Credit: J. Rogers/UCS

5 Wind Power Facts (From Better Sources Than President Trump)

, Senior energy analyst | April 5, 2019, 9:32 am EDT
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It may be hard to believe, but our president is getting even more outrageous in his claims about wind power—whether it’s ignoring the reality of how our electricity system actually works or fabricating lies about non-existent health risks. Turns out there are more credible resources than him for good information about wind.

Here are five things to know about wind power, and solid sources for deeper dives.

1. Wind power doesn’t hurt the reliability of our electricity system

While President Trump may be unaware of how our nation’s electricity grids work—and how wind power fits in—others aren’t. (This handy video is a good refresher for anyone, presidential or not.)

Studies have been showing for some time now what it would mean to have high levels of renewable energy meeting our electricity needs. A 2012 study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, for example, looked at the possibility of getting 30 to 90 percent of our nation’s electricity from renewables by 2050—and found that, as my colleague Steve Clemmer put it, “grid operators can keep the lights on in every hour of the year in every region.” And technologies have only gotten better since then.

Another good resource for this issue is present-day reality—what’s actually going on around the US. The different regional grids have proven quite capable of integrating ever-higher levels of wind and solar, and keep setting new records for how much renewable energy they’re handling. There’s also the fact that more than a dozen states use wind to generate at least 10 percent of the electricity they produce, five states are at more than 25 percent wind, and Iowa and Kansas are each at close to 40 percent. And the lights stay on.

Despite what the president may claim, your TV will still operate even when the wind dies down—even if you live in an area blessed with a wind-rich power mix.

Credit: Lance Cheung/Flickr

2. The real threat to birds is climate change

Wind turbines, like all other energy sources, can have impacts on wildlife. But it’s important to look at those impacts in context—in terms of how wind power compares to other risks to birds, say.

The very government headed by President Trump turns out to have some good info on this. The US Department of Energy (DOE) talks about the issue this way:

All energy supply options can have adverse environmental impacts. Birds and bats are occasionally killed in collisions with wind turbines. However, bird kills are limited to less than 0.02% of the total populations of songbird species, and orders of magnitude less than other causes. (Estimated annual bird mortality rates for collisions with wind turbines are one order of magnitude less than from collisions with communications and other towers, three orders of magnitude less than from collisions with power lines, and three to four orders of magnitude less than from collisions with buildings.)

And those stats don’t even talk about the impacts to birds of fossil fuels—including from carbon pollution. That’s an important piece to add in. Because groups that know a lot about birds, like the National Audubon Society, say that the greatest threat to birds is climate change.

Wind power is a key piece of how we’re addressing carbon pollution from the power sector, so it’s easy to see why, to protect birds, we want more wind turbines, not fewer.

Fortunately, we’re also getting a lot smarter about wind farm design, siting, and operation, to make sure we can have more wind power with less impact. The best resource I’ve found on what we know about bird and bat issues—and what we’re still figuring out—is the review of “wind turbine interactions with wildlife and their habitats,” updated annually, from the American Wind Wildlife Institute (on whose board I sit).

Credit: E. Spanger-Siegfried

3. Wind power is good for your health

It’s not just about birds’ health: How we make and use energy has a big impact on our health, too, given air and water pollution, and, yes, climate change and all its associated health risks. Those costs often don’t show up in the financial math—how much money we pay for a load of coal or a fossil-fueled kilowatt-hour—so they’re important to explicitly consider.

One solid resource on this issue is a 2010 National Research Council report, Hidden costs of energy: Unpriced consequences of energy production and use, which is clear about where the health risks in the power sector come from (hint: not in wind power). Another is an oft-cited Harvard paper on the “full cost accounting” of coal. UCS’s own page on the hidden costs of fossil fuels also has a lot of useful resources. And this resource from the National Institutes of Health offers a contaminant-by-contaminant breakdown of various power plant types.

