Wind Subsidies: Fiscal Cliff Deal Saved Them But Are They A Lot Of Hot Air?

Windmills on a ridge; photo by Brian Jackson for Cat Hollow Films, with permission of @ Windfall the Movie

Windmills on a ridge; photo by Brian Jackson for Cat Hollow Films, with permission of Windfall the Movie

It’s not only politically correct but collectively necessary these days to stand up for green energy, to fight for environmental protections and keep global warming in mind whenever considering the pros and cons of our various energy alternatives. Those of us who care about such things – and it should be all of us – do what we can: we drive hybrid and diesel cars, recycle and compost, turn off unnecessary lights, keep the heat down, and make sure we’re responsible in how we use the resources we have.

So when it came time to consider alternatives like solar and wind, we were all ears. We wanted those options to work, to offer us something beyond fossil fuels, Keystone pipelines, irresponsible fracking, mountain top coal mining and foreign wars based on oil supply. We wanted green, but we wanted effective, responsible, sane green, and we’ve been told that wind is one of our best bets. Is it?

During the recent fiscal cliff negotiations, one of the items on the cutting board was federal subsidies for wind power. Set to expire on December 31st if a new deal wasn’t made, these subsidies have been in the federal budget since 1992, with the government investing approximately $24 billion in direct spending, tax breaks, research and development, loan guarantees, etc., all related to wind energy. But while President Obama and many on the Left are supportive of these subsidies and their intent to fund exploration and development of a viable energy alternative, many conservatives are not only less enamored, they’re deeply opposed.

And, in a very surprising twist, so are many environmentalists.

Putting aside the complexities of who’s for and against, there are two questions that need to be answered: 1.) Is wind energy worth the cost to American taxpayers or is it a boondoggle meant to assuage “green guilt”? and 2.) Is wind energy as efficient as sold, a viable alternate to the use of fossil fuels?

I was involved with a coalition in 2011-2012 that was fighting against Shell Oil’s incursion into Humboldt County in northern California (a place I’ve written about on various topics). The plan was to bring in, as a start, 25 400-foot high metal turbines and plant them on the ridge above a small farm town named Ferndale. When the townsfolk – many of whom are ardent environmentalists – got wind of it (pun intended), they started doing their own research and what they found dissuaded a great many of them, who began a push to prevent the oil conglomerate from industrializing their very bucolic, forested dairy town. In my role as a chronicler of the movement (I write a column for the town paper, The Ferndale Enterprise), I, too, did my research…which tilted me in a direction I did not expect to go. My story appeared in the Huffington Post in a piece titled, A Big Wind: Shell Oil Blows Into Ferndale, Calif. 

Like many, I wanted to believe wind energy was a clean, effective and non-destructive way to lower our dependence on foreign oil, but as I listened, read, researched, it was undeniable that the illusion of wind energy is a great deal grander than its reality.

If you read the piece I linked above, you will get a sense of the impact of a monolithic “farm” of metal turbines (think taller than the Statue of Liberty) whirring above an area known for its natural lands, majestic redwoods, and historical ambience (the entire town of Ferndale is on the historic registry). The construction alone would have caused tremendous disruption and damage to old roads, required the demolition of homes and historical buildings, and destroyed wildlife and its habitats. Adding insult to injury was the fact that wind turbines are not dependable because wind is not dependable, and thusly, turbines continue to require fossil fuel products to run. Their physical footprint is enormous, their ancillary impact on the health and welfare of living things needs to be investigated further (side effects due to sound, light infraction and electrical vibrations have been reported) and, bottom line, they’re not cost effective. This is what we’re spending $24 billion on?

From the Wall Street Journal, in a piece titled The Multiple Distortions of Wind Subsidies by Phil Gramm (yes, the former Republican Senator from Texas, but we’ll get to that later), some interesting points were made:

The costs of wind subsidies are extraordinarily high—$52.48 per one million watt hours generated, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. By contrast, the subsidies for generating the same amount of electricity from nuclear power are $3.10, from hydropower 84 cents, from coal 64 cents, and from natural gas 63 cents.

In addition, wind power benefits from federal mandates requiring the use of renewable energy by federal agencies along with preferential treatment by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Many states provide additional tax breaks, subsidies and mandates for wind power. The total value of these additional subsidies has never been calculated.

But the cost to taxpayers is only part of the problem. Subsidized, wind-generated electricity is displacing other, much cheaper sources of power. The subsidies are so high that wind-power producers can pay utilities to take the electricity they produce and still make a profit. Such “negative pricing” has occurred for some time in the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest and in Texas—and, according to the Energy Information Administration, it will likely grow.

But, you say, Phil Gramm is a conservative Republican. We know others who are speaking out against federal wind subsidies are also conservative Republicans – Lamar Alexander, Mitt Romney, and 47 Republicans in the House of Representatives. We also know many conservative Republicans discount science and refute climate change and global warming. We know the GOP Gutted A Half-Century Of Wilderness Protections In ‘Sportsmen’s Heritage Act.’ And we suspect these attitudes create a culture in the GOP that de-prioritizes the value of environmental protections and all the industries and research that are involved in promoting those protections. It’s difficult to put much credibility in the opinion of partisans whose interests are more focused on small government and big business, with little or no concern for environmental protections and alternative energy.

