?Windfall? Documentary: Greatest Hits of Misinformation By Carl Levesque

The desperate attacks never cease, do they?

A documentary film taking aim at wind energy has recently been receiving some attention. The film attempts to tell the tale (read: tall tale) of a New York town where developers sought to build a wind farm. Along the way, "Windfall," as the documentary is dubbed, parades out just about every cliché of an inaccuracy ever slung at a wind turbine over the years. In the end, however, the allegations posed in film hardly stick, particularly if you consider them with a critical eye. In fact, they only serve to remind, point by point, why wind power is a no-brainer.

Since the film and a subsequent blog supporting it amount to a Greatest Hits list of unfounded claims, we thought readers might appreciate a matching Greatest Hits of wind power facts and information.

Popularity. To get a feel for how many communities embrace the wind farms that have come to their areas, one need only take a look at a community right in the same state where "Windfall" is set. In a poll, residents of Lewis, County, N.Y., site of the Maple Ridge wind farm, overwhelmingly (by a 4:1 margin) showed support for the notion that “development of the [project] has had a positive effect on Lewis County.” Moreover, after experiencing wind energy firsthand, residents apparently welcome more of it; 77% support expansion of Maple Ridge. Certainly, a group of wind opponents reside on the Web, yet those who post “information” usually forget to examine its accuracy. So do many of the people who read the information. Here’s our take.

Developers and communities. Depicting a divided town makes for great storytelling. Well, if you want to find disagreement, go to any town hall meeting in any given locale in the Northeast. One local community there recently had a ferocious fight over whether to replace or renovate the town bandstand. No one is saying that everyone is going to agree on the siting of a wind farm. Any decision, particularly one involving land use, is bound to spur debate (yes, even heated), and understandably so.

Wind farms are typically sited with public input, and it is in developers’ best interest to cultivate public support and gain buy-in for their projects. That’s often not difficult to do, given that projects can contribute millions in tax revenue to rural communities that often need it most. Wind farms also often provide regular lease payments—-not a one-time cash giveaway, as was suggested in one recent blog about the film—-to farmers, who welcome an additional revenue stream they can depend on.

For a great example of how wind energy has had a lasting impact on a town, check out the experience of Sweetwater, Texas, with wind.

Wind’s contribution and cost. Wind power still contributes a small percentage of the nation’s electricity—-true enough. But let’s not overlook the 35,000 megawatts of wind turbines installed as of the end of last year. That’s enough to power well over 8 million homes. Moreover, dismissing a resource for not contributing much, is hardly wise (to put it nicely) because such statements ignore potential. A 2008 Department of Energy study confirmed wind power can provide 20% of the nation’s electricity by 2030, even with current technology. (Wind power, in fact, already provides over 20% in Denmark.)

Cost. Another Greatest Hits favorite of wind opponents: cost. Usually without backing up their claims, they like to say wind costs too much. In fact, numerous studies have confirmed that putting more wind power and other renewables on the grid would actually reduce consumer energy costs, thanks to such factors as natural gas prices being driven down. And speaking of fuel for electric generation, because a wind turbine’s “fuel” (i.e., the wind) is free throughout the 20-plus-year lifespan of a project, wind energy is inflation-proof, serving as a hedge against volatile energy prices.

Sound. Typically, two people can carry on a conversation at normal voice levels—-not at residences near wind farms but while standing at the base of a turbine. And even when underneath a turbine, often the loudest noise heard is the whooshing sound of the wind hitting the blades—not unlike the sound a flag makes when whipping in the wind. Moreover, standing next to one does not give an accurate impression of what it will sound like from your home. Siting guidelines as well as agreements worked out with towns keep turbines safe distances from homes and businesses.

Decommissioning. What’s going to happen to all those turbines once they reach the end of their lives? Anti-wind folks paint doomsday pictures of rusted towers of broken metal dotting the landscape, with mysterious wind farm owners nowhere to be found.

Not going to happen. First, it is unlikely that a wind farm would be abandoned in the first place. The pace of technological progress in the wind industry is rapid, and “repowering”—-that is, installing new technology—-is likely to be a viable option at many sites once the existing turbines reach the end of their 20-30 year life. After all, the wind is ever-present and the infrastructure (e.g., roads, transmission system, etc.) is already in place. Second, the scrap value of a wind turbine significantly exceeds the cost of removal, and so even the economics favor responsible decommissioning. This is all not to mention, of course, that decommissioning responsibilities are typically covered in legal documents created when a wind farm first goes up.

Subsidies. We saved a good one for last, because wind opponents love to tote this one out. Yes, wind energy receives policy support. But, wind opponents and fossil-fuel advocates don’t want you to know: so does every other energy source. Energy is key to the economy, and so policymakers want to make sure we’ve got plenty of it. Through permanent measures in the tax code, fossil fuels have been subsidized for more than 90 years. American taxpayers have already paid well over $500 billion to fossil-fuel industries, causing the nation to become over-reliant on too few energy sources that damage both the environment and the health of Americans, imposing even greater healthcare and economic costs on every one of us. Such subsidies continue to this day.

The wind power industry has grown in this country in spite of the unstable policy climate under which it has been forced to operate. (The primary policy driver for wind energy, a tax incentive, has been extended mostly in one- and two-year increments and has even been allowed to expire on a couple of occasions.) But now the industry has grown to the point where it is at a crossroads. It must have that stability or face serious consequences.

In sum, there is much less to "Windfall" and its boosters than meets the eye. Wind energy may not be perfect, but it is one of the most environmentally friendly energy options available, it strengthens national security by diversifying our fossil-fuel-heavy energy portfolio, and it has proven ability to revitalize hard-pressed rural communities and create new manufacturing jobs. We should be installing far more of it, not industriously making the perfect the enemy of the excellent.

By Carl Levesque, www.awea.org/blog/