Opinions differ over wind power
- Published: May 17, 2012
When Ohio’s largest wind farm comes online this summer, 300-ton turbines reaching 40 stories high will convert wind into electricity for customers. In a state that generates more than 85 percent of its electricity from coal, industrial wind power will help Ohioans cut carbon dioxide emissions and stem climate change.
Or will it?
To some, utility-scale wind turbines are a towering promise of cleaner, greener energy, their blades spinning in defiance of dirty fuel. To others, they are menacing industrial behemoths that mar the landscape, threaten bird life and fail to reduce fossil fuel dependence.
Yellow Springs Village Council will decide later this month whether to purchase power from the massive wind farm in northwest Ohio. And even though the wind project would account for just 3 percent of the community’s electricity use and the turbines are far from town, residents are divided over whether to support the technology or stand against it.
Wind opponents, like local resident Wayne Gulden, argue that wind’s intermittency makes this renewable energy source dependent upon operating coal and gas plants to maintain stable power.
“It’s never been demonstrated empirically that wind power saves any emissions at all,” Gulden said this week. “No one has ever turned off a coal plant or gas plant because of wind.”
Another resident, Bob Brecha, contends that the small amounts of wind energy generated can be integrated into the grid without issue. Wind energy is thus an alternative to dirty coal, he said.
“It’s hard to imagine that you don’t have more direct impacts with coal [than wind] with its health impacts and climate change impacts,” Brecha said.
To Council member Karen Wintrow, the choice is a difficult one.
“[Energy]’s just an ugly business,” Wintrow said before Council at its May 7 meeting, citing the visual intrusion, noise and bird deaths caused by wind turbines. “Whether it’s a hole in the ground, a coal mine — there are always downsides.”
Blue Creek Wind Farm
Last month American Municipal Power, the Village’s electric power provider, recommended the Village purchase 0.3 megawatts of power for 10 years from the nearly-complete Blue Creek Wind Farm, a 304-megawatt project in Paulding and Van Wert Counties.
The 152 2.0-megawatt turbines are spread across 140 properties in six townships in an area that is heavily agricultural and has a low population density of just 32 people per square mile (Greene County, by contrast, has 356 people per square mile).
A $600 million project of Iberdrola Renewables, a U.S. division of Spain’s largest energy utility, it is by far the largest installation to date in a state that has seen little wind development. About 1 percent of Ohio’s electricity currently comes from renewables, mostly hydroelectric plants, according to the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio. By contrast, 86 percent of the state’s electricity is generated from coal, 10 percent from nuclear and 3 percent from natural gas and petroleum.
Though Cleveland inventor Charles Brush designed and built the world’s first electricity-generating wind turbine in 1888, which delivered 12 kilowatts of electricity to his home for 20 years, the modern wind industry in Ohio is in its infancy. At the end of 2010 there were just four utility-scale wind turbines producing 7.2 megawatts. Last year, 102 megawatts were added. The Blue Creek Wind Farm quadruples Ohio’s current load, with an additional 1,700 megawatts now in development.
At least one project, the Buckeye Wind Farm in nearby Champaign County, has generated controversy. Area residents contended that safety issues weren’t adequately addressed when the first phase of 54 turbines was approved, but the Ohio Supreme Court, by a 4–3 vote in March, affirmed the decision of the Ohio Power Siting Board.
The Blue Creek Wind Farm has not been as contentious, an Iberdrola spokesperson claims, because of an open community process and greater setbacks from nearby homes and properties than the law requires.
“We acknowledge that what we bring to the community will be a change, but while it is different, it brings a lot of benefits,” Paul Copleman said from Iberdrola Renewables’ headquarters in Oregon.
In addition to $2 million in annual lease payment to landowners, Iberdrola will pay $2.7 million each year in taxes to the local communities and will deliver more tax dollars to Van Wert County than the county’s top 14 tax revenue sources combined, Copleman said.
At Blue Creek, the minimum distance from a turbine to a residence is 1,200 feet, more than 300 feet beyond what’s required in Ohio law. How far wind turbines must be set back from property lines is determined by the height of the turbines and a property must be further than 1.1 times the height of the turbine from the base to the tip of its blade, according to the Ohio Power Siting Board.
Pros and cons of wind
In the Ohio Supreme Court case, neighbors in Champaign County mostly expressed concern about blades flying off and striking their homes. But Tom Stacy, founder of Save Western Ohio in Logan County, said there are many other drawbacks of wind energy.
First of all, wind is highly subsidized by the government, with most of the profits flowing to companies that predominantly generate energy from fossil fuels, Stacy said, creating a “transfer of wealth” and raising electricity prices for all consumers.
“If public policy drives up the cost of electricity, you’re hurting poor people more than affluent,” Stacy said. The capital cost of building a new coal plant is $1 million per megawatt, but wind is $2.4 million per megawatt, he said.
But Yellow Springs Council member and Energy Task Force representative Rick Walkey said he believes that wind should be getting subsidies to get a foothold on the market. After all, he said, federal subsides support coal and nuclear energy generation.
According to an Energy Information Administration report in 2010, wind energy received $5 billion in federal support, while that same year fossil fuels and nuclear received $6.7 billion in subsidy. Per megawatt-hour of energy generated, wind received $56, while fossil fuels got just 64 cents.
Villager Anne Randolph said that though the wind belongs to everyone, a few companies are making out at the expense of communities.
“It’s a struggle between the greed … of the wind companies versus what is good for community,” Randolph said.
Randolph, a volunteer conservationist, is also concerned that birds and bats may be killed by flying into wind turbines. The extent of avian mortality is not known because wind companies put gag orders on their lease owners, Randolph said.
