natural environment of a region.

    -Wind power places vast quantities of turbines along coastlines and ridges, where wind is greatest, to the chagrin of tourists and migratory birds alike.

    -Biomass will either drive up the cost of produce by diverting agricultural resources to the energy industry, or we will have to turn more natural wildlife into farmland to compensate.

    -Solar power turns vast desert habitats into solar farms.

    If we’re going to continue to use electricity, then we’re going to continue to manipulate the ecosystem in the process. “Renewable” does NOT usually mean “Green.” It may simply just be a lesser evil, depending on your viewpoint and who is funding your research.

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ray, Thanks for pointing out my careless mistake… which I have corrected in the original post.

    Logician, you stated the broad issues very well. Every type of electric generation has an environmental footprint. Presumably, though, the “renewable” energy sources now in fashion have a smaller environmental footprint. And they have the advantage of meshing with the goal of a distributed electricity grid consisting of a large number of smaller-scale power producers located closer to their consumers, an arrangement that creates a more resilient, less obtrusive power grid.

    But we should not deceive ourselves that renewables are panacea. At the end of the day, we need to conserve. There are two types of conservation — the easy, swap-out-your-electric-bulb-for-a-CFL kind and the more profound, change-your-transportation-system-and-land-use patterns kind. The public is enthusiastic about the first, but we need the second as well.

  4. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Buoys with windmills off the Eastern Shore would get energy from the waves/tides and wind. Dunno if they would be seen from shore or not.

    There must be a way to put some alarm that birds sense to stay away.

  5. Not Jim Bacon Avatar
    Not Jim Bacon


    If you want to cut electricity consumption, take this blog down and turn your computer off.

    “Between 2000 and 2005, server electricity use grew at a rate of 14 percent each year, meaning that it more than doubled in five years. The 2005 estimate shows that servers and associated equipment burned through 5 million kW of power, which cost US businesses roughly $2.7 billion.”

    “Anderson said the nation’s energy needs are unlikely to diminish any time soon. The rise of the personal computer and the Internet have spurred electricity consumption across the nation, most notably in California, contributing to the state’s energy crisis….

    “Unlike a television and other home and office electronics, personal computers that are attached to the Internet use most of their power invisibly in servers, routers and other trafficking infrastructure not seen by the consumer,” said Anderson.”

  6. Groveton Avatar

    Conservation will be a big help. However, nobody thinks we can conserve ourselves down to zero. At best, I think we can slow down the growth of electrical demand to something under the growth of the population.

    Meanwhile, the existing oil powered electrical generators consume foreign oil, generate huge revenue streams for countries with questionable policies and generate lots of greenhouse gasses. The coal fired plants translate into mountaintop removal and lots of greenhouse gasses.

    With wind power we lose some birds and bats. That’s unfortunate but it seems more acceptable than removing whole mountaintops or enriching Iran.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    Maybe 4400 ft turbines is an idea. Not very many bird strikes up there, plenty of wind at that alititude. Problem is the equal and opposite reaction thing. All that wind power will have to be resisted by the footings embedded in the earth: eventually it will slow the earths rotation, which is probably not a good thing.



    There is a difference between renewable and sustainable.

    There is also a difference between conservation and doing without. If reducing power consumption reduces productivity too much, then it reduces sustainability – somewhere.

    The argument for sustainability is that without it we will run up against the edge of the petri dish and die off for lack of resources.

    What that means is putting an artificial boundary around the culture such that there are enough resources outside the boundary to sustain it.

    Which amounts to setting up an edge to the petri dish that is closer in, and it means that some will die off or never exist – in the name of sustainability. I think this is the end result of Logician’s train of thought.

    Who wants to be first?

    Which is pretty much the gist of Not Jim Bacon’s proposal to turn off the power to the blog. Until we address the issue of who wants to be first simultaneously with conservation, we are pretty much kidding ourselves.


    Putting an artificial boundary around the culture such that there are enough resources outside the boundary to sustain it – sounds an awful lot like an urban growth boundary, doesn’t it?

    Think there might be a property rights issue associated with environmental management and sustainability here?


    “personal computers that are attached to the Internet use most of their power invisibly in servers, routers and other trafficking infrastructure not seen by the consumer,” said Anderson.”

    And it doesn’t show up in their personal power consumption. Another fact to consider in my theory that communal power consumption in urban areas is not considered when we claim urban areas are more energy efficient.



