Pros and Cons of Wind Energy

An excerpt from the Valley Business FRONT April 2013 cover story, "Where the wind blows," by Michael Miller

Executive Summary: Finding alternatives to fossil fuels for the nation’s energy needs is becoming increasingly urgent and wind seems to be gaining favor with individuals, institutions and businesses.

Valley Business FRONT Cover Story April 2013While the idea of capturing wind energy to produce essentially “free” electricity is enticing, as with most things in life there is no free lunch here. Wind turbines are certainly less expensive than coal fired power plants, but they produce less electricity as well, and the power they generate is subject to the wind variability and is less reliable. But given appropriate placement, wind is a feasible alternative generation means if other economic factors are also positive. Of course, the production of additional electricity without the associated production of greenhouse gases is attractive.

The cost of wind generation continues to drop as new technologies are developed. The [Department of Energy] DOE has established a goal of having 20 percent of U.S. electrical generation come from wind by 2030…

Although new technology development may reduce the cost of wind generation significantly, placing it in a more competitive position in comparison with other generation methods, there are other costs. For example, large wind farms, especially in mountainous regions such as Virginia, require significant excavation and site preparation including building of roads to transport the large turbine components to the installation.

Potentially more troubling are the oft-stated environmental impacts of large turbines. Noise is certainly a potential problem. The rotating blades produce a constant swoosh-swoosh sound that is loud enough to disturb any households located too near the turbine. The sonic disturbance is not just unpleasant to the ear – it also contains very low frequency components that may be harmful to human and animal life in ways not yet understood. Anecdotal reports abound, but as yet no unequivocal scientific conclusions as to potential harm have been produced. The noise factor itself may be reduced in the long term by technology advances, and in the short term by requiring large setbacks from populated areas.

Bird kills have also been cited as a downside to wind turbines. According to a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences, up to 37,000 birds are killed each year in the U.S. by collisions with turbine blades. That sounds like a lot of birds, but in reality approximately 90 million birds die annually by flying into buildings, and more than 130 million die in collisions with power lines. While the death of a few pigeons or starlings would probably not bother Roanokers, the loss of a couple of eagles would no doubt be more significant.

Probably the most often heard objection to wind farms concerns their effect on the view shed. Significant wind generation potential exists along the line of the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the primary tourist draws in the [Southwest Virginia] region – for its beauty. Installation of large wind turbines along stretches of mountaintop is not likely to be popular in this region, although that is not a foregone conclusion. For example, in Scotland, a country whose economy is significantly tied to tourism, a number of wind farms have been installed. Opinion polls of nearby residents indicated a desire for additional electricity far outweighed any view shed issues, and in fact many of the wind farms have become tourist attractions themselves. Noise problems were nonexistent in these installations, contrary to local expectations. However, some localities have tightened up on the placement regulations to prevent irresponsible installations in the future. In some cases, a limited installation designed to provide more local, off-grid power with reduced impact is seen as the appropriate way forward.

Read the full article in the April 2013 issue of Valley Business FRONT.

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