On wind turbines and sound impacts in particular: While “noise” is subjective—different people can hear and interpret a given sound differently—sound itself is something that can be measured, and its effects can be studied. And here, too, what the DOE says is instructive:

Although research to develop sound mitigation techniques is ongoing, as of 2013, global peer-reviewed scientific data and independent studies consistently concluded that sound from wind plants has no direct impact on physical human health. The sound level from wind turbines at common residential setbacks is not sufficient to cause hearing impairment or other direct adverse health effects. Low frequency sound and infrasound from upwind wind turbines are also well below the pressure sound levels and which known health effects occur.

As with impacts on wildlife, good siting of wind turbines is important here, too. But it’s clear that any reasonable treatment of the energy sector would come to the conclusion that, when it comes to human health, wind power is a positive.

Wind power in Michigan

Credit: RTD Photography/Flickr

4. Wind turbines don’t hurt property values

Data and facts are also useful for examining issues like impact on property values, and here too there are some fine resources. In particular, researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have looked at this in a series of surveys of reports examining home sales near and far from turbines.

The latest, most comprehensive one covered more than 50,000 home sales and found “no statistical evidence” of impacts on sale prices of homes near wind turbines. Absence of proof isn’t proof of absence, and all that, but it’s a whole lot more solid ground to stand on than whatever President Trump believes he has.

Another great source on this question might be folks who live near turbines. A 2018 survey by researchers at LBNL found that “a large majority of wind power project neighbors have positive attitudes toward their local turbines.”

Credit: Duke Energy/Flickr

5. Wind power is serious energy

This is another key part of understanding wind power. Wind provided just shy of 7 percent of US electricity last year, making it our nation’s fourth largest source of electricity. Its megawatts can produce enough to meet the needs of 30 million American households. And it’s poised to grow a whole lot more.

President Trump would do well to get the facts about one of our most powerful clean energy tools, perhaps by spending less time at coal facilities and more time at wind ones. He could maybe even climb to the top of a wind turbine to gain a little more perspective.

Wind power is a boon, not a bane. Armed with good sources and solid facts, even our president might come to realize that.

The family and the future (Credit: J. Rogers/UCS)

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  • Swanson Corners

    1. Minnesota just lost power (brown out) this winter when the turbines shut down because it got too cold. 2. In Iowa MidAmerican Energy just applied for a permit to kill eagles and endangered bats. Also globally industrial wind is only avoiding less than 1% of man made CO2 according to AWEA and the Carbon Project. 3. The contracts offered to neighbors of turbines (anyone within 1/2 of a mile- ALL turbines are sited closer than that to neighbors in the US) claim those people will have to put up with noise, vibration, air turbulence, wake, shadow flicker and signal disruptions. 4. Communities are fighting off industrial wind installations across the country and around he world- of course it impacts property values and we have appraisals to prove it. The wind industry dilutes their findings by not just including homes within 1/2 mile of a turbine. 5. According to the US Energy Information Administration wind energy supplied 2% of the US’s energy last year. In Iowa MidAmerican Energy will receive $10 Billion in tax credits for building 2500 turbines ($4,000,000 per turbine, covering all the capital costs) Iowa’s Alliant Energy got the same deal but is raising their rates 24.9% to cover the expenses of building wind turbines. This is a boondoggle.