  8. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Not Jim Bacon, You are right — electricity consumed by server farms is leading the growth in demand for power. The answer isn’t for anyone to turn off their PCs or shut down their blogs. The answer is to apply sound management practices to older server farms and data centers. I can guarantee you that the brand new server farm that Northrop Grumman operates for the Commonwealth of Virginia is far more energy efficient than server farms built 10 years ago.

    One of the areas where conservation can pay for itself faster and quicker than any other is precisely in the area of server farms and data centers. Investments in this area can generate a serious Return on Investment. I know of at least one enterprise in Virginia that is thinking of launching a business around data-center conservation.

    Conservation doesn’t have to mean turning down the heat and shutting off the computer. It means letting free markets do their thing: shaving energy costs because it saves money.

  9. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    you know……

    the Europeans and Japanese also have server farms but they use a lot less electricity per capita than we do, especially for residential….

    How come they can use less than us but we have to shut down our server farms to conserve?

    and if you look at your own home usage.. I’m willing to bet that a computer’s share of your total electric is minuscule…

    methinks.. the real strategy is to talk about it.. and not do much about the problem..

    everyone has got their own favorite reason NOT to cut back.

  10. Spank That Donkey Avatar
    Spank That Donkey

    Whine, moan, complain, like a few wind turbines producing clean energy are going to destroy the Shenandoah Valley.

    Build them, so we take hikes up to them and admire it all…. It would be nice to see the park system use the revenue generated to buy more land to preserve for wild life habitat, i.e for the birds and bats…

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    Perfect timing.

    You have got to watch this;

    It’s an interview with John Hofmeister, President of Shell Oil Company.

    It’s perfect for readers of Bacon’s Rebellion….it’s a member of the “Business as Usual Community” telling us what’s wrong with our energy policy…..or lack of energy policy. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by what he has to say.

    It’s about a half-hour long (with commercials.

    Among the things he says;

    -The US has no energy policy.

    -Things are getting worse.

    -He would not be surprised if there were riots in the streets caused by high fuel prices.


    …..back to work……


  12. Anonymous Avatar

    My favorite reason NOT to cut back is when it costs me more than it saves me.


  13. Anonymous Avatar

    “It would be nice to see the park system use the revenue generated to buy more land to preserve for wild life habitat, i.e for the birds and bats…”

    Now that’s the kind of environmentla thinking that makes sense. Conservation is not free, so you had better plan a revenue stream to support it.

    (STD: you need different initials..)


  14. Anonymous Avatar

    “It is amazing/revealing that so many scientists who once accepted the claims that human discharge of C02 into the atmosphere is causing global warming have changed their minds. From the Adam Smith Blog,

    A new ‘Manhattan Declaration on Climate Change’ was initiated stating “that carbon dioxide (CO2) is not a pollutant but rather a necessity for all life.” Senator Inhofe’s register, put together by the USA Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, already contains more than 500 scientists who previously endorsed the IPCC views but have meanwhile changed their mind. The sceptics have reached a consensus on four key points:

    1) The Earth is currently well within natural climate variability. 2) Almost all climate fear is generated by unproven computer model predictions. 3) An abundance of peer-reviewed studies continue to debunk rising CO2 fears and, 4) “Consensus” has been manufactured for political, not scientific purposes.”

  15. Groveton Avatar

    Climate change risk? I don’t know.

    Regime change risk (in, say, Saudi Arabia)? I do know.

    America’s economy and national security both float on vast pools of foreign oil.

    This has to change.

    Please send my condolences to the birds and bats.

    Also send my condolences to the NIMBYs.

    Support HB1228. Force the state agency with the highest paid executives (i.e. Dominion – Virginia) to offer alternative energy for sale. I’ll buy renewable energy even if it is more expensive. It’s the American thing to do.

  16. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Groveton, There are many good reasons to support electricity conservation, but liberating the U.S. from dependency upon foreign petroleum is the least of them.

    According to the Energy Information Administration’s 206 Electric Power Annual, the following fuels contributed the following amounts of megawatt hours (in thousands):

    Coal… 1,990
    Petroleum… 64
    Natural gas… 813
    Nuclear… 787
    Hydroelectric… 289
    Other renewables… 96

    Basically, petroleum is a non-factor in electricity production.

    The only way that we can use electricity to kick the oil habit is if we shift wholesale to the use of electric cars. If you really want to “do your part,” then buy an electric car! That way, you substitute electricity (produced by home-grown fuels) for petroleum (some 60 percent of which is imported).

