Painful Lessons for Wind Power

Wind energy took another blow—this time in Massachusetts. 

Wind One is the 400-foot-tall wind turbine owned by the town of Falmouth, on the southwestern tip of Cape Cod.  The residents of Falmouth initially welcomed Wind One as a symbol of green energy and a handy way to keep local taxes down.  Electricity generated by the turbine would be used to power the municipality’s infrastructure, thus shaving about $400,000 a year off its utility costs.

Installed in the spring of 2010 at a cost of $5.1 million (with some $3 million derived through grants, government kickbacks, and credits), the huge turbine cranks out 1.65 megawatts of electricity during optimum conditions.

The topography of Falmouth is stunningly beautiful.  Small ponds, creeks, pines, and oaks rest adjacent to the rocky beachfront.  What’s totally out of place is a monstrous pillar of white steel rising from the countryside, topped with its whirling three-bladed rotor.  However, proving that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, one local told a Public Radio reporter the turbine is “quite majestic.”

But as soon as her majesty was switched on, residents began to complain—Wind One was as loud as an old Soviet helicopter.

Neil Anderson lives a quarter of a mile from the turbine.  He’s an avid supporter of alternative energy, having owned and operated a passive solar company on Cape Cod for the past 25 years.  “It is dangerous,” he told WGBH in Boston.  “Headaches.  Loss of sleep.  And the ringing in my ears never goes away.  I could look at it all day, and it does not bother me … but it’s way too close.”

Tired of the constant chopping sound, pained residents decided to lawyer up.  This month a deal was struck with the town to disengage the turbine when winds exceed 23 miles an hour.  This is problematic because giant windmills such as Wind One operate at optimum efficiency at about 30 miles an hour.

So now Falmouth’s investment has taken a hit.  According to Gerald Potamis, who runs the wastewater facility, shutting off the turbine during higher winds will cost the town $173,000 in annual revenue, because now they’ll have to rely more on natural gas.

Truth is, wind turbines have always suffered from the NIMBY—not in my backyard—syndrome.  Look no further than the largest concentration of wind turbines in the world, constructed in the 1970s just east of the San Francisco Bay.  Some 4,500 windmills are ensconced atop 50,000 acres of grassy hills, generating a modest 576 megawatts of power.  Officially known as the Altamont Pass Wind Resource Area, one would suppose the wind farm is an icon of greenness.  But instead, Altamont Pass is the poster girl of eco-infighting.

Ever since the multitude of windmills was installed, a significant increase in the numbers of dead birds has been reported.  Activists immediately went ballistic, demanding action.  Over the decades, lawsuits have been filed and millions of dollars spent procuring studies to track the bird body count in an effort to determine how to address the problem. 

In 2008, a two-year, taxpayer-funded examination of the problem was conducted by the Altamont Pass Avian Monitoring Team.  During the study period, the monitoring team determined that 8,247 birds were wacked dead by the turbine blades. 

In 2010, a settlement was finally reached between the Audubon Society, Californians for Renewable Energy, and the company running the wind farm, NextEra Energy.  Nearly half of the smaller turbines will now be replaced by newer, more bird-friendly models.  The project is expected to be complete by 2015 and includes $2.5 million for raptor habitat restoration, all of which is expected to increase the price of energy being supplied to the grid by this portrait of green power.

Painful to the ears, and especially painful to the birds, the painful lesson environmentalists need to learn is that the answer to America’s growing energy needs is not blowing in the wind.