    • ucsjrogers

      I appreciate your interest, Swanson; it’s clear that you’ve thought a lot about some of these issues. Some thoughts in response:
      * Actually, *lots* of power plants had problem with the extreme cold. It getting cold enough for turbines to shut down was a new one for me, I’ll admit. But the data from the operators of the regional grids, including the one that includes Minnesota (MISO), show that a lot more natural gas and coal plants ran into trouble; see, for example, http://e.startribune.com/Olive/ODN/StarTribune/shared/ShowArticle.aspx?doc=MST%2F2019%2F02%2F28&entity=Ar02904&sk=9615F2B1&mode=text or https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/polar-vortex-electricity-system-fared — and particularly the ring charts in that second article, showing that 80-90% of the “forced outages” were coal and gas plants.
      I also found this article on transmission, on the blog of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), useful: https://www.aweablog.org/transmission-helped-keep-lights-polar-vortex/
      * Eagles are a particular focus of the American Wind Wildlife Institute that I mentioned above; see, for example, https://awwi.org/eagles-wind-energy/. (MidAmerican’s parent company is active in AWWI.) Part of the solution is in trying to be proactive about avoiding and minimizing direct impacts. Another part is in finding ways to compensate, by reducing eagle deaths from, say, vehicle collisions or hunters’ lead ammunition.
      The biggest example of wind-eagle trouble in the US, Altamont Pass, is making a lot of progress by “re-powering” wind turbines — replacing old, small, fast-spinning turbines with a lot fewer, taller, slower-spinning ones. See the “review of wind turbine interactions” I link to above, and this: https://awwi.org/news-events/success-stories/success-story-altamont/
      * On CO2 reductions, there’s value in focusing on the US, and focusing on the power sector. And on that, what AWEA says sounds about right, that CO2 reductions from 2017 wind generation was “equal to roughly 11 percent of 2017 power sector emissions, or 40.3 million cars’ worth of CO2 emissions.” https://www.awea.org/wind-101/benefits-of-wind/environmental-benefits
      * I think you’d be hard-pressed to find support for the claim that all wind turbines are within 1/2 mile of neighbors; my photos above from my family’s vacation visit to a wind farm in Washington State provide just one handy counter-example.
      * On property values and public acceptance: Here, too, I think you’d be hard-pressed to come up with something that matches the scale and rigor of the LBNL studies mentioned above. And homes close to turbines were definitely part of the assessment: They break down the data by home distances of <1 mile from a turbine, 1-3 miles, and 3-10 miles in Chapter 4; then 3 miles in Section 5.1.2; and within 1/2 mile or 1 mile elsewhere.
      * On wind's contribution: Here, too, I'm not sure why it makes sense to conflate energy and electricity. I don't think we talk about, say, nuclear power's contribution by putting it in the context of energy as a whole; we look at its piece of the power sector. Same with wind power.
      * I don't know the specifics of the wind projects you're talking about, but in general the federal production tax credit has been a powerful — and really useful, for us as consumers — tool for getting wind power online, and UCS has been very supportive of it (see, for example, https://www.ucsusa.org/clean-energy/increase-renewable-energy/production-tax-credit. And it is indeed a *production* tax credit, a certain amount per kilowatt-hour of electricity; they don't get it unless they produce. And the experiences in many parts of the country is that wind power *saves* consumers money.

      Hope these resources help.

      – John

      • Swanson Corners

        Ha! After 20 years of having wind turbines MidAmerican just applied for a permit to kill them last year. they say they will kill about 10 bald eagles a year. It is estimated that about 1700 bald eagles were born in Iowa in 2016. But if each eagle killed is part of a breeding pair that means that 20-30 eagles may not be born this year in Iowa. MidAmerican has roughly 1/2 of the turbines so now we are talking 40-60 bald eagles killed each and every year- or at least counting the found and documented ones.

        Slower spinning turbines?? Tip speeds cover the space of a football field in just a few seconds and can travel 180-200 mph.

        Funny that wind turbines could reduce “11% of the emissions” when they only produce 2% of the US’s energy. Wind energy is still only avoiding far less than 1% of global emissions and adding a lot more.

        There are NO setbacks in the state of Iowa over 1600 feet from the foundation of residences. Sure you can be a “neighbor” at two miles but that isn’t realistic. I am talking about homes with many direct negative impacts. Hundreds of homes are peppered within each and every wind installation.

        There is NO WHERE that wind energy is saving anyone money. Even Warren Buffet has said…”I will do anything that is basically covered by the law to reduce
        Berkshire’s tax rate,” Buffet told an audience in Omaha, Nebraska
        recently. “For example, on wind energy, we get a tax credit if we build a
        lot of wind farms. That’s the only reason to build them. They don’t
        make sense without the tax credit.

        There is no such thing as a “piece of the power sector” but if we did cut wind energy off to stand alone it would be almost useless. Even in the Midwest it has been proven that the actual wind has fallen off more and more every year since 2014. This makes industrial wind even more expensive and more of a boondoggle.