  17. Anonymous Avatar

    I’d be more worried about Russian oil than Saudi oil. The Saudi’s have a lot of money invested here, and they depend on our hardware for their Air Force.

    The Saudis know that their finacial security is heavily dependent on our well being.

  18. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Jim Bacon is correct with respect to true energy independence.

    Unless we trade gasoline-powered cars for electric-powered cars… we’re fooling ourselves about foreign oil independence.

    and of course.. if we decide to go the electric car route… there are major consequences…

    probably double the current mercury contamination in our rivers…

    and a much sooner demise to the gas tax that originally thought.

    and more power lines….

    good thing NoVa is going to a toll system.. they won’t have to worry about the gas tax no more…

    and as long as the coal plants are 100 miles away… then NoVa will only have to put up with more power lines…

    so… should we trade “foreign oil” for more mercury?

    I wonder how the greenies feel about this trade?

  19. Anonymous Avatar

    This is a ridiculous.

    Look, energy efficiency and conservation makes the most sense, but renewable energy is certainly possible in Virginia.

    Solar is key, and can be done with thermal and PV on roofs right here in Richmond.

    Wind is possible too, though I share some of the concerns. Tidal is possible.

    New technology is coming and it will be even better.

  20. Anonymous Avatar

    “New technology is coming and it will be even better.”

    I agree, and that new efficiency will let us all consume more and live even more grandly.

    How does that keep us from running up against the edge of the petri dish?


  21. Groveton Avatar


    Fair point on electricity and oil. Sloppy thinking on my part.

    I wonder how the equations would change if we looked at all residential energy use instead of just electrical use. Natural gas, home heating oil, etc all play a part.

    As for the electric car, I am deciding right now whether to order one. I’ll keep you guys posted. The Tesla is great but I am not sure about $98K list. Might have to financially “downsize” on my electric car.

    Hopefully, Dominion is getting close to their electrical line routes through the Piedmont. We’ll need more juice as we replace dirty foreign oil with clean American made electricity.

    I assume that the PEC will see the ecological benefit of switching to electric cars and drop their opposition to new electrical lines running through the Piedmont.

    They will do this – right?

    Their concern is the environment – right?

  22. Anonymous Avatar

    Hang on a while. Tesla is supposed to come out with a sedan in the $60k range. Not quite as zippy, but darn close.


  23. Groveton Avatar

    Tesla says the 08s are sold out but you can get on the waiting list for the 09s. $5,000 to get on the list, the 2008s cost $98,950. Prices for the 2009s have yet to be set. So, you order the car, send in the deposit and hope you can afford it. And they are sold out.

    Or, wait for 2010 and buy a GM for (allegedly) $30,000 –

    And Dominion needed a guaranteed rate of return because….

  24. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    geeze .. Groveton.. for that kind of money.. you could take your house off the grid…. AND get a Tahoe Hybrid.

    surely in Great’ve got room for a wind turbine or two or acres of solar panels..

    I’m thinking that you’re in this for the car… not the environment


    but then again.. I’m betting some of those PEC guys are the reason why the Telsas are sold out in the first place.

    I wonder how many PEC folks are “off the grid”?

  25. Anonymous Avatar

    I wonder how many PEC folks are “off the grid”?


    Actually getting off the grid is inefficient. You need to be connected so you can “sell back” your excess power.

    I think there are a few PEC types with partial systems, I seem to remember reading of one.

    One good thing about an old house, when the power goes off we have plenty of lanterns.

    Now, if I could just find a few whales for the oil……

  26. Groveton Avatar


    Most of the wind blowing around here lately has been hot and coming from Fredricksburg ;).

    I do like the car. If it helps the environement too – great. But it’s too expensive. Real question (in my mind) would be: spend $98K for a Tesla or wait until 2010, spend $30K for a Volt and donate $68K to charity.

    I’ve been thinking about the solar panels. Not so sure about “acres and acres”. I don’t really want to cut down any trees (my neighbors have done enough of that – those dime store cowboys just have to have horses in their back yards). I could put the panels on the roof in the back.

    But I am caught on the horns of a dillemma – solar panels would take money away from Dominion and that’s like saying a prayer in church – good for the soul. However, solar panels help NIMBYs be NIMBYs and that’s like a sin.

    I’m sorry …. what were you saying about the environment?

  27. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I was saying.. some folks buy Telsas and some folks buy horses..


    I wonder how horse farms fit into the bigger scheme of Fundamental Change…

    more hot air from Fredericksburg

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