Today's edition of the Roanoke (Va.) Times includes an op-ed by Charles Simmons, a consultant and retired vice president of Appalachian Power Co., and Bill Tanger, chairman of Friends of the Rivers of Virginia. Messrs. Simmons and Tanger begin by agreeing with the author of a previous article that people need to be fully informed about wind power. We also agree, and with that in mind, here are a few facts they overlooked.
Most people like the way wind farms look. That's why rotating wind turbines have become a staple of television advertising for all sorts of products totally unrelated to wind power or energy, and it's one reason wind power continues to enjoy high levels of support among the American public. My personal opinion, as one of those who find wind farms attractive, is that many people realize wind turbines symbolize the ability to harvest energy in a way that is largely free of the environmental impacts of other energy sources.
It's fossil-fired and nuclear power plants that need serious backup; wind power, not so much, despite its variability. 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. Utility system operators must keep up to 1,000 megawatts (MW) of fast-acting reserves (enough to power a small city) on standby 24/7/365 for conventional outages–reserves that 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.
Comparing wind energy with nothing (i.e., in a vacuum) is misleading. We'll be the first to acknowledge that wind power is not perfect–like any other energy source or human activity, it has impacts. The question is, are those impacts greater or less than the impacts of other competing energy sources? In the real world, our society uses and requires energy, and that energy has to come from somewhere. Studies that compare the impacts of different energy sources consistently find wind power’s impact among the lowest—not surprising given that it requires no drilling for fuel, uses virtually no water, and creates no air pollution, water pollution, greenhouse gases, or hazardous or radioactive waste.