Guest Commentary on Wind Power versus Fossil Fuels
As we struggle to move away from dependence on foreign oil, the opposition comes not only from terrorists, corrupt anti-American US politicians, and corporate welfare queens. Unfortunately, some good, well-meaning people are also reluctant to make changes.
This article is being circulated by our friends at www.evworld.com and appeared originally in Orion, the publication of the Orion Society.
by Bill McKibbenIf you want to understand how difficult it will be for our society to make the transition away from fossil fuel addiction, consider one small report that slipped out of the Department of Energy in early December of last year. It found that, despite melting poles and rising sea levels, the overall consumption of renewable energy in America fell twelve percent in 2001. Granted, this was partly due to a drought that lowered the reservoirs behind hydro dams, but the drop was also due to the fact that more solar panels were coming off houses than were going up. Equipment from the "boom years" -- when President Jimmy Carter was promoting renewable energy -- is wearing out, being retired faster than it can be replaced. Solar energy use, which never accounted for even close to one percent of our energy generation, is growing smaller still. And it's not because of George Bush and corrupt government, not really. It's because we environmentalists never forced the political world to take renewable energy seriously.
But how seriously do we take it ourselves? If you want to understand how difficult it will be for our society to make the transition away from fossil fuel addiction, you might also want to visit a website: www.saveoursound.org. It's the home of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, and on it you will find an environmental cri de coeur that at first glance could be coming from any of a million citizen groups, watershed councils, river protectors, or wilderness watchdogs. Shady developers, the alliance warns, are planning a "massive power plant" that will line their pockets but endanger local fishermen, wreck property values, threaten wildlife, and "destroy the main reason people love Cape Cod: the ungoverned natural beauty, solitude, and wildness of its coasts."
Before you sign up, though, you need to know that the villains in this case plan to build windmills: 130 of them, sited well outto sea, which would provide thousands of megawatts of power annually. This is precisely the kind of renewable energy that pretty much every Earth Day speech since 1970 has demanded that we develop. Now that it's finally here, though -- now that we're talking about particular windmills in particular places, not abstract and squeaky-clean "wind power" -- people aren't so sure.
Opponents of the Cape Wind development protest that these windmills will be visible from shore -- and by golly, they're right. How visible is a matter of debate, but on a clear day you would see their blades turning on the horizon. They point out, again correctly, that the developers are private interests, rushing to develop a resource that, in fact, they do not own, and without waiting for the government to come up with a set of rules and processes for siting such installations. (Heavens to Betsy!) The critics also insist that there's a "better" site somewhere -- and again they're probably right. There's almost always a better site for anything. The whole business is messy, imperfect.
But those criticisms, however valid, are small truths. The big truths are these: Each breath of wind that blows across Nantucket Sound contains 370 parts per million of carbon dioxide, up from 275 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution, before we started burning coal and gas and oil. That CO2 traps the sun's heat -- about two watts per square meter of the planet's surface. Right now the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is higher than it's been for four hundred thousand years. If we keep burning coal and gas and oil, the scientific consensus is that by the latter part of the century the planet's temperature will have risen five degrees Fahrenheit, to a level higher than we've seen for fifty million years.
And what does that mean for Cape Cod? Well, the middle-of-the-road prediction is that sea levels will rise a couple of feet this century. On a standard eastern beach sloping seaward at about one degree, a one-foot rise in sea level should bring the ocean in ninety feet. Go stand on the beach at Truro and make your own calculation.
Big truths have to trump small ones. It becomes a caricature of environmentalism to object that windmills kill birds or fish -- in fact, new windmills kill very few birds compared with the original models. In fact, says Greenpeace, offshore windmill platforms in Europe have often turned into artificial reefs providing prime spawning ground for fish. But even if windmills did kill some birds, that's a small truth -- the big truth is that rising temperatures seem likely to trigger an extinction spasm comparable to the one that occurred when the last big asteroids struck the planet. Already polar bears are dying as their ice empire shrinks; already coral reefs are disappearing as rising sea temperatures bleach them, and by some accounts, they may be gone altogether before the century ends.
The choice, in other words, is not between windmills and untouched nature. It's between windmills and the destruction of the planet's biology on a scale we can barely begin to imagine. Charles Komanoff, an independent energy consultant in New York, calculates that Cape Wind's windmills could produce as much as 1.5 billion kilowatt-hours annually. Or, looked at another way, if they aren't built, twenty thousand tons of carbon will be emitted each week as coal and oil and gas are burned to produce the same amount of energy. The windmills won't provide all the power for the Cape, but they might provide something like half, which is a lot.
In the real world, the one where the molecular structure of CO2 inconveniently traps solar radiation, you don't get to argue for perfection. You can say, as opponents of the Cape Wind project have said, that we'd do more to fight global warming by improving gas mileage in our cars. (Yeah!) You can say that we should insulate our homes and build better refrigerators. (Yeah!) You can say that we should plant more trees. (Yeah!) And you would be right, just as every Earth Day speech is "right." But I've given my share of Earth Day speeches, and seen the effect they had. Sooner or later you've got to do something. And if we're to have any chance of heading off catastrophic temperature increase, we have to do everything we can imagine. Hybrid cars and planting trees and a new president with the foresight of Jimmy Carter. And windmills, all the hell over the place. Right now renewable energy in America is at six percent and falling.
Which is not to say it's going to be easy. The plans to build big turbines provoke mixed feelings in me too. I live in the mountains above Lake Champlain, where the wind blows strong along the ridgelines. I'll battle to keep windmills out of designated wilderness if that ever comes up, but right now I'm joining those who are battling to get them built on the ridgeline nearest our home. And battling to see them not as industrial eyesores, but as part of a new aesthetic. The wind made visible. The slow, steady turning that blows us into a future less hopeless than the future we're steaming toward now.
Bill McKibben's first book, The End of Nature, has now appeared in twenty foreign editions. His new book, Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, has just been published by Times Books.
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