Nightmare on Bird Street

Big Wind is a big, ugly bird-killing nightmare.

There is a story about a Native American tribe getting steamrolled by what the author calls Big Wind today over at I talk about the lunacy of switching over significant portions of electric grids to wind in Don’t Sell Your Coat, which you should buy right now. Besides the wastefulness, inefficiency, and blight that the wind farms bring, there’s that little issue of bird-killing. Here’s some of what I said about the subject in DSYC:

As the U.S. lurches forward into the realm of cap-and-trade, even the relatively tame provisions of Kyoto, and those in play in Europe, create real hardship for everyday people. James Hansen’s idea to tax carbon dioxide is horrific, but it at least puts the reality of the extreme environmentalists’ position right in front of the public. What cap-and-trade will achieve, and has already achieved in Europe to a significant extent, is simply higher energy prices – and a few wealthy carbon traders.

The underlying value of traded carbon is zero. The financial meltdown of 2008 was surely a small-scale affair compared to what might very well unfold after burdening the western economic system with the trading of carbon. Such a collapse would have one familiar parent to those examining the issue of climate: computer models. As with global circulation models and the mortgage-based-securities models, the carbon-trading computer models reflect the biases of their programmers, who would be distancing real wealth from human productivity in a way that can only be described as dangerous.

With hidden taxes appearing in the energy system, and thus within the entire U.S. economy, it will not be the privileged elites who will suffer the most when the “new economy,” like the one that melted down in 2008, comes crashing down. It will be those on fixed incomes who pay, particularly those living in northern latitudes, who in many cases will have to make the choice whether to pay heating bills, medical bills, or grocery bills.

This grim financial reality is already a mainstay in Britain, where energy costs for consumers have nearly doubled in the past decade in response to the U.K.’s self-destructive commitment to diminishing its carbon footprint. An energized British environmental movement has stymied efforts to construct even a single new coal-fired power plant, despite the country’s considerable coal reserves. The U.K. has spent hefty sums, meanwhile, ramping up construction of wind farms. Unfortunately, not even wind is morally straightforward, and it is most certainly not economically straightforward. Because the wind itself is so unreliable, wind farms cannot be tied into electric grids without also building additional, redundant, conventional plants, be they nuclear or fossil-fuel fired. In order to keep the entire grid functioning, the conventional plants have to have their turbines running for the many occasions when the wind stops blowing, as it usually does without warning. Electric grids are neither simple nor small things. They are, rather, remarkable engineering achievements that can be compared to the tissue of a living body. Just like our own tissue, they get lifeblood where it needs to go, seemingly without effort. But the effortlessness is a fiction. Switching feel-good but unreliable energy sources such as wind power into such a complicated system is a dicey proposition.

The winter of 2009 in the United Kingdom provides a good example. The coldest temperatures in 30 years were accompanied by a near complete lack of wind. When power was needed most, it was least available. The problem with building redundant power plants is that they cost as much to build as ones that run full-time. The fact that they are supposed to be used less does not diminish their initial price tag by a penny. In the end, the future of wind power in the United Kingdom is anything but clear. It was announced in April 2009 that Britain’s only wind-turbine manufacturing plant would be closed.

Three other countries in Europe have made considerable efforts to convert to wind power. They are: Germany, Spain, and Denmark. Denmark is the most wind-powered of all, and it is far from a success story. Although at times the country’s wind turbines generate a percentage of its consumption somewhere in the teens, generally speaking the power is produced at times when the power is not needed and it is sold for little or nothing to its neighbors. At other times, and frequently, Denmark must import power. For the most part, the purchased power comes from Sweden (mostly nuclear) and Norway (mostly hydroelectric), as Christopher Horner and others have reported. So, while Denmark takes considerable pride in its conversion to wind power, and takes pains to point out how ugly a thing nuclear power is, when the wind goes slack, it becomes a nuclear power consumer, on the down low. So much for the moral high ground, and so much for the reliability of wind.


About Harold Ambler

I am a lifelong environmentalist. I started my journalism career at The New Yorker, where I worked as a copy editor. Since then, my own work has appeared in The New York Daily News, The National Review Online, The Atlantic Wire, The Huffington Post, The Berkeley Daily Planet, The Providence Journal, Brown Alumni Monthly, The Narragansett Times, Rhode Island Monthly, and Providence Business News.
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3 Responses to Nightmare on Bird Street

  1. Our Department of Energy and Climate Change, now bereft of a parliamentary secretary in the shape of Chris Huhne, he who said fracking is “untried technology” and nuclear is “failed technology” (would you buy a used electric car from this man?), has stated that the UK will never use fracked gas (we have lots), but will export it. So the UK will export cheap gas, import more expensive gas, and subsidise expensive and variable wind solar and tidal. These people are in charge of our future wealth and prosperity, and they’re using OUR money. Mind you, at least the tides are predictable, so we’ll know when to expect that our lights will go out.

    I refuse to even discuss wind turbines, which our “old man of wildlife documentaries”, Sir David Attenborough, has said are “things of beauty”and “in tune with nature”. No further comment needed, IMHO.

    • Harold Ambler says:

      I’m seeing reports of polluted groundwater attributed to fracking. That does not make me think we should walk away from fracking. What it does make me think is that the best minds of MIT, Stanford, and Yale (and on and on) rather than quantifying supposed human fingerprints on a mild warming that has yet to equal the last several interglacials, could be harnessed to make fracking as non-toxic as humanly possible. That would be nice.

      Among the various stories linking fracking to groundwater contamination is this one:

      The paragraph on the subject reads:

      “On one section of the reservation, people must boil drinking water because chemicals, possibly the result of the oil and natural gas drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, have contaminated the water supply. And fearing that the chemicals might explode in a home, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered residents to run fans and otherwise ensure ventilation while bathing or washing clothes.”

      I strongly suspect that, sufficiently well funded, the best chemists in the world could duplicate the effects of the fracking liquid being employed today with less worrisome consequences. At the very least, it is worth pursuing.

  2. As I understand it, the “fracking liquid” is water with sand and a few trace compounds added to reduce surface tension and control physical properties. I know of no such volatile additives that fit the article’s description. There’s methane in low concentrations in many rock strata, and this often dissolves in groundwater, appearing as bubbles when the water is boiled. AFAIK, there’s only one proven example in the US of water contamination, which was due to a cracked bore lining, and had nothing to do with fracking as such. I read just the other day of an ongoing case involving the EPA, where they stopped the fracking even though the methane in the water table had a different isotopic “signature” from the fracked gas. The drilling company is mounting a strong legal action against the EPA, using the EPA’s own data, details of which were apparently “leaked” (an appropriate metaphor!) by an unknown EPA employee.

    If I thought fracking was any kind of real risk, I’d be agin it. To date, I view almost all “evidence” of such contamination as suspect. In one case, the EPA stopped drilling, even though the level of a chemical found in groundwater was below the EPA’s own limit. I smell politics, not methane (which is odourless, contrary to popular belief).

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