Brecha, a University of Dayton physicist, contends that large buildings, cars and cats kill more birds than wind turbines, but that siting issues should be considered carefully. For example, he said, wind turbines should not be located in known bird migration paths.
“The question about birds and bats and people’s houses to me are important questions,” Brecha said. “We don’t want to go into a new energy source and make a lot of mistakes that we’ll regret later.”
Gulden, a local resident who has a property in Ontario, Canada in an area threatened by wind energy development, said that bird migration routes have never been a reason for a project to be canceled.
At the Blue Creek Wind Farm project the Ohio Power Siting Board found there were no nearby nests for bald eagles and that other raptors wouldn’t be likely impacted because of a lack of natural habitat in the agricultural landscape, according to its report. The board did find a nearby great blue heron rookery and recommended that wind development be at least one-half mile away from the nesting grounds. In addition, tree-cutting at the sites were restricted during certain times of the year to protect the endangered Indiana bat and some state-endangered mussel species were relocated prior to construction.
Wind critics are most vocal about wind’s reputed efficiency and ability to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, which they said are unfounded. The problem lies with wind’s intermittency, according to Stacy. Because the wind doesn’t blow consistently, power from wind farms is irregular, requiring other energy sources to increase or decrease their production accordingly. When they are ramping up and down, these plants burn fuel less efficiently, he added.
“The problem is because wind is so intermittent that it never replaces the capital cost of the conventional generation suite,” Stacy explained. “When you build a wind plant you cause the conventional plant to run less hours per year, but it has to run harder.”
According to Yellow Springs Energy Task Force chair Jerry Papania, natural gas plants, not coal plants, are typically used in combination with wind to deliver a stable energy supply.
“Wind results in more gas usage and less coal usage, so the net effect on CO2 is positive,” Papania said before Village Council on May 7. According to his calculations, the Village would reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 500 tons per year if it purchased 0.3 megawatts of wind energy.
Brecha said that since wind is such a small part of Ohio’s energy mix, there are no major issues with its fluctuations.
“My rough estimate is that in Ohio we can go to a 30 or 40 percent mix of geographically-spread solar and wind before we have to worry too much,” Brecha said. He said that Germany, which is now generating 20 percent of its energy from renewables with plans for as much as 40 percent within a decade, has not had any grid stability problems.
David Blittersdorf, a former president of the American Wind Energy Association, said that wind is far more efficient than coal because coal plants waste a finite resource, whereas wind turbines are merely less inefficient at capturing a renewable resource. He said a wind turbine delivers 50 times the energy that it takes to build and operate it, far higher than other renewables, such as solar photovoltaics, which only have a 10:1 energy return.
Wind in the Village portfolio
Switch on a light in Yellow Springs, and electricity is instantly drawn from unknown power sources somewhere along the grid, whether it’s from coal, natural gas, nuclear or renewables. The electricity villagers actually pay for through the town’s municipal power provider, AMP, can be more easily traced. And in recent years Village Council opted for cleaner, more renewable energy sources.
By 2016, 90 percent of the village’s electricity could be purchased from renewables, including 60 percent from hydroelectric plants along the Ohio River, 20 percent from three Ohio landfill gas plants, and 10 percent from a local solar project on Village land. Because of these current commitments, two independent consultants recommended that the Village not participate in the wind project.
According to John Courtney of Courtney and Associates in his report to Council, at least 5 to 10 percent of a community’s portfolio should be left uncommitted to account for seasonal changes and load reductions. When demand warrants it, energy can be purchased on the open market.
In addition, the Village should try to match its varying energy needs with a mix of baseload, intermediate and peaking sources, Courtney said in a phone interview last week. Because the community already has an abundance of baseload power sources, the Village should not add wind or should add a smaller amount than AMP recommends, he said. While wind cannot operate 24/7 like large coal plants and other baseload sources which deliver constant power, it can not be relied on to meet peaking demand either, like a natural gas turbine, since it cannot be turned on at will.
Courtney added that he typically urges communities to not purchase more than 25 percent of their power from renewable sources because they are more expensive.
“You want to be green, but you have to take into account there’s a cost for that,” Courtney said, adding that renewables, including wind, are unreliable and unpredictable.
The Village would pay an average of 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for wind energy delivered from the Blue Creek Wind Farm over a 10-year contract period, slightly higher than the projected market energy price of 4.3 cents. Comparatively, the Village would pay 7 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity from the local solar farm project. Other energy sources in the portfolio are the NYPA hydroelectric dam (5.8 cents/kwh) and landfill gas (3.7 cents/kwh). The Village would also receive state of Ohio renewable energy credits for the wind project, which can be sold on the market to reduce the effective electricity rate.
There are other variables at play in the Village’s energy portfolio. For example, financing might not come through for the local solar farm, leading to a 10 percent gap in the portfolio. And local electricity use, which has grown slowly in recent years, might rise faster because of growth at Antioch College and more demand for electricity due to electric vehicles, according to Brecha. Increasing its electricity use (if sourced from renewables), might actually be a way for the village to reduce its carbon footprint, he explained.
“There might be the opportunity to become a carbon neutral village in electricity in the near future,” Brecha said.
The Energy Task Force, which will study the issue further before Council’s decision on May 21, currently recommends that the Village purchase some wind, in spite of the consultants’ recommendations. Walkey said that wind energy is something many villagers support.
“We always want to encourage the development of reneweable resources and it’s what we want our portfolio to look like as a village,” Walkey said this week. “It’s what Yellow Springers want to see — it’s what they’ve been clamoring for.”