Five Reasons to Let the Wind PTC Expire, And Reinvest in Solar and Efficiency

The Production Tax Credit (PTC) -- a 2.2 cent per kilowatt-hour (kWh) credit for wind energy corporations -- is set to expire at the end of 2012, and a bevy of corporations and environmental organizations are calling on Congress to renew it immediately.  The tax break costs $1 billion dollars a year, which is much smaller than the subsidies Congress is giving to the fossil fuel industry, but has still drawn opposition from Congress and, of course, the fossil fuel industry.

We should oppose the Wind PTC, but for much different reasons than those put forward by its traditional opponents.  The bottom line is that wind energy does not meet even a modest "green" standard, and we should be putting our money to much more sustainable energy generators.  Our energy choices (mistakes?) so far have ensured that we will feel the effects of climate change for hundreds of years -- rushing to deploy a destructive and subpar "bridge" technology will only cost us more in the long run and have only a marginal benefit for our climate compared to other technologies already available.  Here are the top five reasons I think we should let the PTC for wind energy expire, and double down on investments in greener alternatives, such as energy efficiency, and solar on rooftops and already-disturbed lands.

Photo courtesy Friends of Mojave
1.) Wind energy facilities industrialize vast amounts of land to generate as much energy as rooftop solar panels, or large solar projects on already-disturbed lands.  Take the Ocotillo Express Wind project for example.  The project is destroying and fragmenting nearly 16 square miles of once intact desert habitat near Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California to produce 315 megawatts of renewable energy.  Now consider that California has already installed over 1,300 megawatts of solar panels on rooftops, leaving our wildlands to support the ecological functions already burdened by climate change.  Similarly, just a couple of solar projects proposed by the company 8minuteenergy for already-disturbed lands would generate more energy than the Ocotillo Express Wind project, but require far less land.  From a wildland conservation standpoint, wind energy is akin to the hydropower boom of the last century, requiring the devastation of hundreds of square miles of our treasured landscapes and ecosystems.

2.) The wind industry shows no respect for wildlife, and its business model is inherently opposed to our conservation ethic.  Rooftop solar installers and solar leasing companies, on the other hand, pose a significantly smaller burden on our wildlands and wildlife.  The wind industry actively lobbied the White House, Congress, and Department of Interior to weaken wildlife protections, and they have even co-opted some environmental groups to speak against wildlife protections.  The Chokecherry/ Sierra Madre wind energy project in Wyoming is an excellent example of the wind industry's disregard for wildlife.  The project is expected to be one of the most deadly to raptors and bats, but the wind industry refuses to find a better location.  Solar panels on homes and businesses, on the other hand, pose a collision threat to inner-city wildlife, but it is unlikely that rooftop solar panels will kill off a local population of golden eagles, or decimate a bat roost.

Cement foundation for wind turbine.
3.) Compared to rooftop solar or solar on already-disturbed lands, wind turbines require more carbon-intensive manufacturing and construction. A USGS study estimated that meeting 20% of our energy needs with wind energy would require 6.8 million tons of concrete, in addition to 1.8 million tons of steel, and 40,000 tons of copper. The EPA calculates that, on average, each ton of cement produces 0.97 tons of CO2 emissions, and every ton of steel produced can result in anywhere from 0.6 to 2.8 tons of CO2. Once the wind turbines are installed, their electricity is typically carried to customers hundreds of miles away on copper transmission lines. In a single year, one US-based copper mine reported 3.1 million tons of CO2 emissions.  The infrastructure required to build and install wind turbines, and then distribute the power is higher than solar panels installed on existing infrastructure, and in our cities.

Solar over a parking lot in California.
4.) Wind energy, probably more so than solar, requires fossil fuel peaker plants to offset intermittency.   With centralized solar and wind power plants, an abrupt change in the wind or sun can sharply reduce the available energy supply, so utility companies have to build dirty natural gas "peaker" plants as a back-up.  Distributed solar generation is the best clean energy defense against this intermittency -- when wind and shade affect output from a renewable energy generator.  If you have thousands of solar panels spread out all across a region, a cloud passing over a few houses with solar panels will not send the electricity grid into disarray. The utility companies and electricity customers have a more stable power supply without as much dependence on centralized natural gas plants.  Extracting and burning natural gas releases methane, potentially offsetting natural gas' "clean" edge among other fossil fuels, since methane is 20 times more effective at trapping heat than CO2, according to the EPA.

Transmission lines in the Mojave.
5.) The energy infrastructure we invest in today will be the model we live with for decades, so it is better to build a strong and sustainable energy path based on distributed generation, and not less efficient renewable energy sources. Once we install thousands more wind turbines, requiring billions of dollars of investment, the companies that operate those turbines have an incentive to keep them running for at least 20 years, and then replace the turbines with another technology after that to keep control of the real estate on which they are built. This will only fortify an energy model that devalues land conservation and promotes a centralized grid system that is controlled by big corporations. 

Those that disagree will argue vehemently that wind energy is much cleaner than coal, and the wind industry is on pace to displace coal.  They are correct, and they probably argued the same for natural gas.  But they will also twist and gloss over facts to defend the wind industry's environmental impacts, adamant that we have to stand firm behind the wind industry because it is a fast bridge from fossil fuels.  Climate change is a serious and present threat to our wildlands and our communities, but the carbon emissions we have already generated have locked us into a spiral of impacts that will be felt for centuries, even if we miraculously cut all emissions today, according to climate expert Bill McKibben in his book Eaarth. It is imperative that we reverse our emissions quickly, but advocating for the destruction of thousands of square miles of wildlands and the potential extirpation of wildlife to cross the "bridge" is ludicrous when we have a more efficient and economically feasible alternative that can lay a much more sustainable energy foundation.

A promotional image for Danny Kennedy's Rooftop Revolution book that neatly summarizes the vast difference between our old energy paradigm, and the new path available to us. 

Comments

  1. Excellent post and thank you for taking on a contentious and difficult issue! Sharing widely....

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