Sunday, August 24, 2008

Wind turbines power energy debate

Original Article

Buffalo, New York // The rolling hills and butter-yellow cornfields of western New York hardly look like a battleground. This quiet corner of rural America is shingled with dairy farms and big red barns. If the peace is ever broken, it is by the chug of a tractor or the hum of a woodpecker tapping on maple; at night the stars shine as brightly as street lights. But as a growing energy dependency crisis pushes the United States towards renewable forms of fuel, energy companies and land owners are locked in a bitter battle. They are fighting over who owns the wind.

In July, the US energy department unveiled a plan to produce 20 per cent of the country’s energy by wind by 2030. Currently, wind power contributes less than one per cent of the country’s electricity. To reach the goal, energy companies and land owners must commit to a project of similar scale to the epic 74,000km interstate motorway system initiated by Dwight Eisenhower when he was president in the 1950s.

“Wind energy has arrived. The wind industry in the United States is no longer a boutique industry,” said Randall Swisher, executive director of the American Wind Energy Association. “The United States has been the largest market for wind turbines in the world for the last three years. There has been enormous progress, and there is a tremendous sense of dynamism.”

The United States leads the world in the amount of power it generates from wind energy, with a total capacity of 19,500 megawatts (one megawatt can provide power for 800 homes). That figure lags behind the 23,000 megawatts generated in Germany, but stronger winds in the United States yield greater power production despite a smaller capacity.

If the plan is successful, it could provide an exciting solution to the country’s energy needs. Both Barack Obama and John McCain have made renewable energy a key part of their policies; television commercials depict them striding through cornfields, the sleek silhouettes of wind turbines in the background. Mr Obama has pledged to invest US$150 billion (Dh551bn) in wind, solar and biofuels over 10 years.

Many US residents are passionate about a future propelled by wind. “The promotion of renewable power such as home-grown wind-generated power in New York is essential,” said Ed Bennett, president of New York Interfaith Power and Light, a church group that backs renewable sources of energy. “New York has a tangible renewable resource in wind power that could supply 10 per cent of New York’s electrical consumption in the very near future.”

But resistance from some land owners is threatening the industry. Opponents say nobody has the right to harness the wind that flows over their properties. “There is a lot of wind in this country. We are blessed in a way that’s almost unique to any other nation in the world,” said Steve Lindenburg of the US energy department.

“But the industry faces all kinds of hurdles, from right of way issues to groups opposed to the aesthetic intrusion of giant wind turbines. There are a lot of [people] that are going to have to be convinced before we get to something like 300,000 megawatts of electricity from wind.”

The landscape of upstate New York – currently home to six wind farms – is splashed with protest signs and blemished with campaign banners. Tacked on to the trunks of cherry trees or thrust into flower beds, they are ubiquitous. “No wind turbines,” screamed the black lettering of one banner. “We love this town – ban turbines,” said another, a few metres from an industrial power station.

It is not the banners that are ugly, opponents said, but the growing number of tall white turbines planted alongside oak and pine trees. “Anyone with any appreciation of the beauty of one of the most serene areas in the eastern United States would be utterly appalled by the visual pollution that we now have in this area,” said James Hall, who runs Cohocton Wind Watch.

“The economic lifeblood in this region is going to be devastated by the industrial monsters sitting on top of these hillsides.”

Turbines are typically painted white, grey or pale blue to blend with the sky. But campaigners have said it is not just the aesthetics of the turbines that anger them, citing real estate, environmental, health and even philosophical concerns. One New York paediatrician has even come up with the term “wind turbine syndrome” to describe the symptoms of malaise she said she has noticed in children living close to wind farms.

“The predominant limitation of wind energy is the fuel itself – the wind. You cannot throw money at the wind and make it blow; nor can you conveniently store and transport wind for consumption where and when needed. We liken wind energy to the wayward child. It’s unavailable when needed and shows up when unexpected,” said Lisa Linowes, executive director of Wind Action.

Some conservationists find wind power a tricky subject. The number of birds killed by wind turbines every year is hard to pinpoint, and to some extent it depends on the source of information. The highest estimates suggest up to 900,000 birds a year are affected. Still, about 170 million birds are killed by power lines annually, and 100 million by cats. The National Audubon Society, a conservation group, backs the growth of the wind industry.

Other protesters said at 40 to 49 decibels, the whirr of the turbines is intrusive. (The sound of falling leaves hits 20 decibels; a quiet bedroom about 40.)

Farmer John Hilderbrand laughed off such concerns. “When you’re a few miles away and the wind is blowing real good, [the turbines] sound like a pine tree, with the wind blowing through the branches,” he said.

If wind energy dilutes the US diet of oil, gas and coal, it will curb air pollution and slow the effects of climate change. The issue may have divided people in western New York, but as a growing number of big names join the campaign for renewable power – JC Penney, a department store chain, has joined hip retailer Whole Foods in powering some of its stores with wind energy – it seems opponents may simply be spitting in the wind.

“People seem to think fossil fuels are free,” said Pat Smith, a proponent of wind power. “They’re not; it’s the wind that’s free.”

Her sister Jenny nods in agreement, gesturing towards a colony of sculpted white towers several miles away. “I think they’re majestic,” she said. “I want one in my back yard.”

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