As wind turbines grow, so does misinformation

The Los Angeles Times carried a pair of stories on wind this weekend by Tiffany Hsu, purportedly on how wind turbine technology is developing, but along the way showcasing a string of urban legends about wind power.

The stories relied heavily on anti-wind groups and “activists” for information, which is pretty much the quickest path to getting it wrong. The case for wind was given scarcely any room (even though 89% of Americans agree they want more wind energy).

Headlines, captions, and descriptions in the stories were wildly inflammatory — it's irresponsible to call turbines “avian Cuisinarts” for example, when individual losses will never be more than an extremely small fraction of bird deaths caused by human activities, and wind power is virtually the only source of large amounts of energy that does not present population-level risks to birds — unlike the fossil fuels it displaces.

Here are other highlights (or should it be lowlights?) among Ms. Hsu's errors. (And I say Ms. Hsu's because reporters talk to all sorts of people–it's the reporter's job to make some effort to find out who actually knows what they are talking about).

– Activists claim that wind turbines could fall over if there is an earthquake.

Fact: Well, it's certainly possible, but so what? The collapse of a wind turbine poses no catastrophic risk, like a nuclear accident or the breaching of a dam. Besides, history says otherwise — California's wind turbines, like those in Japan recently, have survived several quakes, even ones with nearby epicenters, with little or no damage.

– Local officials claim that wind turbines cause nearby property values to fall.

Fact: Studies have found that wind farms do not affect property values. One of the authors of a very extensive report on the issue from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory put it this way:  “Neither the view of wind energy facilities nor the distance of the home to those facilities was found to have any consistent, measurable, and significant effect on the selling prices of nearby homes. No matter how we looked at the data, the same result kept coming back—no evidence of widespread impacts.”

– Activists claim wind turbines are noisy.

Fact: At 1,000 feet, the sound of a wind turbine is so faint it is less than the average home or office. Peer-reviewed scientific studies conducted around the world have consistently found that wind farms have no direct impact on physical health.

– Activists claim that there's no need for transmission lines–just put up lots of solar panels and small windmills in cities.

Fact: Wind turbines are large and tall and often located in remote areas because that's the best way to keep the cost of wind-generated electricity competitive with electricity from other types of power plants. There are some basic laws of geometry and physics at work here:

1) Since the area of a circle (the area swept by a wind turbine's rotor) is equal to pi times the square of its radius, the least expensive way to make the rotor swept area bigger is to extend the length of the rotor blades. That is why, since the earliest days of the wind energy business, larger turbines have always been able to generate electricity more competitively than multiple smaller machines. There's nothing wrong with small wind turbines–they can definitely lower electric bills under the right conditions–but those conditions typically do not include urban areas that demand large amounts of electricity.

2) The amount of energy that the wind contains is proportional to the cube of the wind speed. This means that a location with average wind speeds of 12 miles per hour, all other things being equal, has not 20 percent more energy available to harvest than a 10-mph-average site, but 73 percent. That's why wind turbines are tall (wind speeds increase at higher elevations) and why they generally aren't in cities (where wind speeds tend to be low).

Wind energy companies are among the most responsible on the planet, but you wouldn't know that from the Los Angeles Times coverage.

In Iowa — which has pursued wind power since 1983, and today gets over 15 percent of its electricity from wind — 85% of voters in a May 2011 survey said they maintain a favorable view of wind energy companies themselves.

Yet the Times' stories amount to a litany of complaints from the anti-wind folks cited (and apparently not fact-checked) by Ms. Hsu, right down to “farm animals … cowering as construction vehicles rumble across lawns and surveyor helicopters roar overhead.”

Strangely enough, no one quoted volunteered to do without electricity.

And there's the rub. The real choice is never between wind power and nothing, but rather between wind power and some other energy source, and nearly all of the rest have much more far-reaching impacts such as heavy water use, water pollution, air pollution, and more. If you only tell one side of the story, though, you never have to make that choice.

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