|HARVEST THE WIND
America's Journey to Jobs, Energy Independence, and Climate Stability
Boston: Beacon Press, April 2012
From time immemorial the winds from the Gulf of Mexico swept north across the tall-grass prairie. Those winds gave their name to the first people who lived there; they called themselves Kansa, the People of the South Wind. Later those winds gave homesteaders on the Great Plains the means to pump water for themselves and their livestock, using wooden windmills. Even power production by means of windmills has a long history in this country.
History was made at a remote hilltop near Castleton, Vermont in 1941. On that 2,000-foot summit of Grandpa's Knob, geologist Palmer Cosslett Putnam erected a 110-foot tower and mounted on it a turbine capable of producing 1.25 MW of electric power. The installation provided power to the local electrical grid. Although it lasted only one year, Putnam's device represented a breakthrough in the generation of power from wind. It would be over forty years until a wind turbine of equal capacity was in place in this country. Today, at places like Cloud County, Kansas, wind farms using modern turbines provide 7 percent of the state's electricity, tapping a mere fraction of capacity.
Coming from a background in human-rights law, Philip Warburg was surprised when he switched to energy that the U.S. had fallen so far behind Europe in that area. As he crisscrossed the country visiting new and prospective wind energy installations, he observed the local energy and ingenuity behind them (and some local opposition as well), and the burgeoning prosperity they brought to many communities hard-hit by the Great Recession of 2008. But wind energy, like other forms of renewable energy, has a tough slog ahead of it. Arrayed against renewables are the formidable resources of the fossil-fuel industries, the railroads, and the owners of conventional electric power plants.
Still, there is reason for hope. After a long period of political hostility to renewables, and on-again/off-again federal incentive policies, the production tax credit (PTC), and most recently the stimulus package put in place by the Obama administration, have fostered the rapid growth of wind energy farms and the jobs that they require — in some cases restoring factories shuttered by the outsourcing of previous manufacturing jobs. Safer, more efficient and reliable wind turbines are also a big factor in this resurgence.
The Energy Policy Act of 1992 created a PTC of 1.5 cents/kWh. Congress let this expire in June 1999, reinstated it in December—for two years. It lapsed for several months at the end of 2001, and again at the end of 2003, was restored in late 2004 for just over a year, and finally ran for three years (at 2.1¢/kwh) as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. In contrast, the coal, oil and natural gas industries have enjoyed uninterrupted subsidies, and the Price-Anderson Act underwriting the nuclear industry has been continually renewed. (Pages 50-52)
Investing in wind energy will not bring an end to Middle East strife, but it can begin to wean our nation off the fossil and nuclear fuels that we have come to associate far too closely with American prosperity. Now is the time to reshape our energy economy. With wind, we can tap an inexhaustible domestic energy resource while showing that America is finally willing to join—and even lead—the battle for climate stability."
– Page xi
The one major thing wrong with this book is Warburg's implacable opposition to nuclear power.
Even the carbon neutrality claim about nuclear power is notably weak. Like fossil-fuel power plants, nuclear reactors demand an ongoing supply of fresh fuel, in the form of highly enriched uranium. Each stage in the nuclear fuel cycle consumes energy—from the equipment used to mine uranium, to the power demanded by the various stages of concentration, enrichment, and fuel-rod fabrication, to the transportation of nuclear materials from one stage to the next. And what about the massive amounts of carbon emitted by the huge mobilizations involved in containing and cleaning up Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima?"
– Page 104
What's wrong with this picture? It has no numbers. A typical nuclear plant is refueled once a year, versus coal plants' constant consumption of fuel. Both the fuel used by nuclear plants and the waste they produce are miniscule in volume compared to those for coal plants, as is the volume of CO2. Construction costs give the edge to coal, but only by a factor of 2 or 3.
Some other things: Nuclear fuel is not "highly enriched" except in a few research reactors. And the mobilizations would not have been necessary except for flawed designs and reckless operation at those three plants. If this were a reason to condemn an entire industry, what can we say about coal-slurry pond accidents? Finally, Warburg mentions nothing about new nuclear plant designs. His argument looks like a purely emotional one based on disgust with those three accidents.
Chapter 6 is the most valuable in the book from the entrepreneurial perspective. It compares the life-cycle costs of coal and natural gas with that of wind, as well as their carbon footprints. These comparisons naturally favor the latter form of energy production. Close study of this chapter will therefore repay anyone planning to get into alternative energy production, invest in it, or write about it. Its one shortcoming is its emotional treatment of nuclear power (see sidebar.) Nuclear has its problems, but ignoring the potential of new designs as Warburg does is short-sighted.
The book probes China's massive effort in wind-energy production. Officials there speak of bringing 150 GW of wind-generated power online by 2020; if realized, this would be close to 8 percent of the nation's projected power-production capacity at that time. In addition, China bids fair to become the world's foremost manufacturer of wind turbine equipment, and with protectionist tariffs in place, its immense market for that equipment is off limits to outside vendors.
Chapters 7 and 8 explore two of the most serious roadblocks to further expansion of wind power: turbine-caused deaths of birds and bats, and the annoyances felt by neighbors of the wind farms. The first is no trivial matter. For birds, the best estimate is that wind farms outside California kill 2 birds per Megawatt per year. If the DOE goal of 20 percent of American power by 2030 is met, this could doom over half a million birds per year (page 121.) Bats are even more vulnerable: mortality estimates run as high as 41 per Megawatt at some locations (pages 129-30.) Modern turbine designs have brought these death tolls down considerably, but more work remains.
As for the death of rural tranquility perceived by many living near wind farms, this appears to be highly individual: some shrug off the irritations of the turbines' presence; others cannot bear them. Both sight and sound are involved. Around sunrise and sunset, flickering shadows cast by the rotating blades can be disturbing; others are annoyed by the regular "whumping" sound produced when a blade passes close to its tower. There are also reports of health effects; however, medical experts differ on this, and the possibility of exploitation must be considered.
Finally, Warburg looks at the changes in the nation's electrical grid needed to make optimum use of wind power. Low-loss distribution lines to bring the power from remote farms; large quantities of flexible power storage; and a "smarter" grid that can adjust to the intermittent nature of local wind-farm outputs while maintaining stable voltages and frequencies for consumers. I would have liked more detail in this area; but it is true that would have likely made the book too technical for its intended readership.
The book is well researched and full of details, enhanced by a number of first-person interviews that Warburg conducted on his travels to Denmark and China, and throughout the U.S. The text is well-written, free of grammatical errors, and complemented by several black&white pictures. One of its best features is the set of five tables following the Epilogue; they provide many statistics on U.S. and world wind energy production. There are extensive endnotes and a Selected Bibliography with 253 entries.
My overall assessment: this is a very worthwhile book for anyone wanting to decide whether supporting the pursuit of large-scale wind power is a wise policy for this country. It won't give you the expertise to design wind turbines, or to manage a wind farm installation. But of course it's not intended to. It achieves its intended purpose. I'll call it a keeper. I knock its rating down one notch only because of its condemnation of nuclear power, which I feel has a purely emotional basis, much like Helen Caldicott's reaction (see the sidebar.) I hope that Mr. Warburg will take another look at this area, especially the new reactor designs that are on the drawing boards.