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Click to see a simulation of the proposed wind plant atop Backbone Mountain in Western Maryland
Notable Quotes

"I favor renewable energy sources, including wind turbines, if they can be located in situations away from major migration pathways, and if scientific, peer-reviewed on-site studies of degree of hazard to migratory birds are conducted prior to construction." If a facility does go up, Robbins added that "a fine system should be in place for each bird killed or wounded by the turbines."

—Chandler S. Robbins, Maryland's preeminent expert on migratory birds (Maryland Public Service Commission testimony, 2002).

Jon Boone recently sent the following to a hydro engineer in the far West who had extolled the virtues of his industry and recommended it to the PJM via encouraging more "pumped hydro storage" for regulating wind volatility, in the process dredging up the NIMBY appellation for those who would question it.

I remember the days when electricity grids were obligated to provide power reliably, securely--and affordably. And that was all. Then came the 70s and the so-called Arab oil embargo, when Jimmy Carter et al, under the incipient rumblings of peak oil, was stirred to make us energy "independent." With huge government incentives and the blessing of the Sierra Club, we moved stridently to replace oil generation with--ah--coal. And were--uh--hugely successful.

At the same time, the Sierra Club and a vast array of environmental scientists took on hydro, showing that large hydro dams degraded hundreds of miles of sensitive wetland habitat. And we moved to curb the building of any large hydro facilities--and indeed have in the interim spent billions of tax dollars decommissioning hydro projects.

At the same time, Hollywood was scaring the hell out of the public with its distorted narrative of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. The Sierra Club withdrew its support for nuclear, which it had been urging as a replacement for hydro. And so we haven't built any new nuclear facilities for 30 years. And the Sierra Club today opposes both nuclear and hydro, the only two conventional sources of power that emit no greenhouse gasses.

Almost a decade ago, Al Gore attempted to scare the hell out of the public (and separate it from the contents of its wallet) with his Global Warming routine, extolling "renewables," particularly the renewable du jour, wind. Never once did he remind the public that there were good, very sound reasons, that the country moved from wind and horses 200 years ago with the advent of modern power capacity, replacing those wondrous Clipper ships with steam power, which unleashed so much more productivity and created so much more wealth.

As a student of the history of science, a long time environmentalist, and an artist and student of the history of art, there is, to me, little that seems more inelegant and retrograde than having the PJM, a region that serves one of the most wind impoverished regions of the country, experiment with thousands of massive wind installations (because the interconnections are cheaply accessible), where each wind turbine would be nearly 500 feet tall, placed five to a mile and differentially moving, with blinking red lights taking away the darkness. Many of these turbines would be planted on the tops of the highest ridges, making them the dominant force in the landscape for scores of miles in most directions.

And none of them would be placed within a hundred miles of where the people running the limited liability wind companies would live. These are the real NIMBYs, something chillingly evident in their responses to my questions to them on the stand during my two stints as an intervenor in two Maryland wind hearings.

Adding, say, 2000MW (1000-2.0MW each) of Maryland-based rated wind capacity, spread over many hundreds of miles, would provide the PJM with about, perhaps, an annual average of 600MW, assuming a combined capacity factor of 30%, higher than the nation's average for wind. Based on the behavior of wind projects around the world, about 60% of the time they would produce less than 600MW. At peak demand times, they would likely produce less than 200MW--and often produce virtually nothing. They rarely would produce their rated capacity. Whatever they do produce would be continuously skittering.

Whatever grid engineers do to integrate wind flutter, it can only resemble a game of pinball, giving wind variability the continuous ballast (think of all those flippers, continuously engaged) it requires to keep it in play through the system. And whoever plays the game will find it very expensive. In windball, there's no "free game" if you get enough points. Only greater cost.

Even if wind projects were all regulated with the hydro potential that exists in the PJM, which almost certainly won't be realized because of the NIMBYism you decry, the amount of greenhouse gas savings a wind/hydro combination might offset would be only marginally better than the savings gained hydro alone, with no wind at all.

Wind is truly much ado about very little. The capital cost of a huge wind turbine these days is between $4 and $5 million, most of it payed by taxpayers through subsidies from the federal treasury. The potential for the loss of vulnerable species of wildlife, particularly birds and bats, is enormous. Aside from the ravages of domestic cats, which kill hundreds of millions of birds annually, it is tall structures that serve as the other shoe dropped in the cause of avian mortality. Placing skyscraper-sized wind turbines atop mountain ranges well known for raptor and passerine migration is environmentally treacherous, for there is little that is cognitively more dissonant than supporting the concept of minimizing the human footprint on the earth while cheerleading for the rude intrusiveness of massive wind projects--and their related sprawling transmission systems.

And I've not even broached the neocolonism involved with limited liability wind company tactics, which typically target poor rural areas desperate for revenues to provide basic services, the leaders of which are often all too willing to turn their natural bounty into an industrial wind amusement arcade. The best wind resource in Maryland is in and around the Chesapeake Bay, surrounded by tony, well-heeled suburbanites who use carbon like its going out of style and who are so driven for absolution about their own carbon footprint that they strongly support wind--in the mountains, hundreds of miles from where they live. They would fight like drunken Irishmen to keep a massive wind project away from their gated communities.

I don't oppose wind because of any NIMBY reason. Rather, it's because I and others believe its one of the silliest modern energy ideas around, made possible solely because of government subsidies. We realize it's not even about energy; rather its about tax sheltering generation for large corporations in need of a higher bottom line--the reason Enron was such a big investor (tax shelters sold as a commodity). Retrofitting modern technology to meet the needs of ancient wind flutter is monumentally backasswards, a sure sign that pundits and politicians, not scientists, are now in charge. It would take more than a smart grid to incorporate such a monumentally byzantine idea successfully.

It’s untrue that many people in my neck of the woods merely find wind plants "unsightly." We also view them as the latest energy bunco scheme and we resent the pillage of our mountains, the destruction of our wildlife, and the devaluation of our property to support an industry that is a poster boy for irresponsible development.

As for residential wind and solar, I think it's a boutique-y phenomenon that will not travel long or well. It would take around ten to twenty years to recapture its capital costs. Renewable energy is generally too energy diffuse and land intensive to be effective, even at industrial scales; at this scale it is clunky and cumbersome, redolent of the technology wrought by rooftop television antennas. And besides, it's characteristically uncivil, since any personal "savings" would be passed on to the commons in the form of higher rates necessary to cover the cost of regulating all that flux. I'd rather put wheels on my roof to encourage nest-building storks, hoping that the good karma they would bring would expiate my carbon sins.

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