By Rachel Wingenbach
GJWHG Guest Contributor
Going green is a hot topic that has become prevalent in our lives. We are constantly surrounded by recycle bins and flyers promoting renewable energy. Universities are reporting success with different green projects such as the installation of wind turbines and solar panels. States and even electric providers are beginning to incorporate these green energy sources for commercial use. Yet, we must ask ourselves if these green energy projects are actually practical for the people of this country, economically and environmentally.
Looking at wind turbines, from an economic perspective wind is the closest in price to coal right now. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, conventional coal is priced with the 2010 dollar per megawatt hour as 97.7 and wind as 96.0. The problem is that wind has a capacity factor of only 33% where conventional coal has a capacity factor of 85%. This means that conventional coal operates at max potential 85% of the time whereas wind only operates at max potential 33% of the time. That’s quite a difference. If a university is going to spend $2 million (the cost of the first turbine on my campus, University of Minnesota, Morris) they should spend it on a power source that will work at max potential the majority of the time so that there is more “bang for their buck.”
Another problem with the finances of commercial wind turbines are mandates that lead to higher electric bills for customers. According to the Minnesota Rural Electric Association (MREA), in 2011 the green movement cost rural electric ratepayers in Minnesota more than $70 million. The MREA represents about fifty small, rural electric co-ops and utilities that provide power to more than 625,000 Minnesota homes and businesses. This $70 million that customers have to pay is because of the mandate “Renewable Energy Standard (RES),” which states that a percentage—25% to be exact—of energy sales have to be renewable.
“It’s an enormous subsidy. You have to add wind power, whether you need it or not. Right now we’re paying for wind we don’t need, we can’t use, and can’t sell,” said Mark Glaess, MREA executive director. MREA is buying energy that they don’t use but they need to make up the difference somehow, so that’s what customers are for, right? This is only one incident of loss of money for electric companies; Great River Energy, Minnkota, and Dairyland Power companies have also experienced similar losses because of the mandate.
So economically and socially the wind turbines aren’t very successful, but at least they are environmentally friendly. Unfortunately, they are not as environmentally friendly as you may think. Ask yourself, what is the impact on the wild life when a wind turbine is put up? Take Altamont Pass for example, a wind farm about 20 miles east of Oakland, California. It reported that 70 golden eagles were being killed per year. In addition to this, about 2,400 raptors and 7,500 other birds were also being killed. What is so important about these birds? Well, most of these birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Eagle Protection Act.
If either of these acts are violated the penalty is a $250,000 fine and up to two years imprisonment. ExxonMobil pleaded guilty in federal court to the deaths of 85 birds; PacifiCorp utility of Oregon paid $10.5 million in fines for killing 232 eagles with their equipment. These punishments were justifiable, but what about Altamont Pass? They were never touched and they killed more birds than both of the previous companies combined!
Of course, this doesn’t happen everywhere, and, with a few adjustments, this problem can be fixed so the wind turbines will be environmentally friendly, right? Not quite. A turbine requires a magnet to function and these magnets are made from a rare earth element, neodymium, which is mostly mined in China. The extraction of this element is a process that involves repeated boiling in acid. The byproduct of this process is radioactive thorium which is then left to leak into the waterways. The Baotou Environmental Protection Bureau tested water in China and concluded that it wasn’t fit for people or animals to consume or for irrigation.
This is not environmentally friendly at all, but if there were a regulation to put in place it would be better. So then we can cover the earth in wind turbines, right? Again, not quite. According to a study by Harvard researchers, wind turbines create a “wind shadow” where the air has been slowed down by drag on the turbine’s blades. Wind farms that exceed one hundred square kilometers may produce at max 0.5 to 1 watts per square meter.
Harvard applied physicist David Keith, a researcher involved in the study concluded that the amount of wind turbines it would take to produce enough energy to run the earth “would be severe—perhaps bigger than the impact of doubling CO2.” This is because these wind shadows disrupt the natural flow of wind, which will ultimately disrupt our climate. Wind doesn’t really live up to the environmental, social, and economic success that was hoped for.
Rachel is a student at the University of Minnesota, Morris studying pre-med and chemistry. Born and raised in North Dakota she has been around guns her entire life and is not afraid to speak her mind about her support of the Second Amendment. She has written many articles for her university’s alternative paper and is currently its managing editor.