Friends of the Earth has been a major advocate of wind power as a key element in the solution to our nation’s energy problems. I just completed a tour of existing and proposed wind power sites across Kansas to look at the controversy surrounding this issue. My conclusion is that a great opportunity is being missed by the State of Kansas because the discussion of wind power has been focused primarily on wind power development in the Flint Hills region and not on wind power in the western portion of the state where wind potential is amazing and where good siting policy can avoid most of the concerns.
The need for action to develop wind power is all the more urgent for economic and environmental reasons. Fortunately, Kansas is the Saudi Arabia of wind, ranking as one of the top three states in wind power potential and this means that the economic and environmental benefits could be tremendous. But these advantages to the citizens of Kansas will happen only if Kansas acts to support wind power development through state legislative and regulatory policy.
The economic benefits of developing wind power for Kansans can be seen at the Montezuma wind site in GrayCounty which I toured. The 112 megawatt wind farm is providing benefits to the local schools and the county to the tune of more than $300,000 per year, plus farmers receive income from the wind mills on their land. Wind energy offers a promising, tangible way of rejuvenating rural Kansas.
The environmental and health benefits of wind power are substantial. Burning coal to generate electricity is causing a serious mercury poisoning problem across America, with more than 45 states issuing fish advisories warning against consuming freshwater fish.
One in six women are carrying enough mercury in their body to impair the brains of the fetus. Coal fired power plants are the most significant source of mercury in our environment and today there is a push to build over 120 new coal plants in our country. This push for new coal must be countered by developing our vast wind resources instead.
The world’s over reliance on fossil fuel energy has created a pressing problem of climate change. Perhaps the most important prediction from global warming models is that catastrophic weather events such as tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, and the like will increase either in intensity or frequency. Of particular significance is an MIT study this year, indicating that hurricanes have doubled in intensity over the last 30 years, with a prominent spike since 1995.
People of religious faith should be especially concerned about the impacts of these weather disasters on the poor in the US and around the world who lack the means to recover and make a new life. Governments are hard pressed to pay damage bills that in the case of Hurricane Katrina may top $200,000 billion.
Given that wind can supply an array of economic and environmental benefits, is there a way out of the wind power logjam in Kansas? Because Kansas has plenty of sites in Kansas where there is no conflict with important wildlife and natural areas and where people really want wind development, the solution is straightforward. The basic approach is to take the map showing the wind potential areas for the state, then overlay a map of areas identified by the Nature Conservancy and by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks that should be off limits, and proceed to develop those windy areas where no controversy exists.
But even when the siting issue is dealt with, there are obstacles in the way because major utilities want to construct more coal power plants in Kansas and they don’t want to build or upgrade transmission lines in Western Kansas just for wind power. As a result, Kansas will bear the brunt of the growing state energy deficit, sending over two billion of its citizens’ energy dollars out of state to powerful coal interests. Here’s what has happened. Until 1997 Kansas was a net energy exporter as a result of its significant supplies of oil and gas. Now these fossil fuel reserves are severely depleted and every year Kansas is going further into deficit on energy spending. This deficit can be reduced by developing the wind industry. The deficit will only grow worse by following the major utilities’ plans to build more coal plants.
Kansas needs visionary leaders who will tap the wind resources and not allow the lack of transmission lines to be an obstacle. Imagine if a new oil or gas field were discovered in Western Kansas. Everything conceivable would be done to exploit the reserves and get them to the consumers. Why can’t this same can-do spirit be applied in the case of wind? Kansas lags behind other states in passing legislative and regulatory policies that support wind power development. Kansas leaders need to step up to the vision of wind power as a significant economic development opportunity that has the potential to pour billions of dollars into the Kansas coffers over the next several decades.
This potential remains largely untapped because many false arguments about wind power are being promulgated.
1) Opponents argue that wind power is intermittent: yes, but Kansas is very windy most of the time in the west, and with a lot of interconnections the impacts of intermittent wind is easily accounted for in the power grid.
2) Opponents say that wind mills are noisy: I have visited wind farms in a number of places and the mild whir from wind mills is not audible half a farm field away.
3) Opponents say that wind mills are ugly: I see them as elegant and far more friendly to view than the numerous cell towers that infect the landscape.
4) Opponents say that wind mills kill birds: the latest studies show bird losses are only one or two per turbine per year, many fewer than from cell towers, tall buildings, and domestic house cats. New wind mill designs can minimize bird kills. Destruction of habitat is far and away the biggest cause of bird losses. When wind mills are placed in cropped farm fields, this loss can be reduced or avoided.
5) Opponents say that wind power is subsidized: yes, there is some subsidy but it is minor compared to the billions that have poured into the oil, gas, coal, and nuclear power industries over the last half century and that will continue to flow to these power sources from the newly passed Energy Bill of 2005. A subsidy of wind power would be unnecessary if the true costs of burning coal (climate change, regional particle and tropospheric ozone pollution, mercury contamination) were incorporated into electricity rates.
If the great wind resources of Kansas are tapped in an environmentally sensitive manner, Kansas could gain the reputation as the leader in producing clean energy for United States and in rejuvenating its rural communities. Such an initiative needs to take place at all levels—towns, counties, and state—with small community wind sites as well as major wind farms that can produce electricity.
By Dr. Brent Blackwelder, President, Friends of the Earth