But what if they’re right about wind turbines?

View of wind turbines hovering over a farm @  The New York Times

View of wind turbines hovering over a farm @ The New York Times

And what if – beyond the economy of the matter – there are very real environmental problems related to wind turbine technology? Would that be a more credible argument? Glenn Beck has a piece up at his site,, titled, Wind Turbines Kill 70 Golden Eagles Each Year At California’s Altamont Pass  (complete with videos), and even though the piece makes a solid point, still…it’s Glenn Beck, right? Aren’t there any turbine-naysayers who are environmentalists, tree-huggers, lefty, liberal, save-the-planet folks?

There are. In fact, many environmentalists have come out against wind turbines not only because of their cost vs. savings ratio, their enormous industrial footprint, their inefficiency, and their industrialization of natural lands, but additionally there are concerns about their significant damage to birds, bat and other wildlife. Here are just a few of those groups:

1. Environmentalists in Idaho and Wyoming are fighting to keep their habitat of imperiled sage grouse from being destroyed by a wind farm.

2. Environmentalists in Lake Ontario oppose a farm because of its potential to destroy bats and already endangered birds

3. The Audubon and Sierra Club chapters in Palm Beach County, Florida, are fighting against a wind farm that will be located in the main flight path for North American migratory birds.

4. The Sierra Club and other environmentalists in the Mojave Desert in California have fought against the North Sky River Project, wind farm of 100+ turbines set for installation, because of the impact federally protected golden eagles and the protected California Condor in the area.

The list goes on. And on. And on.

Birds and wind turbines don’t mix; @ Earth Times

Birds and wind turbines don’t mix; @ Earth Times

There are also concerns about the impact on health. While little published research has yet been done on what’s being called “wind turbine syndrome,” there are a great many anecdotal reports to be found that detail symptoms from dizziness, increased blood pressure and depression. Writer James Delingpole wrote about this at the Daily Mail, in a piece called Are wind farms saving or killing us? A provocative investigation claims thousands of people are falling sick because they live near them:

Wind Turbine Syndrome. Until you’ve seen for yourself what it can do to a community, you might be tempted to dismiss it as a hypochondriac’s charter or an urban myth.

But the suffering I witnessed earlier this year in Waterloo, a hamlet outside Adelaide in southern Australia, was all too real.

The place felt like a ghost town: shuttered houses and a dust-blown aura of  sinister unease, as in a horror movie where something terrible has happened to a previously thriving settlement but at first you’re not sure what.

Then you look to the horizon and see them, turning in the breeze…

‘The wind farm people said we’d be doing our bit to save the planet,’ said one resident. […]

I’ve since heard dozens of similar stories from nurses, farmers, panel-beaters, civil servants, businessmen and forestry workers across the world, from New South Wales to Sweden and Pembrokeshire.

The symptoms they claim to have suffered may vary – dizziness; balance problems; memory loss; inability to concentrate; insomnia; tachycardia; increased blood pressure; raised cortisol levels; headaches; nausea; mood swings; anxiety; tinnitus; palpitations; depression – but the theme remains the same.

It’s an eye-opening piece; I urge you to read the full article.

A swindle? @ Windfall

A swindle? @ Windfall

Also illuminating is a documentary called Windfall, which chronicles the events in one small town embroiled in the wind turbine debate. From their promo materials:

WINDFALL, a beautifully photographed feature length film, documents how this proposal divides Meredith’s residents as they fight over the future of their community. Attracted at first to the financial incentives that would seemingly boost their dying economy, a group of townspeople grow increasingly alarmed as they discover the impacts that the 400-foot high windmills slated for Meredith could bring to their community as well as the potential for financial scams. With wind development in the United States growing annually at 39 percent, WINDFALL is an eye-opener that should be required viewing for anyone concerned about the environment and the future of renewable energy.

I’ve seen the film and it is a compelling documentation of the effect on a small farm town when big wind comes calling: on the people, the land, and the politics of everyone involved. Very much worth a view if you’d like to get more of the picture.

Important to remember, as you read and listen and look at the people talking about this: this isn’t a partisan issue. One can’t blindly take a stand based on the political positions of those for or against. A lot of political correctness being applied, a lot of hopeful thinking; a lot of politics, money, and even, likely, some smoke and mirrors. Conservatives are against the technology because of the subsidies required to prop it up and the inefficiency of the industry itself. Liberal environmentalists are against it because of the damage it’s doing on the very environment it’s designed to sustain. But whatever political party you align with, whatever environmental issues concern you, whatever the wind turbine industry it is or isn’t, it’s incumbent upon every citizen who cares about the planet – and whose tax dollars are being spent to subsidize wind turbines – to do the research, explore the pros and cons, and come to their own conclusions.

Before we cover every mile of our natural land with giant, whirring, metal machines paid for by our taxes, let’s be sure we know what we’re really getting.  Subsidies, the environment, the preservation of our green space … it’s all part of the conversation.



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