Fact check: Driessen flails at wind

Columnist Paul Driessen took a poorly researched swipe at wind power on TownHall.com recently.  Contrary to Mr. Driessen's assertions:

Land use: While the boundaries of wind farms may be large, wind turbines actually use very little land. A 2008 study by the Department of Energy under the Bush Administration found that if wind power provided 20 percent of America's electricity, the actual space occupied by wind turbines, related equipment such as substations, and service roads would be less than half the size of the city of Anchorage, Alaska. That is because 95 to 98 percent of the land within a wind farm's boundaries remains available for ranching, farming, wildlife habitat, recreation, or other compatible uses.  Furthermore, wind's benefits, in the form of land rental payments to farmers, are spread as widely as the turbines, providing badly needed income to rural towns and counties across the U.S. (see “Counting wind power's rural economic benefits: Sherman County, Oregon,” May 31).

Material requirements: Requirements of wind power for steel and other raw materials are also addressed in the 2008 Department of Energy report mentioned above. Here, for example, is what that report had to say about steel: “The steel needed for additional wind turbines is not expected to have a significant impact on total steel production. (In 2005, the United States produced 93.9 million metric tons of steel, or 8% of the worldwide total.) Although steel will be required for any electricity generation technology installed over the next several decades, it can be recycled. As a result, replacing a turbine after 20+ years of service would not significantly affect the national steel demand because recycled steel can be used in other applications for which high-quality steel is not a requirement (Laxson, Hand, and Blair 2006).” [emphasis added]

Cost: The U.S. Department of Energy report found that the cost of reaching a level of wind generation where wind supplies 20 percent of U.S. electricity, above and beyond a no-new-wind scenario, would be approximately 50 cents a month per household.

In addition, fossil fuels receive a huge hidden subsidy due to the fact that their health and environmental costs are not fully reflected in their market price.  In 2008, the National Academy of Sciences estimated the hidden costs of health impacts alone (not including climate change) at $120 billion per year.  More info here.

Energy payback:  Studies of this question (how long does it take a wind turbine to produce as much energy as required to make and install it) date back at least a quarter of a century, to the early and mid-1980s. Without exception, they have found that a wind turbine generates a strongly positive energy payback (also known as Energy Return On Investment, or EROI).

An authoritative reference on this subject is this article from the Encyclopedia of Earth on wind's EROI. The article summarizes a number of studies and finds that conceptual studies place wind's energy payback ratio at 25 (i.e., a turbine generates 25 times the energy that was used for its manufacture and installation), while studies based on actual operating experience find a lower ratio of 19.8. Notes the article, “This places wind energy in a favorable position relative to conventional power generation technologies in terms of EROI.”

Health: The Government of Australia, the British National Health Service, and the Chief Medical Officer of Ontario have all issued reports finding that wind turbine sound is not a health hazard.

By generating electricity without the air and water pollution associated with fossil fuels, wind energy has an overwhelmingly positive effect on human health.  As noted above, a 2008 National Academy of Sciences study found that the hidden costs of fossil fuels, largely health costs, amount to $120 billion each year.  In addition, air pollution from coal-fired power plants has been variously estimated to cause between 10,000 and 20,000 premature deaths annually.

Reducing pollution: A large body of government data and numerous studies by independent transmission system operators conclusively shows that the emissions savings of adding wind energy to the utility system are substantially larger than had been expected. The following fact sheet summarizes this information: The Facts About Wind Energy and Emissions.

Jobs: Addressed below under benefits.  Also, Mr. Driessen cites a discredited petro-funded report on green jobs in Spain.  Here are some links on that, most dating from the report's publication in 2009:

Spanish jobs study fact sheet
Critique of Spanish jobs study by (U.S.) National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Blog article summarizing NREL critique
“Fox hosts author of discredited study to bash green jobs,” September 1, 2011, Media Matters

Utility system reliability: The output of wind plants is aggregated with all of the other changes in electricity supply and demand on a massive interstate power grid. Even though many of those sources of supply and demand are changing unpredictably (think of factories coming on and offline, people turning air conditioners on and off, fossil-fired power plants breaking down unexpectedly), together their combined output is stable and manageable. In fact, the primary reason the utility system exists in the first place is to provide stable electricity supply to many users despite supply and demand variations.


Compared to other changes in supply and demand, both land-based and offshore wind are relatively easy for utility system operators to integrate, because changes in wind energy output occur slowly and are predictable. In fact, it would be far more appropriate to talk about the need to back up large fossil and nuclear power plants. They are the ones that experience large, immediate, and unexpected outages, requiring system operators to keep 1,000-plus megawatts of fast acting, expensive and inefficient standby generation ready 24/7 in case one of those plants goes down.

Benefits of wind power: Mr. Driessen omits mention of these. According to the Department of Energy report, if wind power generated 20 percent of U.S. electricity:

– The wind energy industry would support 500,000 jobs.
– America's electricity supply would become substantially more diversified, with wind displacing 50% of the natural gas and 18% of the coal that would otherwise be burned in power plants.
– Wind farm developers would pay more than $600 million annually in rent to family farmers, ranchers and others around the country, providing a long-term steady income source.  See the stories of Iowa farmer Tim Hemphill and Wyoming rancher Shaun Sims for examples.
– Wind farm developers would pay more than $1.5 billion in property taxes.
– The use of increasingly scarce fresh water by the electric sector would be reduced by 17%, because wind uses virtually no water, in contrast to every other form of utility-scale energy generation, all of which use large amounts.
– Many other impacts of our existing energy system–from mining and transportation of fuels and from waste disposal–would also be reduced.

Negative impacts of our existing energy system: Mr. Driessen also omits any mention of these, but they range from the nuclear catastrophe still unfolding in Japan to gas pipeline explosions, the air pollution that kills thousands of Americans each year, and many, many more.

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