Wind helps us lower fossil fuel dependence
|August 27, 2005||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Cheap, Renewable, Nontoxic Power
Wind helps us lower fossil fuel dependence
Here is an interesting item from the Standard-Times of New Bedford, Massachusetts (USA).
by Lester Brown
Earth Policy Institute
During a recent trip to Cape Cod I saw the smokestack of the oil-burning power plant as I crossed the Sagamore Bridge and I looked at the plans for an offshore wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound. To me, these images represent the energy past and the energy future for this beautiful, but fragile, coastal peninsula.
One reason we continue to rely so heavily on fossil fuels to supply our energy is that the markets do not tell the ecological truth. The price of a ton of coal or a barrel of oil does not reflect the ecological and health damage that result from burning these fuels nor do they reflect the vast subsidies lavished upon them.
In the United States, oil and gas companies are now perhaps the most powerful lobbyists in Washington. Between 1990 and 2002, they amassed $154 million in campaign contributions in an effort to protect special tax rates worth billions. In testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee in 1999, Donald Lubick, U.S. Treasury Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy, said in reference to the oil and gas industry, “This is an industry that probably has a larger tax incentive relative to its size than any other industry in the country.”
Fossil fuel subsidies are largely hidden from taxpayers, such as the depletion allowance for oil production in the United States. Even more dramatic are the routine U.S. military expenditures to protect access to Middle Eastern oil, which are calculated by analysts at the Rand Corp. to fall between $30 billion and $60 billion a year, while the oil imported from the region is worth only $20 billion.
Consider one of the other costs we face from burning fossil fuels — sea level rise caused by climate change. The most easily measured effect of rising sea level is the inundation of coastal areas. Donald F. Boesch, with the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences, estimates that for each millimeter rise in sea level, the shoreline retreats an average of 1.5 meters. Thus if sea level rises by 1 meter, coastline will retreat by 1,500 meters, or nearly a mile. During the 20th century, sea level rose by 20-30 centimeters (8-12 inches). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects a rise of up to 1 meter during this century.
A team at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute has calculated Massachusetts’s loss of land to the rising sea as warming progresses. Using the rather modest U.S. Environmental Protection Agency projections of sea level rise by 2025, they calculated that Massachusetts would lose from 7,500 to 10,000 acres of land. Based on just the lower estimate and a nominal land value of $1 million per acre for ocean-front property, this would amount to a loss of at least $7.5 billion of particularly expensive property by then. Some of the 72 coastal communities included in the study would lose far more land than others. Nantucket could lose more than 6 acres and Falmouth 3.8 acres every year.
Coastal real estate prices are likely to be one of the first economic indicators to reflect the rise in sea level. Those with heavy investments in beachfront properties will suffer most. A half-meter rise in sea level in the United States could bring losses ranging from $20 billion to $150 billion. Beachfront properties are becoming hard to insure — as many homeowners in Florida and now on Cape Cod have discovered.
Shifting to renewable sources of energy, such as wind power, opens up vast new opportunities for lowering fossil fuel dependence. Wind offers a powerful alternative to fossil fuels — a way of dramatically cutting carbon emissions. Wind energy is abundant, inexhaustible, cheap, widely distributed, climate-benign, and clean — which is why it has been the world’s fastest-growing energy source over the past decade.
Wind energy does not produce sulfur dioxide emissions or nitrous oxides to cause acid rain. Nor are there any emissions of health-threatening mercury that come from coal-fired power plants. No mountains are leveled, no streams are polluted, and there are no deaths from black lung disease. Wind does not disrupt the Earth’s climate.
The principal cost for wind-generated electricity is the capital outlay for initial construction. Since wind is a free fuel, the only ongoing cost is for maintenance. Given the recent volatility of natural gas prices, the stability of wind power prices is particularly appealing. With the possibility of even higher costs of natural gas in the future, natural gas-fired plants may be used increasingly as a backup for wind-generated electricity.
The energy future belongs to wind. The world energy economy became progressively more global during the 20th century as the world turned to oil. It promises to reverse direction and become more local during the 21st century as the world turns to wind, wind-generated hydrogen, and solar cells. Wind and wind-generated hydrogen will shape not only the energy sector of the global economy but the global economy itself.
Sometime back my son called to tell me about a wind farm he had seen while driving on one of the interstates in West Texas. He said you could see the rows of wind turbines receding toward the horizon and interspersed among the wind turbines were oil wells. The wind turbines were turning and oil wells were pumping. The striking thing about this image, he said, was that he was seeing the future and the past meet. He was looking at the energy transition. I said if you go back 35 years from now, the wind turbines will still be turning, but the oil wells will not likely be pumping.
As a recent visitor to Cape Cod I learned about the tourist attraction of the old windmills that once covered your shores. One day, I hope to return to Cape Cod and to see the graceful wind turbines on the horizon and to join the other tourists who take the boat tour to learn about a region meeting its energy needs in a safe, clean and sustainable way. I believe the wind farm will become a beacon of hope to visitors and a source of pride to the local community.
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