Recently, opponents of wind power have clamored for audiences to learn everything there is to know about wind–definitely a worthwhile goal. One attack piece, from a fossil-fuel funded group, suggested there are things about wind we’d like to hide. On the contrary—we are happy to help inform readers, and have been doing so for many years.
Here is our current take on several key topics.
Today’s energy issues—including price volatility, the need for homegrown energy to bolster national security, and massive consumption of fresh water by traditional generation sources in an era of water shortages—underscore the need for America to develop a more diversified energy supply portfolio that includes technologies and sources that are available, affordable and abundant. The shorthand way to refer to such a portfolio is “all of the above,” a phrase that envisions a broad mix of energy sources in order to minimize dependence on any technology or fuel.
Wind energy has made remarkable progress toward becoming a significant contributor to our country’s electricity supply. In order for that progress to continue in a sustained and orderly way, an extension of the federal wind energy Production Tax Credit (PTC), which expires at the end of this year, is needed.
Why provide incentives for wind power?
Tax credits have been extremely effective policy tools to expand domestic energy production and develop new technologies, including, for example, shale gas. U.S. government support for oil, natural gas, and coal totaled over $500 billion from 1950 to 2006, according to a study by consulting firm Management Information Services, Inc., (MISI) prepared for the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Many of these incentives have been permanent fixtures of the tax code for five or more decades, while wind’s incentive, the PTC, has been extended only on a short-term basis for one or two years, an approach that has failed to provide the longer-term certainty that businesses need to invest in new factories and hire more employees.
Even so, the growth of wind energy production and component manufacturing, which would not have happened without the PTC, has been an American success story.
In August, the U.S. wind industry hit 50,000 MW of cumulative wind capacity, which is enough capacity to power the equivalent of 13 million homes. Earlier in the year, the industry passed another milestone, having generated as much electricity cumulatively as could be generated by burning 1 billion barrels of oil (without using any fuel). Additionally, wind power attracts over $15 billion in private investment in the U.S. per year and wind power now supports 75,000 jobs in the United States.
A PTC extension is crucial to avoid disruption in the industry and to enable it to achieve the cost reductions needed to be fully competitive in the electricity market. If the PTC is allowed to expire, wind energy will be the only form of energy generation without any Federal support. Current estimates show that half – 37,000 – of wind related jobs would be lost.
Utility system reliability
In February 2011, millions of homes and businesses in Texas suffered rolling blackouts because more than 75 fossil-fired power plants broke down due to cold weather. Those rolling blackouts would have been significantly worse had wind energy not kept producing at and above the levels the grid operator was expecting, providing enough power to keep the lights on for millions of Texas residents.
Variable electric generation from wind farms can be integrated readily into utility systems with virtually no increase in the need for fast-acting reserves. Utility system operators already deal regularly with massive swings in electricity demand and in the output of conventional generators. Also, the amount of electricity generated by wind farms changes slowly and predictably; failures at conventional (nuclear and fossil-fueled) power plants occur instantaneously without warning. The fast-acting reserves utility system operators must have on standby 24/7/365 for conventional outages typically cost dozens of times more than the slower-acting reserves needed for wind’s variability. It is more appropriate to talk about the need to back up large conventional power plants than about backing up wind power.
Wind farms have a limited direct impact on wildlife, compared to other human activities. While birds do occasionally collide with the approximately 35,000 wind turbines existing in the U.S. today, based on studies conducted at over 50 wind farms it is estimated that less than 200,000 birds are killed annually. In contrast, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and other organizations estimate that annual bird deaths from collisions with buildings range from 97 million to 976 million, 60 million or more may be killed by vehicles, and up to 2 million are killed in oil and wastewater pits. Further, a recent study by the American Bird Conservancy found that cats kill at least 500 million birds per year. The truth is that wind energy will always be a vanishingly small factor in human-caused bird fatalities.
Regarding bats, the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative (BWEC) was formed in 2003 by Bat Conservation International, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Wind Energy Association and the Department of Energy after a higher than anticipated number of bat collisions was discovered at wind facilities in the eastern U.S. BWEC researches bat fatalities at wind energy projects and is actively investigating several promising techniques to reduce them, such as acoustic deterrents and potential mitigation through changes in operations.
Further, since 2009 the wind industry has provided funding for research into White-Nose Syndrome, a disease that has devastated cave-dwelling bats and is among their most serious threats.
Studies on wind turbine sound
The Massachusetts Departments of Environmental Protection and Public Health recently commissioned a panel of experts with backgrounds in public health, epidemiology, toxicology, neurology and sleep medicine, neuroscience, and mechanical engineering to analyze “the biological plausibility or basis for health effects of turbines (noise, vibration, and flicker).” The review of existing studies included both peer-reviewed and non-peer reviewed literature.
Several highlights from their findings include:
– There is no evidence for a set of health effects, from exposure to wind turbines that can be characterized as “Wind Turbine Syndrome.”
– Claims that infrasound from wind turbines directly impacts the inner ear have not been demonstrated scientifically. Available evidence shows that the infrasound levels near wind turbines cannot impact the inner ear.
– The strongest epidemiological study suggests that there is not an association between noise from wind turbines and measures of psychological distress or mental health.
– None of the limited epidemiological evidence reviewed suggests an association between noise from wind turbines and a variety of physical ailments of which anti-wind groups have complained.
The vast majority of land within the boundaries of most wind farms can still be used for its original purposes – such as ranching, farming, wildlife habitat, and recreation. Only 2% to 5% is needed for the turbines, roads, and electrical substations. To meet the goal of wind power providing 20% of the United States’ electricity needs by 2030, a total land footprint smaller than the size of Anchorage, Alaska, would be needed – that’s less than 1% the size of Arizona. With local property taxes and land lease payments to U.S. farmers, ranchers and other property owners totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide, American wind power more than pays its way.
Facts on the wind energy Production Tax Credit (PTC)
The PTC is an incentive that reduces taxes on the operators of wind farms and leaves more of the money they earn from electricity sales in private hands, helping to attract private investment not only in wind projects, but in component manufacturers, suppliers, trucking companies and more. The PTC provides an income tax credit of 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour for the first 10 years of electricity production from utility-scale wind turbines. It is set to expire on Dec. 31 unless Congress extends it first. A recent study by Navigant Consulting found that extending the Production Tax Credit will allow the industry to grow to 100,000 jobs in just four years, while an expiration would kill 37,000 jobs within a year.
A House bill seeking to extend the PTC has 110 cosponsors, including 25 Republicans, while a similar Senate bill is cosponsored by seven Senators, including three Republicans. PTC extension efforts have received the endorsement of a broad coalition of more than 370 members, including the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the Western Governors’ Association. A PTC extension also has the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Governors Association, and the bipartisan Governors’ Wind Energy Coalition, which includes 23 Republican and Democratic Governors from across the U.S. A PTC extension has been endorsed by a number of newspapers across the country, including the Des Moines Register, the Denver Post, the Daily Oklahoman, the Toledo Blade, the Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio Express-News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Sun-Times, and The New York Times.