By Narrelle Gilchrist
Imagine driving through a vast expanse in the middle of the United States. For miles, all that can be seen are windmills – massive, powerful structures generating seemingly tremendous amounts of energy. For decades, many have painted this picture as one that should be replicated all throughout the nation, and wind power has become the most taxpayer subsidized renewable energy industry. Yet, this picture hides a grim reality. Wind power is impractical, unsustainable, and far too costly – in short, not the answer. By continuing to subsidize wind technology, we will only be continuing to, literally, throw our money to the wind.
Despite decades of investment, wind technology on a widespread scale remains inherently unsustainable. In order to understand this unsustainability, it is imperative to first debunk two myths about wind power: its low price tag and its status as a clean energy source. On the surface, wind power seems to be cost-effective, but most estimates of the cost of wind power do not take into account costs of transmission or back-up energy. The cost of building transmission lines from wind-rich areas to major cities ranges from $15 to $27 per megawatt hour (Simmons). Furthermore, because, quite simply, the wind doesn’t always blow, a back-up source of energy, such as a coal or natural gas plant, must be kept on hand at all times. This process, known as baseload cycling, increases the price of wind power by anywhere from $2 to $23 per kilowatt-hour. Combined, these excess costs inflate the price of wind power, debunking any notion of its alleged affordability.
However, even with these extra costs, policymakers could reason that stomaching the expense is worth the environmental benefits that wind power can bring. Yet, those environmental benefits, too, are overstated. The wind industry may not produce any greenhouse gases or harmful waste products like other industries, but it can adversely impact wildlife populations, causing bird and bat deaths and reducing natural habitats. Annually, wind turbines kill approximately 573,000 birds and 888,000 bats, including hundreds of endangered and federally protected birds and eagles. In context, BP was fined $100 million for the deaths of 800,000 birds after the 2010 oil spill (Institute). Even more important are the environmental impacts of baseload cycling. The back-up plant that comes with every wind farm negates any environmental benefit of the wind industry, because it produces the very carbon emissions the windmills seek to avoid (Katzenstein, 253). Essentially, two power plants are being forced to do the job of one, and together, their environmental harm far exceeds the harm of other industries. Baseload cycling raises important questions about the long-term sustainability and durability of the wind industry. Surely, every renewable energy source has its pitfalls and disadvantages, but with other industries, such as solar power, biofuels, and hydroelectric power, the tradeoff is between expense and environmental harm. Investors and policymakers are able to thoughtfully conclude whether the environmental benefits are worth the extra cost. Yet, with wind power, the industry is neither cost-effective nor environmentally beneficial in the long-term – pitfalls that ensure that wind technology will not answer our energy problems, no matter how much we want it to.
Perhaps most telling is the fact that, even after decades of subsidies, the wind industry still has a very low energy yield. In 2010, 42% of government energy subsidies went to the wind industry, more than any other industry, but wind power produced only 2% of the nation’s energy. Over the past thirty-five years, the wind industry has received over $30 billion, and yet, in 2013, all the windmills in the United States produced merely 170 terra watt-hours of energy (de Rugy). These subsidies not only waste taxpayer dollars at a time when the government is suffering from a massive deficit and crippling debts, but they also hurt the energy industry by keeping prices artificially low. Because the wind industry is excessively subsidized, wind energy actually appears cheap to the average consumer, in spite of the high production costs. Subsidies encourage the industry to create power even when it isn’t needed, further driving down electricity costs. This cheap electricity from wind power forces more sustainable energy sources out of the market, accounting for the closure of two nuclear power plants in 2013 (Giberson, 10). Yet, wind power is only sustainable as long as government subsidies are funding it, so when we find that they are all that is left, there will be nothing left at all.
As the days tick by, the world’s oil supply runs thin, climate change is on the rise, and economic growth dependent on vast supplies of energy continues on an unsustainable trajectory. The world must come up with a real answer to its energy crisis – one that is sustainable, reliable, and environmentally friendly. For too long, our taxpayer money has continuously been thrown to the wind with nothing in return. The wind industry has already had its chance, and it has failed. It can’t be given another. Already, $30 billion have disappeared from the pockets of taxpayers into the shameless wind. It is time to say no more. It is time to end the subsidies.
De Rugy, Veronique. “Renewable-Energy Subsidies and Electricity Generation.” Mercatus Center. May 21st, 2013. George Mason University. June 7th, 2015. http://mercatus.org/publication/renewable-energy-subsidies-and-electricity-generation
“Environmental Impacts and Siting of Wind Projects.” Department of Energy. March 3rd, 2016. http://energy.gov/eere/wind/environmental-impacts-and-siting-wind-projects
Giberson, Michael. Assessing Wind Power Cost Estimates. Center for Energy Commerce at Texas Tech University. October 2013. http://instituteforenergyresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Giberson-study-Final.pdf
Katzenstein, Warren, and Jay Apt. “Air Emissions Due to Wind and Solar Power.” Environmental Science Technology. Carnegie Mellon University. Volume 43, 2009: 253-258. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/es801437t
“License to Kill: Wind and Solar Decimate Birds and Bats.” Institute for Energy Research. April 29th, 2015. March 28th, 2016. http://instituteforenergyresearch.org/analysis/license-to-kill-wind-and-solar-decimate-birds-and-bats/
Simmons, Randy. “What’s the True Cost of Wind Power?” Newsweek. April 11th, 2015. June 7th, 2015. http://www.newsweek.com/whats-true-cost-wind-power-321480
“Wind 101: The Basics of Wind Energy.” American Wind Energy Association. March 3rd, 2016. http://www.awea.org/Resources/Content.aspx?ItemNumber=900